These days, our tables have been covered with flowers, our inboxes have been full of kind words and warm wishes, and our countertop has been overrun with various muffins, cakes, cookies, and pies. Love and sweets are the salves to what ails us.
Today’s mail brought an unexpected surprise, a styrofoam cube for Robbi. It piqued her interest.
It took mere moments for her to find a knife and cut the seal.
Inside was Robbi’s very favorite thing, and lots of it.
For those of you who don’t know Robbi, her favorite thing is cold and rich and sweet. Some good friends of ours decided that the very best thing for Robbi right about now was six pints of gourmet ice cream on a bed of dry ice. Robbi did not disagree.
I feigned interest in the ice cream, but, in truth, was more excited about the dry ice. I filled the sink, threw the dry ice in, and showed Kato the resulting magic.
He only got a brief look before Alden showed up and demanded pole position.
We had fun blowing as hard as we could into the heart of the frenzied bubbling.
We watched our improvised witches’ brew for about a half hour, until our dry ice had shrunk down to small lumps, which chattered against one another in the drain as they slowly vaporized.
If I had my guess, the ice cream will also vaporize within a day or two.
Thanks, friends, for everything you’ve sent us. We’re reminded each day of the slim but essential lightness to be found in tragedy.
We’ve been going to the playground a lot lately. It has been nice to be outside. For the most part, the last few weeks have been beautiful with clear skies and temperatures in the low 50s. It’s late November in Chestertown, and the fall is in its stride.
And so we go to the playground and play.
For Robbi, this means sitting on Clifford, the Big Red Dog.
I’m not sure which one of them is enjoying it more.
As for the kids, a trip to the playground always starts with the swings. Alden also likes to slide and climb and dig in the sandbox, but for some reason the swings always come first, no matter what. I have no hesitation about pushing her high. She seems to love to fly through the air, just at the brink of losing control. Kato has recently learned to clutch the chain to stabilize himself, so now he, too, is part of the swinging frenzy.
See how much they love it? But then again, what’s not to love about the playground?
Suddenly, I’ve been invited back, my membership card returned to me after all these years. Going to the playground is one of those unanticipated benefits, one of the thousands of tiny surprises that make parenthood so much more than just having kids.
Robbi’s 35th birthday was last Wednesday—two days after Seiko left us. For every birthday, as long as Robbi can remember, her mom has made her a Jell-o sponge cake. When Robbi first brought me to meet her parents a few weeks after she and I decided that we ought to spend a lot of time together, Seiko made me the same cake for my 25th birthday, which I celebrated with the Behrs.
The cake has been a constant marker of another year gone by, and an emblem of love. No one but Seiko could possibly make this cake. And yet we were faced with the prospect of a birthday without one.
I decided to take action and dug into the recipe box. I knew better than to try to go it alone. Together, Robbi and I consulted Seiko’s cryptic instructions and did our best to puzzle through the missing pieces. Seiko cooked by intuition, always assembling masterful feasts from a pile of strange ingredients. The recipe offered little more than guideposts. But I decided to give it a go.
Making the cake provided a rare opportunity to pull out the Kitchen-Aid, one of my favorite appliances in spite of its infrequent use. I like its bulk and its weight and its retro design.
Mixing the wet ingredients was no problem. The only challenge was separating the yolks from the whites of the six eggs, a feat I managed with surprising ease. But then things got trickier. For example, the flour was supposed to be sifted. Sifted? I was lost. A phone call to my mother revealed that in order to sift, one had to have a sifter. A quick rummage through Seiko’s cabinets provided the answer. I got the sifter. I sifted.
I sifted the flour, measured it, mixed it with the sugar, salt, and baking soda, and resifted, as instructed. I mixed the wet and dry ingredients together and poured them into the springform pan. But the resulting mixture did not seem to be of sufficient volume and also seemed far too dense to be the batter for a sponge cake. Where had I gone wrong? Were we supposed to double the recipe?
I was just getting ready to despair when Robbi identified the problem. I had only been looking at the front side of the card on which the recipe was written.
There was, it seemed, further instruction on the back.
Chastened, but glad that there was a solution to the present dilemma, I scraped the unfinished batter from the pan.
Then I put the egg whites into the Kitchen-Aid and beat them to a pleasing froth before folding them into the other batter, which suddenly tripled in volume and took on the light and spongy texture that felt far more appropriate for the conjuring of a sponge cake. I put the two cakes in the oven.
While the cakes baked, I made two batches of Jell-o, one red and one green. Once the cakes were baked and cooled, I poured the Jell-o mixture over each. First the green.
Then the red.
The Jell-o soaked spongecakes were stacked (with strawberries and kiwis between the layers) and placed in the fridge so that the Jell-o could do what Jell-o does. I made some whipped cream frosting, and spread it liberally across the top and sides. Another layer of strawberries and kiwis completed the production.
I showed the finished cake to Robbi, who confirmed that, at the least, it looked right. I considered half the battle won. Eager for affirmation, I asked Oscar what he thought.
He was of the opinion that success could only be measured by tasting my work. Rather than postpone the inevitable, we decided to add the candles and put the question to the test.
Alden and Kato helped Robbi blow out the candles.
It was time to find out: how did it taste?
The answer was written on Robbi’s face.
Happy Birthday, Robbi. Thanks for pretending that you liked my cake, even if it wasn’t quite as good as you remembered. Thank you, Seiko, for leaving us adequate instructions for how to carry on without you. And thank you for taking such good care of Robbi for her first 35 years.
I’ll do my best to take it from here.
I promise this isn’t going to become a tribute blog to my mom, but she happens to be quite present in our minds these days. For those of you who never knew Seiko, she was truly one of the most remarkable people I have ever known. She was as much at home in an art gallery as she was in full raingear, playing with Iggy while waiting for the salmon to arrive.
Everything she did was done to its fullest – with spirit, joy and grace. Everyone who knew her loved her – she touched so many people’s lives. We have truly learned how much she meant to people in the overflowing of sympathy and love we have received this past week.
And on top of it all, she was an incredible mom, who showed her love in the smallest of details and biggest of smiles. I feel so proud (and so lucky) to be her daughter.
Saying so on a blog seems so weird and public, but I know how proud my mom was of this endeavor of ours, and how pleased she was at the support all of you out there have shown us. I just want you all to know how much we appreciate all the kind words and thoughts you have sent our way, and how much it would have meant to mom to know how much you care.
Here she is with my sister in 1972, after living her dream of coming to America and starting a family, but long before becoming a potter, flower arranger, artist, fisherman, and grandmother.
I only hope that I can continue to make her proud, and to live up to the amazing woman she became.
Last night I received a link to more photos of Alden taken by the Japanese photographer who traveled to the tundra to photograph the Behrs’ fishing exploits this past summer. Here is my favorite:
How, I wonder, do we interpret that emotion? Is it dread, anticipation, excitement, or was it something more along the lines of, “Golly, my fingertips are tasty…”? I cannot say. I was not there. But I do love this photo.
Click here to see some more.
I’ve learned about grief this week, realizing how important it is to have my people around me when I can’t find my feet, how much I take for granted, and how little control I really have over anything.
And I’ve been reminded anew of the blessings of children. It’s nearly impossible to be depressed for long in the company of a two-year-old.
An example: we went to Dunkin Donuts on Saturday. Instead of her usual favorite (pink frosting with sprinkles), Alden opted for a Bavarian Kreme (Seiko’s perennial favorite).
One of my favorite outings has always been heading to Dunkin Donuts with Alden and returning with a Bavarian Kreme and small cappuccino for Seiko. Every time, without exception, I was greeted with Seiko’s shining smile and heartfelt thanks. She enjoyed the little things. Making her happy was one of my purest pleasures.
The donut was well received and enthusiastically consumed with no small amount of powdered sugar spread about the premises. It was a small connection from Alden to Seiko that brought me comfort and filled me with pleasant memories.
Thank you all for your kind thoughts and recollections of Seiko. Thank you for your love and offerings. It has meant so much to all of us to be reminded how many lives she touched, and continues to.
Robbi’s mom Seiko passed away suddenly on Monday morning, leaving us turned inside out and the world without a most remarkable person. She came from Japan to America when she was 25. She traveled the country and world before making a home in Chestertown. She had three amazing kids and became an internationally renowned Ikebana potter. She was a beloved fixture of our community.
She was a person of vitality and light. She was a spectacular artist. She was welcoming and gracious. Her eyes were full of joy. Her heart was full of love. I’ve received so many emails over the last few days from people telling me that, to them, Seiko was like a second mother. This is also how I feel.
We wanted to share the news with those of you who knew and loved her. The family respectfully asks that instead of food or flowers you spend a moment remembering Seiko, letting her live on in your thoughts. She was our friend, mother, and wife—and Oba to my babies. If you have a memory of Seiko and would like to share it here, we would be so happy to hear it.
We love you Seiko. We miss you and thank you for everything that you have given us. There was no one like you. And never will be again. We love you. We love you so much.
Ok, ok. So some of you more astute readers noticed a rather important error I made to the last post. The following photograph, which I mistakenly claimed to be of me holding my son was, in fact, a photo of my good friend Holden holding his sleeping daughter Calla on the train from Tokyo to Kyoto.
How do I explain and justify this error, you ask? I’m left wondering the same thing. A few theories surface. Perhaps it comes from a retrospective desire to imagine that it was my child who was sleeping peacefully on the train (instead of shrieking continually and disrupting the pristine Japanese silence). Perhaps I had a jet lag flashback (I still feel it acutely even though I should be long readjusted by all biological indicators). Perhaps it is merely nostalgia for that sleek, warm can of Black Boss (undoubtedly the thing I miss most about that magnificent nation far away).
Or perhaps I’m just testing you all?
Yes, we’ll say it was that. Good job Clare and Veronica. If I were the generous sort, I’d give you both a prize.
For now, I have some explaining to do to my tiny manchild.
After a full day of family and raw fish, we decided it was time to leave Tokyo. Our chosen destination, Kyoto, where Robbi has had satisfying adventures in the past. To get there: the bullet train, of course.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we boarded the bullet train, we had to wait for the dutiful army of attendants to clean the already spotless interior. The Japanese take their trains very seriously.
While we were waiting on the platform, Robbi considered throwing her gum, which had lost its flavor, on the tracks, as any self-respecting American might do in a similar situation back home. But looking down at the spotless tracks, not a spot of debris in sight, she felt a sense of guilt—a moral obligation to preserve the pristine. All of Japan is like this, and I found myself wondering if the place is clean because of strict penalties for littering, or if the place is clean because the place is clean. I wonder if people just can’t stand the thought of ruining something so spotless? This theory plays into my long-time dream to require all residents to leave New York for a month, so that it might be cleaned. Perhaps if it was thoroughly scrubbed, I postulate, the various residents and visitors would be inspired to throw their various cans, bits of paper, and cigarette buts into trash cans instead of on the street. Do you feel me?
Before we boarded the train, I bought a bento box from a snack stand. The Japanese fascination with order and cleanliness has an analog in beautiful presentation of food. As the train rolled through the Japanese countryside, I beheld my lunch, thinking it a shame that I had to mar its perfection with my appetite.
My appetite won out, of course.
Alden was impressed with my breaded pork cutlet. Kato was more interested in the scenery.
Robbi, for her part, was reveling in the beverages of Japan. To her delight, she found a bottle of Pocari Sweat, the Japanese version of Gatorade.
After downing her Sweat, she moved on to a Coke. The stylish metal bottle/can added much to the flavor.
For a while, there was mayhem. The bullet train is very exciting.
Baby Calla got in on the fun.
But even on the bullet train, the ride from Tokyo to Kyoto takes a few hours. Eventually Kato slept while I fought fatigue with a can of Black Boss.
Alden and Monkey found the spacious seating to their liking.
Eventually, we arrived in Kyoto, where there were escalators (and many Japanese people)
We got outside and it was raining. We took a cab through late afternoon traffic, across the river a beautiful, historic quarter of the city.
Rather than staying in a hotel, we rented a four-room house. It was an old place on a crooked street. We arrived to find four sets of slippers waiting for us on the threshold. We took off our shoes, put on our slippers, and were ushered by a kindly man named Nobu to one of the rooms, where we sat around a low table to review the terms of our rental and sign a contract.
We found the terms agreeable. While Kato settled in in for a nap…
…the rest of us took a tour with Nobu-San. He showed us the kitchen.
And the bedrooms. Because the Nene House is a traditional Japanese home, there were no western-style beds. Instead, we found piles of futons and comforters.
A little arranging, and we had a comfortable nest.
We were tired, but resisted the temptation to fall into the sheets. We were in Kyoto, after all, and decided to do some adventuring before calling it a night.
We strolled the streets and found a shop selling round little doughy balls on a stick dipped in caramelized goo.
Let’s break it down.
Gooey balls on sticks:
Vat of caramelized goo:
The exciting conclusion:
These treats are among Robbi’s favorite, and so we bought some. Robbi will have to chime in with the proper name (she is currently asleep, and cannot be consulted).
Being an intrepid eater, I decided to have a try. Did I like it? With due respect to the culinary offerings of my hosts, let’s just say, I decided not to have another try.
We wandered through the streets until we found a noodle shop and decided it was time to eat. When we arrived at the restaurant, the hostess led us to a private tatami room in the back. I’m still not sure whether she did this because we were appealing American tourists she wanted to impress or because we were accompained by three loud and squirming children. Regardless, I had occasion to feel tall and powerful.
The doorways in Japan are simply no match for my towering bulk.
We settled in around another low table.
And ordered noodles. I had a steaming bowl of udon with tempura and raw egg.
And that was that. We were fed and tired and in proximity of a bed. The kids turned in first.
But we were not far behind. I think we fell asleep by 8:00, still bewildered by the time change, but sufficiently exhausted to overlook the fact that, according to our internal clocks, it was 7:00am.
Thus ended our second full day in Japan. And so ends this day in Chestertown.
Note: this is not an official, sanctioned version of Matthew Draws. There is no survey mechanism. You are not being asked to actually do any guessing (though I will not fault you if you are inspired to do some gagging). On our first evening in Japan, sitting on the floor of Reiko’s apartment with Alden, fighting sushi and fatigue and looking for ways to remain conscious, I accepted Alden’s challenge to draw a few of her favorite celebrities (note that the slashes across some of the eyes, noses, and beaks are Alden’s contribution to the composition).
My usual approach with Matthew Draws is to find a photo to use for reference and then try to duplicate it as exactly as I can. With the above sketches, I drew from memory—thus the ensuing horror of my style. Fortunately, the figures above are sufficiently iconic to remain recognizable in spite of my desperate, flailing lines.
It might be interesting to see what would happen if I tried to draw actual people from a mental image. I fear that unless they had distinctly recognizable visual ideosyncrasies (Mr. T’s mowhawk, for example), I wouldn’t get very far. Perhaps I’ll try it. Or perhaps I won’t.
Perhaps some things are better left for those fleeting moments in Tokyo when you’re out-of-your-mind tired and know you already ate too much raw fish but really want to eat some more.