We ate the corned beef a day early. I went grocery shopping at Publix, where of course the corned beef was on sale. Because it’s only the two of us these days, I searched the shelf for a small one. Then I bought sauerkraut, Irish Swiss cheese –I know. Who knew there was such a thing — and marble rye.
I’m sure you thought I was going to say I bought carrots, cabbage, and potatoes. Although my husband is also half Irish, he hates corned beef and cabbage. Every year the girls and I would eat the boiled dinner and he would make himself a Reuben. Then they started wanting a Reuben. Now I’m making two dinners? I complained. So, I gave up on the boiled dinner and we all ate Reuben’s.
I am working all day in Pompano Beach on St. Patrick’s Day, so when I got home I put the corned beef in a pot of water with the seasoning packet that came with the meat and as it simmered in the pot, I called my eighty-two-year old father. My sister had told me he was in a minor accident. It happened in a grocery store parking lot. A ninety-three year old lady hit his driver’s side door. No, he doesn’t live in Florida. This happened in Warwick, Rhode Island. Luckily, no one was hurt.
I told him I was cooking corned beef.
“Tomorrow’s St. Patrick’s Day.”
“I know, but I work all day and don’t get home ’til six. I sold my crockpot at the yard sale when we sold the house.” I didn’t tell him about the Reubens.
“Did you buy the red corned beef?” he asks.
“Yes.” We always buy the red corned beef. I am not sure what makes it red. I am not sure what kind of meat it is, but apparently there is also brown corned beef. I think it might be called brisket. Which is a Jewish dish my father would tell you. We never buy that one. The Irish eat red corned beef.
There is a well repeated story in our family of how my mother made the brown corned beef the first St. Patrick’s Day she was married to my father. She had only eaten corned beef once before, when she went to her future Irish in-laws for dinner. She is French Canadian. She didn’t know there were two kinds. Apparently my Dad was upset about the brown one but he grinned and ate it for his new bride. She never made the brown brisket again.
She cooked her corned beef and cabbage in a pressure cooker which used to scare the hell out of me. I always envisioned that whistling top flying off the pot and taking my eye out. My Irish mother-in-law cooked just about everything in her pressure cooker, including meat loaf and asparagus. The meatloaf was tasty, the asparagus was inedible. She also made a mean, as in good, Irish soda bread.
She told me a story about the time the top did fly off and hit the ceiling. I knew that thing was dangerous and could take your eye out. After she passed away, we sold not one but two pressure cookers at the yard sale.
My dad puts my mother on the phone. “It’s Sheila, your daughter in Florida,” he tells her before handing her the phone. We have our usual conversation. We start with the weather. I ask her if the snow is melting. “Oh, I don’t know,” she says. “How do you like your place?”
We’re moving right to the real estate conversation. She knows she used to live in Florida. She can give you vague information about the places they lived in down here. She loves the place she lives in now along the Narragansett Bay. “It’s the best place we’ve ever lived.” She describes it to me as if I’ve never been there.
I tell her my place is very similar. “So you like your place, too?” she asks. I can tell from her voice she is asking this question with a smile. When she had more stories to tell, she would talk about how they moved from a smaller unit to the bigger one with the water view. She used to remember the real estate deals they made throughout the years although she doesn’t remember my name. Her homes are one of the last memories she holds on to.
That and cleaning the house. My parents came to Deerfield Beach this winter and stayed in a hotel room with a small living room. She told me, “This place is great. We really like it here. We have a maid but I told her she didn’t have to make the bed. I do that.”
“You know your mother,” my father said. “She always liked to clean.”
My sisters and I believe she would have made a wonderful real estate agent.
I asked her if they were having corned beef and cabbage tomorrow for St. Patrick’s day. She said, “I don’t remember what that is.” I could almost see her shrug her shoulders and smile. There was a time when forgetting made her nervous. I was happy to hear her matter of factly accept the fact she didn’t remember.
“That’s okay,” I said. “You never did like corned beef and cabbage.” I tell her about my husband making Reubens. She laughs but I’m not sure she understands my story.
My father comes back on the phone and tells me he invited a widow from church he and my mother have become friends with and my aunt, his sister, who lives in their condo complex, over for tea the other day. He went to the store and bought cookies to serve with the tea.
“Really?” I ask. My father is not a social butterfly. He likes his solo activities. Running, reading, biking. He only learned to cook when my mother no longer could.
“Well, I thought they should meet each other. They’re both alone.”
“And it’s good for you, too,” I said. “With Mom, you know?”
“Oh, she’s fine,” he says. “She does great. She does tell the same two stories over and over again, but she’s good.”
My father amazes me. Never an openly affectionate man, his love for my mother during this difficult time has been truly beautiful. And he’s a very brave man. Not only did they recently fly to Florida, but last Fall they took a cruise along the Mississippi River. My siblings and I were very concerned about this. What if he loses her in the airport? She can’t walk well. What if she fell and broke her hip? But they loved the trip and my Dad was able to attend some lectures on U.S. History along the Mississippi. They ate at a blues club in Memphis. He’s talking about a trip along the Northern route next fall.
My husband made the monster Reuben’s last night. We once again joked about how our St. Patrick’s Day dinner has turned into a Jewish Deli sandwich.
When the meal was done and we were cleaning the kitchen, I wished I’d bought a larger red corned beef. There was hardly enough leftover for tomorrow’s lunch.
As I shut off the light in the kitchen, I smiled as I was reminded of one of my favorite lines from Annie Hall.
“There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ‘em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly. ” ~ Woody Allen as Alvy Singer in Annie Hall