My Sainted Mother and her Cosmic One-Upmanship

My Sainted Mother


My Sainted Mother always seemed to be one step ahead of the rest of us. Once, when being interviewed for The Sacramento Bee on her new position as Chairman for the California Arts Council, the reporter asked her what her qualifications were and she replied, “I may not know much about art, but I like what I know.” He attempted to correct her, saying, “You mean you know what you like.” To which she stated, in no uncertain terms, “No. I like what I know.” And that did seem to sum things up for her pretty well. She told me one day how sorry she was for young people today, having to “Find themselves.” as if perhaps they had been lost. One of her favorite line was, “I’ve already found myself, now I just want to find a place where no one else can find me.”

She was comfortable in her skin and although she was short and stout, she was a force of nature and no one to be messed with. Somehow, she expanded the minutes and hours in the day so that she could be a cook, a housekeeper, a teacher, an artist, a political activist, a gardener, an organizer, and a mother, and still seem to have time for candlelit dinners and a glass of red wine. Her kitchen was a forest of hanging pots and pans, bunches of dried herbs, old ceramic crocks full of mysterious goodies, and the warm smell of the wood fireplace and a thousand home cooked meals… More than a thousand… Many more.

Old photo of the Kitchen

She kept a huge crock of Chutney in the middle of the kitchen, which she tended and fed like it was a member of the family. She would boil up a bunch of ginger in sugar water and throw it in and then a week or so later she chop up some quinces mix them in with a homemade syrup and then add that to the mix. There were orange peels and peppercorns, cumquats and brown sugar, and it would all be tossed into the enormous ceramic mouth and then given a good stirring.

Whatever it was she threw into that amazing receptacle, seemed to have no bearing on what came out. In would go lemon rinds and green pears and out would come dark sticky spoonful’s of spicy goodness. It was the essence of magical transformation. I think I still have a small jar, tucked somewhere in the back of the refrigerator. I can’t bear to throw it away.

Of course there was the time during a party where she dished out the last of a huge pot of Beef Stroganoff only to find a Brillo pad stuck to the bottom of the pot. Since the Stroganoff was good and no one seemed to have noticed, she simply soldiered on to the apple pie and ice cream. So, it seemed to me that it had always been and so, it seemed that it should always be. Perhaps one of the few regrets of my life was that I did not realize there would come a day when others would occupy that sacred space, that recipes and techniques would be lost; that the forest would be clear-cut and those wonderful meals would be only memories.

Such was her renown, as well as the fact that even as small as she was, she could be quite intimidating, that one day when she used salt on the cinnamon toast by mistake, people continued to nibble at it dutifully for quite a while before Roy Rydell, our neighbor, said with great hesitation that he had never had cinnamon toast made that way before. Mother laughed about that for years.

Father fishing in the Snake River

Every year, my father and I would take off for a week of fishing in Wyoming and Montana, and every year while we were away in big sky country, fishing long idyllic stretches of the Snake River or driving for hours through the hot dry heat of the Utah salt flats, we would wonder, what was mother up to this time? As we would pack the car with camping and fishing gear as tightly as a sardine can, you could see mother’s mind begin to work.


The next year, since it was the first time it happened, we didn’t realize it was to become a pattern and rolled out the door towards our yearly father and son adventure without a thought. Mother, it seems had been thinking about the small window over the kitchen sink. It looked out over the vegetable garden to the west and was of an old style with ratty aluminum frames and tattered screens. As father and I disappeared down the road, a Mexican laborer that occasionally worked for my brother in law pulled into our just vacated space and began to unload saws and sledgehammers, and other weapons of residential destruction and the two of them went at it like beavers building a dam.

By the time father and I returned from our week on the river, with sunburned noses and a cooler full of trout, Mother and her helper had knocked the wall out behind the sink and put in a picture window. It turned the kitchen from a cave into a forest and cemented her legend in the family. It might have leaked a little bit when it rained, but it showed us that our world was not solid, that if you looked away for a moment, she could shake your very existance. Poor father had to admit it was an improvement, in fact, a vast improvement, but for a moment when he returned, I think he doubted his own eyes.

The next year during our fishing trip, we talked about it nervously. Father would say, “What do you think your mother is doing now?” I found it funny and exciting, like being on an amusement park ride that had unexpected twists and turns.

My parent’s master bedroom was on the East side of the house, looking straight into the branches of a large spreading cypress tree. Early in the morning the sun came in and woke you rudely, but for the rest of the day it was rather dark and dismal. Mother called in my brother in laws laborer again and the two of them set on the wall between the two guestrooms on the south side of the house like an invading army. It took them the entire week, but they knocked out the wall, put in a heavy beam to support the roof and then moved the master bedroom from the east to the south.

Not only was it better, but it was genius. She painted it a gentle yellow and it filled with light from morning to night. The floor might have been a little uneven between the rooms and the chimney might have stuck out a little awkwardly, but the room was huge and full of brightness and no one could say that it wasn’t wonderful. My poor father was stunned. It was as if she had taken the house and turned it 90 degrees from east to south. Literally like he came home to a different place, but of course, he had to admit, it was a perfect gesture of will and vision and he loved it and he loved her.

The next year, I am ashamed to say, I tormented my father during our long fishing trip. “What do you think she’s doing now?” I would say, poking at him during our long drive east. We couldn’t even imagine. Tearing up the yard? Building new decks? It populated every waking moment like the outcome of a great mystery novel. I could tell father was a little worried and I gave him no quarter. “You think she got Jose? Maybe she’s in your study?” Father’s study was a large outbuilding that housed literally thousands of books and was the center of his creative life.

Father at his desk

So, the day we arrived home we were excited and expectant. Father could not hide his discomfort and I was buzzing with curiosity. As we pulled into the driveway, there beneath the giant redwoods, parked in front of the house, was a large candy apple red Chevy van…

I looked at it curiously, wondering who might be visiting. I was still excited to find out what mother had done to the house and could hardly wait to see father’s reaction. Maybe the van belonged to the workman, or it was a student of my father’s, and then my world began to shift.

I think my first thought was, where is my van? I had a beat-up old grey Chevy van that was covered in primer and dotted with tan bondo. I was simply speechless. There was this strange metamorphosis where something I thought I saw, slipped out from under me and changed. These kinds of things happen in dreams where you are grasping something and suddenly, slyly, it becomes something different.

Mother had hated that van. She thought it was dull and ugly looking, so had gone out and rented a commercial sprayer and had proceeded to paint my van a shiny candy apple red. Okay… I admit it looked better, despite the fact that she had painted it under the redwood trees and all kinds of stuff had drifted down during the night and gotten stuck in the paint. I admit it cut an imposing and cheerful image although she had at one point painted herself into a corner and there were footprints across the roof… and drips…

Father could not have been more smug…

Next year, we took her with us.

2 Responses to “My Sainted Mother and her Cosmic One-Upmanship”
  1. As a former Santa Cruz student, it is touching to remember your mother and father. Just one of the miraculous feats they performed was inviting every single student (not all at the same time but in groups of was it 6 or 10?) to your house for dinner. I absolutely don’t know how your mother did it. We dined by candlelight and she produced mountains of delicious food!

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