It came to me in a newspaper store on Bleecker Street: “Beethoven wrote Fur Elyse on a paper napkin.” And in a café, if I remember rightly. Across the street at Café Manatus, I order a “toasted corn”-- muffin that is--remembering my delight when I first worked in New York in the summer of 1958 as a college student to discover coffee shop counter lingo: “C-board with a side of down.” It took weeks for me to figure out that “c-board” was not “seaboard.” I loved the idea of the customer, in this case me, setting forth to conquer the world on a metaphorical ocean, leaving the safe harbor of the coffee shop and bearing my caffeine laced elixir. How disappointing to learn the spelling and the referent: a cardboard container is a far cry from the Argosy.
I delight in the warm crumbiness of my toasted corn, remembering that my vision of forgiving Richard Nixon came to me in a take-out place about to order a corn muffin almost twenty years ago: Nixon’s head appeared before me and a voice spoke: “You don’t have to hate him anymore. He was doing the best he could. And besides, he’s an alcoholic.” Lear pops into my mind: “He that keeps nor crust nor crumb/ Weary of all shall want some.”
My mind wanders to other starches. I love starch. Scones. Bread. Macaroni and cheese. Potatoes. I once ordered, at a Roy Rogers cafeteria on the Jersey Turnpike en route to Washington fifteen years ago, mac and cheese, with sides of hot biscuits and mashed potatoes. A starch overdose. A few years ago I Googled “bread pudding, St. Martins-in-the-Field,” hoping to find a fellow traveler. Someone living in Devon confessed, on her blog, to loving it. Yesterday, I Googled “macaroni and cheese, Soho, London,” in preparation for my annual Christmas trip. At one period in my life when I put myself to sleep by singing the “Fourteen Angels” prayer from Hansel and Gretel, I read every night, as others are said to do with the Bible, Irma Rombauers The Joy of Cooking, the chapter on “Breads and Puddings.” I baked Pineapple Upside Down Cake from her recipe for “Cottage Pudding” and ate it with heavy cream. Lots of heavy cream.
I love old recipes that began, “Take two cups of heavy cream,” and remember the milk bottles of my childhood, with the cream floating on the top. Last week I wrote a meditation on cows and vowels, Eei-eei-O, or “Moo.” The day after I read it to my writing group, the New YorkTimes reported on a study of gossip in Middle Schools-- under the headline, “Can you believe how mean . . . gossip can be.” Evidently, some eighth grade girls, who had been discussing a fattish classmate whose breasts they considered too large, confessed to shouting out “a cascade of insults:”
P proudly: “We kept going ‘Moo.’
K chiming in: We were going, ‘Come here cow. Come here cow.’
Mexican girls, according to The Times are different: They call each other “guey” or “buey”--“ox” or “steer” or stupid. Oxymoron, I sneer to myself, since Latin “ox” means bright or keen, as in “oxyastral,” or “bright star.” “Would that I were as steadfast as thou art.”
I gasp at the cow taunts: is it my fault? Did my “moo” piece cause the Times to publish this tidbit? I am flooded with memories: of sitting next to Barbara Little –O cruelly named—in seventh grade homeroom. She had huge breasts—boobs, knockers—and wore a short-sleeved pink angora sweater. On me such a sweater would play up my barrel-chested pudginess and reveal no breasts at all.
My mother’s breasts, naturally, were huge. My father used to call one of them, lovingly, Elsie for Elsie Borden, the milk company cow, whose face adorned our milk bottles. “B ord e ns: Milk from Contented Cows ” was the company slogan.
Nelson Billings, the son of my grandmother’s tenant farmer, remembered that the two cows on the farm of my childhood were named Crosseyes, for obvious reasons, and Olga. Olga was named in sweet revenge after my grandmother’s sister, Olga, whom Granny hated. Granny had once travelled, or at least she said she had, on a ship either to or from Europe with the legendary Hogg sisters, Ima and Ura. Ura, it turns out, is real; Ima not. They do not, incidentally , figure into the Ava Gardner, Oona Chaplin,Uta Hagen. Yma Sumac, Eva Marie Saint introduction joke: Yma, Ava, Ava, Yma, Yma, Oona, Oona, Yma, Yma, Uta, Uta, Ava, Ava, Eva, Eva, Yma, Yma, Eva, Eva, Oona, Oona, Eva, Eva, Uta, Uta, Eva joke.
My constant seventh grade mortification with my breastless state was made worse when a slightly older teenage boy –it didn’t help that he was the dumbest boy I or anyone knew—mocked my strapless gown at a dance the next summer when I had at last turned thirteen but was still almost breastless. The dress, which my mother loved and I hated, was a compromise between my desire for black–this was in the 1950s mind you, long before bridesmaids at St. Thomas’ in New York wore black at weddings--preferably satin, and my mother’s desire for white, preferably tulle. She won out on color and fabric; I got my strapless. But although strapless, the neckline was not cut straight across, which would have revealed cleavage if I’d had any, but rather styled with heart-shaped flaps and called a “sweetheart” neckline. It was these flaps that flipped/fell down, causing Richard “Woolie” Woolworth to sneer—albeit with a snootful of vodka—“Don’t worry, Susie. Someday you’ll have something to hold it up.” This was worse, much worse, than the time at the same dance I accidentally kicked off my horsehair crinoline. The petticoat falling down was the result of a faulty button, not, as in the case of the neckline, a faulty me. No wonder, then, that almost sixty years later, although adequately breasted, I never go to dances.
One of my old shrinks once told me that babies imbibe anxiety with their mother’s milk and that all mothers should be placid as cows. I must have been quite mad once years ago when I longed to approach the Actor’s Studio friend of a friend who had volunteered to help me direct a student production of Twelfth Night and had called my staging of Viola’s changing into her Caesario clothes, “a piece of shit.” I, willing myself peaceful at all costs, dreamed of approaching him, close, sticking out my chin, and uttering—another form of udder, after all— sounds of calm contentment: “Moo.”
Susan Knox has taught English and Drama and Film at the United Nations International School for the past 29 years. Before that she taught at The Brearley School and at Briarcliff College. She retired in June, to give herself time to write.