Friday, March 23, 2012

Flower Power

My mother walked into the room when I was almost done with my task. She quietly came and sat on the floor beside me. Slowly and meticulously, she reached and picked up each and every one of the discarded petals with one hand and laid them down, ever so delicately, in the palm of her other hand. I was stunned by her silence and deliberate movements. Unsure of what was happening, I watched her carefully, waiting for her expression to signal my response.

I was very young, maybe three or four and these flowers were in our suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York. They could have been roses. Or maybe pink chrysanthemums, because I seem to recall the petals were small and spiky. I don't remember who sent them or how long they had been there - fans always sent a lot of flowers when we traveled - but I do remember that it was a huge bouquet.

Some of the petals were bright pink and slightly folded at the edges and others were a more delicate shade standing boldly at attention. As soon as I saw them I was mesmerized by their numbers. They overflowed the glass container, all struggling to be seen. A jungle of pink streamers waiting to explode. Like a magnet, I ran to their side and started to pluck all the petals off every single flower in the arrangement. Why? That, I definitely don't remember. Probably for the same reason that people climb Mount Everest. Because, they were there. And, being a small child, I went about it in the usual toddler way. Two fisted. Handful by handful, I dropped those helpless petals onto the plush hotel carpet.

When my mother finally spoke, her voice was soft and unhurried and she began to carefully explain as she stroked a few of the petals laying lifeless in her palm with the tips of her fingers, that each one of them was a baby and that the flower heads were the mommies.The tears welled up in her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. It was like a sudden summer rain, unpredictable and surprising. Her voice grew raspier, like it, too, was wet. She told me she was crying because I had separated the flower babies from their flower mommies, and that the flowers were also crying, inside. Flower tears.

I looked from her face to the denuded flower heads drooping on their stems to the dismembered petals in her hand and on the carpet. I had made my mother cry. I had made the flowers cry. I had destroyed an entire family. I was a cold-blooded killer. Me, I did it. I started to cry, unsure how to reverse this tragedy. And, we all sat, my mother and I and the flowers, on the floor crying.

Okay. Before you go running off to call social services, or at the very least, my therapist, rest assured I am not scarred for life, and none the worse for wear from this murder scene. And, I'm sure psychiatrists aren't the only ones who could write volumes about this little scene...

Don't forget the drama critics. Drama, with a capital “D” played a huge role in my mother's life, and at that moment, our suite at the Plaza was her stage. Boy, she was a good actress. Too bad I was too little to know what acting was at the time, or I would have given her a standing ovation.

But, psychiatrists and drama critics aside, why did she pull a stunt like that on me? What was the point of all that histrionic hand wringing?

My mother wanted me to have respect for every living thing easy for me to say, now, 46 years later.

She wanted me to make the connection between the “Action” (destroying the flowers) and the “Actor” (moi) in a visceral way— many years of therapy to understand that.

It worked. Besides feeling guilty, a light went on in me. All of a sudden, I was aware of the difference between “animate” and “inanimate.” I had a conscience - wishful thinking on my part that that is in fact true.

I am a mother now, with daughters of my own. If I had walked in and seen my child dismantling a bouquet of flowers, I probably would have started screaming, “What are you doing? Are you crazy?“ grabbing the flowers out of her hands and scaring the daylights out of her. I doubt that would have had the same impact on my little girl that my mother's impromptu performance had on me.

I learned to have respect for every living thing.

In the million moments of our life together, my mother taught me as she had learned, in her own way. Precious little of her education was formal. Mostly, she was self-taught, a voracious reader and inquisitive world traveler.

She may have moved in mysterious ways, out of instinct and intuition. Her techniques may have been unorthodox. But, now, with the wisdom of adult hindsight, I can say she was a great teacher.

What We Remember. What We Treasure. What We Love.  Simply...Eartha

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Measure With Your Eye

Fried chicken, sweet potatoes and collard greens. No matter how far my mother had come from her roots in South Carolina, she was still a southerner when it came to cooking. Those were the foods she cooked the most when I was young. And, rice. I'm not sure why all of a sudden I remember rice. Maybe that was what she was cooking the day I asked her how she knew the right amounts to put in.

She always used the heavy Le Creuset pots. The colorful cast iron cookware that required two hands to lift it from the stove. Dark green. With wood handles. True to her name, my mother was drawn to colors and textures that reminded her of nature, and our kitchen, where she often held court, pulled you in with it's warm, mahogany cabinets, rich mosaic Spanish floor, all enveloped by the aromas of her home cooking. Our California house, with it's red brick walls and Terracotta tile roof, tucked at the end of a richly foliaged cul de sac, was the perfect setting for a woman so connected to the earth.

If my mother couldn't be found in the vegetable garden, where she was the most at home, then she was probably in the kitchen, prepping and cooking her harvest. Standing and the sink, she would tear the collard greens by hand, "Cutting them with the metal of a knife, changes their taste," she instructed. The stove would be filled with various sized pots, some boiling water for the rice, others heating olive oil, onions and garlic, waiting for the greens to be added. I would watch as she instinctively prepared the foods we had collected from the garden, making sure they cooked soon after picking, so as not to lose their nutrients.

There were no cups or spoons for measuring and she didn't use cookbooks. She believed that too many ingredients distracted the eater from the taste of the foods themselves. "Mother Nature, in all her perfection, has done all the work. Why would anyone want to mask the natural flavors?" she would say.

"If you don't measure anything mommy, how do you know how much of everything to put in?" I remember asking. "You measure with your eye," was all she said, knowing I would have to ponder that thought for a while. Measure with your eye? That just sounded weird. How was I supposed to measure, with my eye? I stood, puzzled, staring at the pots and their contents, the boiling water and sizzling oil feeding my imagination. I narrowed my eyes, squinting, raising, first the right eyebrow and then the left, trying to visualize how using one's eye to measure was physically possible, the cells of my brain straining as they processed this theory. I put the thumb and index finger of my right hand up to my eye, taking it's measurement in an open pinch, then held it out in front of the pot to see if that was the method she used, not quite being able to come to terms with what my mother had said, yet not willing to challenge her either.

Seeing my struggle, she added, "You have to feel the food. Deep inside you. Like another sense." I tried desperately to figure out what the hell she was saying, but I knew asking for clarification would result in a response that would send me into an even deeper state of confusion. Sometimes, I thought she really was crazy.

My mother continued her cooking, moving around me as I stood there, wrestling with her declaration. She loved watching me try to figure things out, often giving me only morsels of information, knowing the answers would come to me in time, relishing the 'Aha' moment, no matter how far in the future.

I did, eventually, figure out how to measure with your eye. And, recently found myself telling my own daughter the exact same thing, as we stood in our kitchen and she watched me cook... collard greens, sweet potatoes and chicken. And, I found, you do, in fact 'feel' the food, deep inside. Or, maybe it was my mother I felt as her words now found their way to mouth.

What We Remember. What We Treasure. What We Love.  Simply...Eartha

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Fox In The Henhouse

The California home my mother purchased in 1957, had been the converted horse stable of an old estate. The names of the horses even remained above their stall doors. She used that in her argument with the city to allow her to keep chickens in the aviary that still stood as part of the farm. She loved growing her own vegetables and eating eggs from her own chickens.

This being one with nature thing didn't come as easily for me. I, wasn't born of the earth like my mother. I grew up in Beverly Hills, so farm life in suburbia, wasn't as natural for me. And, no creature sensed that more than those damn chickens!

My mother would usually be the one to go out and collect the eggs from our feathered friends. The chickens, roosters and a few stray doves (not quite sure how they ended up in the flock) lived in a multi-level aviary as big as some houses. She respected the fact that she was entering their sanctuary, and she would move peacefully and purposefully, so the animals understood that she meant them no harm. She would carefully approach every nest and delicately remove each warm egg, so as not to upset the chicken that may have still been occupying that spot.

The chickens would strut and cluck with pride as my mother made her way past the nests, softly communicating their content, like a cat's purr. She was able to mesmerize that audience of poultry with the same hypnotic control she held over the audiences that paid handsomely to see her in concert.

In contrast, when I was required to go out and tackle that same chore, the inmates would rise up with such hostility that one might have thought a fox had been let loose in the hen house. There would be feathers flying and hens screeching, as well as a good amount of yelling on my part. I did not like those hens and was terrified of the roosters, and boy they knew it. It was as though they would conspire to gang up on me, charging at my bare legs with their tweezer- like beaks ready to attack, in an attempt to sabotage my most despised mission. And, they were usually successful, as I often ended up backing my way out of there, in need of Band-Aids. Not, my finest hour.

To top it all off, my mother would make me eat those eggs and given my disdain towards their creators, I found their rich eggy flavor, even more distasteful. As a preteen girl, all I wanted were store bought, factory fed, processed eggs, that didn't need a suit of armor to acquire. Was that really asking too much?

What We Remember. What We Treasure. What We Love.  Simply...Eartha

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

From South Carolina to Beverly Hills

My mother would talk about her days picking cotton when she was a young girl in South Carolina. She earned a dollar a day for a pound and she never forgot how very hard that was. Long hot days and prickly bushes often led to her placing small stones at the bottom of the bag to increase the weight, helping her achieve the required minimum.

It was funny that she continued to see herself as that 'little cotton picker from the south', when most of the public only experienced her as the glamorous and sultry, 'femme fatale'.
 She never picked cotton again, but she was always the most comfortable with her hands in the dirt, growing her own vegetables and flowers. That's how I was raised, eating our own, organically grown food.

I grew up in Beverly Hills, but to my mother, it didn't make a difference if we lived there or the hills of Tennessee. "They aren't making any more land." She would state. "We need to respect it, nurture it and feed from it, as nature intended." I would spend hours with her in the garden. And while my mother picked the romaine lettuce, collard greens, tomatoes and cabbages, I was catching ladybugs, watching snails crawl and conquering imaginary lands. Anything at all would spark my creativity. A stone became a jewel. A flower, a magic wand. And my mother would watch me out of the corner of her eye, listening to my discussions with all the creatures great and small. If hunger struck, I would simply head over to the carrot patch, search for the perfect specimen, reach down and pull up a ready to eat snack, rub off the dirt and rinse it under the hose. Off I would go, to my next adventure with my portable treat, green tops dangling from my mouth as I crunched away. Bugs Bunny would have been proud.

 I know my mother was.

What We Remember. What We Treasure. What We Love.  Simply... Eartha.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Down To Eartha

Many people don't realize how 'simply' my mother lived. Even living in the heart of Beverly Hills, CA, my mother was true to her name (Yes, Eartha was her given name) and we had chickens, roosters and a vegetable garden. Now remember, this was in the 1960's, way before it was 'chic', 'cool' or 'in style' to grow your own food. My mother was the original 'Beverly Hillbilly'.

Watch this blog for more stories and anecdotes about how my mother was simply....eartha.