Sunday, May 31, 2009

Apple Kuchen

My mother carefully arranges the apple slices on the batter, each slice overlapping the previous one.

I have very few memories of my mother cooking. I remember the food itself – tuna noodle casserole, hamburgers (both involved potato chips, a special treat), spaghetti with meat sauce –- simple, Midwestern fare. The fanciest meal I remember was beef stroganoff, simmering away in the electric skillet before it was poured over egg noodles. I remember cookouts on the Hibachi grill, and the fun of toasting marshmallows afterwards, trying to make them perfectly golden brown on all sides before they fell into the coals. I remember brown paper lunch bags in the refrigerator for my brother and me to take to school, with our initials written on them (including our middle initials, since otherwise, we were both “DS”). But all of these memories are of the completed meal; none involve scenes of my mother actually preparing the food.

I only have three memories that involve my mother cooking. I remember her making pancakes after Tom, one of my brother’s friends, slept over. Tom was able to eat massive quantities of pancakes; he said the secret was to eat continuously without stopping, so you wouldn’t have the chance to feel full. She made stack after stack of pancakes, and he just kept eating and eating them. I also remember her helping me make taffy for a taffy-pulling party I had. She was dreadfully sick, and the day was grey and miserable, but she hauled herself out of bed to help me make the taffy so that my friends and I could pull it. We buttered our hands to pull the hot, sticky balls into long strands. It was supposed to be cut with scissors or a knife, but we couldn’t get anything to cut through that taffy, so we just hit it on the table so that it smashed into bits. The pieces of taffy flew everywhere -– we found taffy behind the washing machine months later.

I remember my mother making apple kuchen (or apfelkuchen) -– it’s kind of like an apple tart, but the base is more cake-like. She would cut the apples into thin slices and lay them out on the batter, each one overlapping. It looked beautiful and tasted delicious. When my mother died, I looked for the recipe and couldn’t find it. My maternal grandmother found a recipe for apple kuchen that she thought was the one my mother used, but it didn’t have enough detail for me to really follow it precisely, and I was never sure it was my mother’s recipe. I don’t know why this dish mattered so much to me. Maybe because it seemed unusual –- I didn’t know anyone else who made it and most of my friends had never heard of apple kuchen. It never occurred to me at the time, but this dish is most likely a reflection of the strong German influence in Wisconsin, where my mother grew up.

I doubt my mother had any passion for cooking. She was a competent cook – I’d probably go so far as to say that she was a good cook –- but she was also perfectly willing to serve us Chef Boyardee or have us prepare our own meals, so I don’t know that she had any special love for cooking. I don’t think she taught me to cook; although she may have taught me the basic rudiments of cooking, I didn’t feel equipped to prepare a real meal until much later. I do wonder if my mother taught me to bake, though. I was making cookies and cakes long before I could cook dinner. Maybe that’s why I wanted that recipe for apple kuchen.

I gave up recreating my childhood meals some years ago. I used to make tuna noodle casserole, but could never find anyone as enthusiastic about it as I was. I tried my hand at stroganoff, but it never entered my repertoire. I don’t grill, and the days of toasting marshmallows are long behind me. While I do make spaghetti sauce, the recipe I use probably bears little resemblance to my mother’s. And I haven’t made apple kuchen in over a decade. Somewhere along the way, I switched to making apple pie. I’m not sure why. Maybe I couldn’t recreate the apple kuchen I remembered from childhood. Maybe my taste changed. For whatever reason, I let go of yet another connection to my mother.

My brother and I, making cookies (date and location unknown)

Monday, May 25, 2009


My mother taught me how to kill a man when I was in first grade. “If you break this bone in the neck, right here, it’s fatal.” I was terrified by the idea of our bodies being so fragile that one bone would be the difference between life and death. I didn’t want to be able to kill someone so easily. But, seemingly oblivious to my wide-eyed fear, she went on to explain how to poke someone in the eyes or kick them in the crotch.

What prompted this lesson? I was attacked on the school playground. A boy came up to me and said he wanted to kiss me. He pushed me up against the double door and put his hands around my neck. I started to have trouble breathing. A group of children formed a semi-circle, watching the events unfold. I don’t know whether the kiss happened or not – all I remember is that I couldn’t breathe. It didn’t even occur to me to struggle or fight back. Eventually, a older child, a patrol, came by and broke up the tableau. I sat on the steps and got my breath back.

I don’t know whether I told my mother about what happened or whether she found out from the school officials. I don’t remember whether she was sad or angry or bewildered when she heard. I just remember the lesson in self-defense that came in the wake of this experience, and how frightening I found it.

I wonder what prompted her response – why tell a five-year-old how to kill in self-defense? Maybe it came from her own experiences; I seem to remember that my mother was enrolled in a self-defense class at some point during my elementary school years. Perhaps she was part of the women’s self-defense movement and felt that I should learn these lessons early. After all, it was clear from my assault that even a young child was not safe and could not count on adults for protection at all times. Maybe she thought that I would feel better if I had confidence in my ability to defend myself against another such attack. If so, she misjudged me. I viewed the event as an anomaly and had little fear of a recurrence. The talk of self-defense implied the real possibility of future violence, perhaps of a more serious nature, and that frightened me. I also felt inadequate to the task of a counter-attack; indeed, I strove throughout childhood to avoid fights, preferring cowardice to being beaten up.

I’d like to think that she didn’t mean to scare me. I want to believe that she was just trying to teach me strength and self-reliance so that I could weather the dangers of the world. Truly, how should a parent respond to the child’s first experience of violence? We can offer the comforting promise of a safe haven (“mommy will always be there to keep you from harm”), but it is a lie, and we know it. The appallingly high rates of rape and abuse leave no doubt that girls and women (and boys and men, for that matter) are vulnerable to assault – the potential for violence lurks all around. Yet girls and women are not helpless victims and we need not wait to be rescued; we can fight back, to gain the space to flee, or even to kill our assailant if need be. And this lesson – being alert to the dangers of violence and knowing how to confront it effectively – is one that, unfortunately, should be learned early.

I never did learn how to kill someone from my mother; I couldn’t figure out what bone she was talking about. But what I really regret was that I failed to find the strength she was trying to teach me. I struggled for years to embody the kind of self-confidence that would allow me to stand with stalwart courage in the face of personal danger. Even as an adult, a passing threat from adolescent boys was often sufficient to cow me. Did my mother have that strength? Would she have walked tall and talked back to the catcalls on the street? I think she did. In my memory, I see her standing bold and unafraid, standing up for herself with a brazen disregard for what others might think. But maybe that’s just what I wanted her to be, just as she wanted it for me.

Nancy Driessel Stearns (date unknown)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Parenting Style

“I’m going out – I’ll be back when I walk in the door,” I called as I left the house one night.

“Ok,” my mother said.

My mother gave me a lot of freedom. While she was certainly interested in my life and engaged in my activities, I also had a lot of independence. In elementary school, my brother and I spent a fair amount of time on our own, although neighbors were available in case of trouble. She let us stay up late fairly often, even letting us stay up all night on the last day of school – I always fell asleep during Saturday Night Live. There were no restrictions on what we read, and I don’t remember rules about junk food or television watching. As a teenager, I spent many evenings hanging out with friends or wandering the residential streets of our development, and my mother never demanded a strict reckoning of my movements or a way to get in touch with me. By the time I was in high school, I didn’t need to be home for dinner (by then she had given up cooking dinner on any regular basis). I felt that I could go where I pleased, when I pleased, and I reveled in this freedom.

Let me not overstate the case – she did have some rules for us, particularly when we were younger. Probably she did want to know where I was, and mostly, I’m sure I told her. But my feeling of independence was real, and I do remember calling out that I would be home when I got home at least once without penalty. Diana Baumrind, in her theory of parenting styles, would probably describe my mother’s parenting style as permissive-indulgent. Permissive in that there were relatively few strict rules for our behavior – there was little demand upon us – and indulgent in that she was interested and involved in our lives. Permissive-indulgent parents are likely to take on the role of friend more than parent, and I did think of my mother as my friend, at least in adolescence. I wouldn’t say that there were no demands on our behavior, nor would I say that my mother was never in a parenting role, but on the whole, my memory is more of the permissive-indulgent style than any other.

Most psychologists would say that this is not the best way to parent. Children with permissive-indulgent parents tend to be less mature, less able to regulate their own behavior, and they have more problems with authority and perform more poorly in school than children with more demanding parents. But these are average trends – what did it mean for me? The lack of strict oversight did give me the opportunity to engage in risky behavior; there were those around me who used drugs and engaged in petty vandalism. I mostly eschewed these activities, though, in favor of long walks to the library, the K-mart, and the video arcade. My school performance was generally high. I was too much of a worrier to engage in most types of risky behavior.

I did have a rebellious streak, to be sure, one that my mother probably encouraged. She supported my emergent activism (such as my refusal to bow my head for the moment of silence in school), and I remember her holding forth on children as a disempowered group, lacking true political representation. I always saw her as a free spirit, something I associated with the 60's-era anti-establishment movement. In retrospect, I don’t know that she was ever really a part of that movement. Her life seems pretty conventional; she did well in school, played the piano, graduated from college, got married, and had children. But my memories of her are distinctly those of someone unconventional. Perhaps she found her inner rebellion later in life, after my parents’ divorce, or perhaps the superficial conventionality of her life was a mask for her true nature. Regardless, by midlife, she didn’t seem to feel bound by social norms or conventions and mostly did as she liked. I hope I have inherited some of her sense of independence and rebellion. I, too, want to be a free spirit, questioning authority and convention, wandering my own path far from the mainstream. Yet like my mother, much of my life follows a traditional path, even as I see myself as unconventional.

Perhaps stricter rules and greater supervision would have made her a better mother. Maybe my brother and I are just lucky we turned out well – the exceptions to the rule. Perhaps she was only permissive because she knew we could be trusted. I don’t know. What I can say is that I valued the license I was given and I didn’t abuse the freedom (much). I enjoyed the feeling of being my mother’s friend and equal, one whose opinions and feelings were worthy of consideration. More than that, I am grateful that she showed me that I could pursue my own convictions, even if that flies in the face of social norms and mainstream values.

Pictured (left to right): My brother (Duncan Stearns), my mother (Nancy Driessel Stearns), and me (circa 1967)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Memory Beads

Beads on a string, falling one at a time into my hand. Each is unique; some are beautiful, some plain or even ugly. I hold each for a time, then it drops from my hand so that I can hold the next. I look at the bead in my palm, mesmerized by its rich, swirling colors . . . green, blue, purple. There are flecks of gold in the glass that create unexpected flashes of light as it moves.

Then I wonder, what was the bead before this one? Oh, a wooden bead with painted flowers. Or was that the one previous? Maybe it was the chunky, blue and white china bead. Or wasn’t I holding a pewter charm recently? It’s hard to remember all those beads – there are so many, and they all blur together in my mind. I’m more likely to revel in the bead I’m holding and wonder what the next bead will look like than to spend time remembering the beads that came before. That’s all we have, isn’t it? One bead at a time.

My mother died when I was sixteen. It was unexpected, and I cried a lot. But I also went on with my life, going back to school the next day, because that’s what made sense to me. There wasn’t a funeral. We got through the rest of the school year and then I went to live with my father and stepmother. Moving to a new school was difficult, and I threw myself into the academic work. I made some new friends, dated, was immersed in the daily minutiae of life.

A year after my mother’s death, my father tentatively asked me if I wanted to mark the occasion in some way. I was genuinely surprised; it hadn’t occurred to me to do anything of the kind. I missed my mother, felt sad sometimes about her death, but I didn’t dwell on it much, and it seemed odd to celebrate the day of her death. If anything, it made more sense to celebrate her birthday. In the end, I didn’t do either. There was no official remembrance. I spoke of her occasionally, to friends or family, but her presence faded from my life. She became an increasingly removed memory, evoking only the faintest twang of emotion.

It’s not that I didn’t love her. I did. I had a very close relationship with my mother, and I felt my loss keenly when she died. There is so much I wish I could have shared with her. I wish she could have lived to see me graduate college and get my Ph.D. She would have been pleased that my first post-doctoral position was at the University of Chicago, her alma mater, and I would have liked to hear her memories of the campus as we walked around Hyde Park. I wish she could have met my partner and they could have gotten to know each other, because I think they would have liked each other very much. I would have liked to have been able to have a relationship with her as an adult, rather than as a tempestuous adolescent.

But I’m a person who lives in the present, with an eye to the future. I’m not a particularly sentimental or nostalgic person – I just don’t spend much time thinking about the past. My memories of the past are not especially vibrant or emotionally intense. Indeed, I tend to have a poor memory of events, particularly of my childhood. And given my tendency to be busy and over-booked, I find it a challenge just to keep up with my present, much less have time to rifle through my memories of long ago.

Recently, though, I’ve come to realize that all I have of my mother is my memories of her. She only exists in our minds and a few scattered photographs and memorabilia. My memories, fading and incomplete, are all that hold her in my life. If I don’t spend some time with those recollections, they may disappear completely, and I will have truly lost her.

So I am embarking on a journey into my memory and the memories of those who knew her. I want to hold onto what I have of my mother and maybe even come to know her better. It’s a journey into a landscape I haven’t explored for a long time, and I don’t really know what I will find. Memory is uncertain, a shifting sand upon which to build knowledge. I cannot guarantee that what I find will be true or accurate. But it is still all I have.

Photo of Nancy Driessel Stearns (date unknown); I think the photo was taken by Victor Macarol, a multimedia artist in NJ