In Good Taste

If I navigate around the kitchen in my parents’ house, I find many familiar objects, and each brings to mind a powerful memory. Wooden spoons, large metal mixing bowls, and white cutting boards remind me of the countless meals they have helped to prepare and the endless hours I’ve spent in happy fascination, watching Mom or Dad turn a handful of ingredients into something delectable.

As children, my siblings and I were welcomed into the kitchen and given tasks to complete. We started with washing vegetables, then we graduated to grating cheese or peeling carrots. Eventually, we learned to assemble whole dishes by ourselves, and we could proudly claim at the next family dinner, “I made that!”

One of my most vivid kitchen memories is a scene that often repeats, varying slightly each time. It begins with my father’s voice calling, “Emily where are you?” because I’m not in the kitchen at the time. If I respond by saying, “I’m folding laundry,” or “I’m getting ready to go out,” his answer is always the same. “I need you in here.”

As I’m making my way to the kitchen, I hear him banging a spatula on the side of the food processor or one of our large metal mixing bowls. When I enter the kitchen, he says a variation of one of the following: “Get a spoon,” (handing me a chip or a wedge of pita), “Here’s your testing implement,” or simply, “Try this.” The next thing he says is always the same, whether I’m tasting spaghetti sauce, hummus, clam chowder, olive spread, salsa, chili, or guacamole. He turns away from the counter to face me and says, “What does it need?”

At this point, I take a minute to savor the mouthful he’s loaded onto the spoon, chip, or pita wedge, knowing that he expects me to talk about the complex flavors I’m tasting. Here, I must tell him whether it needs paprika, garlic, lemon juice or zest, onions, a pinch of cinnamon, allspice — an infinite and well-stocked cabinet of spices looms before me and Dad grins at me expectantly. If I remain quiet, he gently prompts, “Well, what does it need?”

I can’t remember how old I was when Dad first began consulting me on the seasoning of his dishes, a task he could easily do on his own.  Many can attest to his wonderful culinary skills. He would make jokes about my “superior palate” and say that he needed my expertise, even if I hadn’t been involved in the initial stages of making the food. It slowly dawned on me that Dad never contradicted the seasoning I advised, that he always added what I suggested and thoughtfully considered my comments. Later, he would tell anyone who commented on the food that I had helped him season it and that he had done exactly as I’d suggested.

Looking back across the many meals we’ve cooked together, I still find it strange that he defers to me when it comes to seasoning. He has more experience in the kitchen preparing all kinds of things I haven’t even attempted, and he has a knack for knowing which flavors will complement the ingredients he’s chosen. Even as I’m suggesting seasonings, he tells me things about the food we’re preparing, instructing me in the use of the garlic press or showing me how to steam broccoli. He shows me how to use his large chef’s knife to chop vegetables, turning them flat-side down on the cutting board so that they don’t roll away. He tells me that I’ll know when the bacon’s done cooking because, “It’ll stop talking to you” — meaning, the pan will grow quiet. Dad explains that this is because, as the water in the bacon cooks out, it makes the familiar sizzling noise.

So why would he trust me? As I stand next to the huge mixing bowl watching him fold the tahini and lemon juice into this particular batch of hummus, I think, “I’m just a kid.”

And it dawns on me.

When it comes to garlic and pepper, he lets me call the shots, because he trusts my palate, but he is not focusing on his trust. He’s trying to get me to trust myself. He follows my advice so that I’ll understand the consequences of my choices. I’ll know what a little more garlic and a pinch of cinnamon do to the chili — and when the changes I suggest turn into fantastic tastes, Dad wants me to know that I made them happen.

Dad and I stand next to the stove as he stirs his giant pot of clam chowder, one of my favorites. I stand by the cutting board as he chops green onion or opens cans. We chat about the meal to come, both getting excited. He has done the research, looking at dozens of versions of the same recipe, but he doesn’t cook with the recipe in hand. He improvises on the theme.

As I listen to him explain the intricacies of his latest creation, blueberry pancakes with lime zest and spices, I realize that I cook the same way – doing the research and the tossing the recipes aside. We stumble upon rare ingredients in the grocery store, and we both start gushing about what we could do with them. He hands me a bottle of pomegranate molasses and says, “Look, isn’t this neat?” We immediately begin to dream up uses for it, and I slip it into the cart.

I come by my love of good food honestly. Growing up with parents who are both excellent cooks will do that to a person. But I would never have trusted my own culinary intuition if Dad had not put me through my paces as his personal food critic, taken me to the store to pick out my own garlic press and red cutting board (a high contrast surface for chopping vegetables), and indulged every request I made for fancy ingredients that most college students wouldn’t even know how to pronounce.

Dad teases me about my gourmet tastes and surprises me with a new cheese in the same conversation. He refills my spice containers and haggles at the farmers’ market to get me the best mangoes and ginger.

To me, the best moments aren’t peeling the delicious golden mangoes or unwrapping the Stilton with apricots. They’re the moments I spent standing next to him in the kitchen, when we’re working together to make something we love for the people we love.

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Counterparts

When Christina and I first became good friends 10 years ago, she confided to me that she had always wanted a little sister. (Since I am a little sister and I know how annoying they can be, I remember asking, “Why???”) Minutes later, she decided that I would fill this role and make her dreams of being a big sister come true. When she affectionately told sales assistants and cashiers that I was her sister, they would glance with skepticism at our differing hair color and complexions, at my cane and her scooter, and say, “Really?” We would then explain that we had always felt and acted like sisters, even if there was no biological basis for the relationship.

She and I were among the few disabled students at our high school – and we were certainly the most visible. With her bright red scooter and my white cane, we were easy to spot and often spotted together, though she was a year ahead of me. Several times, we spoke at conferences or appeared at award ceremonies, often winning the same honors for our respective years. We were both named Women of Vision in 2006 and we walked up to accept the award together, my hand resting on the arm of her scooter.

I became very familiar with this method of sighted guide, my hand riding on the arm of the scooter or sliding to the back of the seat when Christina ordered firmly, “OK go behind me.” The movements felt fluid and natural. The scooter’s armrest was at the perfect height for my hand, and, once we established a good pace, Christina and I cruised along together. When we started college, we glided to and from class, made trips to the on-campus Starbucks, and spent whole days wandering around the Town Center.  Employees at our regular stops – Sephora, Barnes & Noble, Starbucks, Target – recognized us and usually gave us top-notch service…although we both remember a cold, rainy January Saturday that we later called “National Be Rude to Disabled Customers Day” where every clerk we encountered either spoke too loudly, snatched items out of our hands, or ignored us.

Christina and I have mastered the art of the marathon shopping day, complementing each other’s abilities with finesse. We establish a route, make a list, and begin the day with coffee. In most places, the cash register and card-swiping machine are beyond her reach, so she hands her card to me and tells me where to swipe it. We apply the same principles when looking for items in a store; she tells me where to reach and I do the reaching. When we break for lunch or cocktails in the afternoon, I move items across the table so she can easily access them, but first, she tells me where they are.

The first time I remember realizing just how well we worked together was when she taught me how to use makeup, specifically how to apply eyeshadow. I had just gotten a new set of makeup brushes and Christina patiently explained what each brush was for. She took me through the application of one color, then two, and showed me how to blend them. We even tried eyeliner, but I ended up with a more “dramatic” look than I desired so I tossed away the thin pencil and picked up the soft brushes again.

Her studio lessons went like this: I would sit before her in a low chair and hold the makeup and brushes in my lap, handing her one at a time. She would use one product on my face, touching areas where it should be applied, and always doing me the courtesy of bracing my face with one hand before she came at me with a makeup brush. (When you can’t see someone coming toward you with the applicator, suddenly feeling it on your face will make you jump.) She would take my hand and mimic the appropriate motion and then have me try to apply the product by myself. She would use a finger to blend my eyeshadow or show me how to tap excess powder off my brush. She explained different “looks” to me – casual, dressy, smoky, classic, dramatic, soft – and describe what colors suited my face. She explained what it meant when someone said, “Oh that shade makes your eyes pop!” Experimenting with shades of olive green or plum, she would make up one of my eyes and hand me a mirror so I could see the difference. I was blown away by how certain colors on the eyelid could change the size and shape of my eye.

After we finished my face, we would move on to Christina’s hair, where it was my turn to be the expert. Though she didn’t have as much to learn about hair styling as I did about cosmetics, she would tell me what style she wanted, and I would create it. Just as I couldn’t observe another person’s makeup well enough to replicate the colors on my own face, Christina couldn’t reach far enough behind her to pull her hair into a ponytail or twist it up into a bun.

Our collaborations spilled over into the kitchen, where Christina would hold pots while I stirred and added spices. She would tell me when our baked ziti was brown and bubbly, and I would make her smell all the different herbs and decide which to add. She washed dishes and I dried them and put them away, making sure that the plates and bowls she preferred went on the lower shelves where she could access them.

During the two years we lived together, we conquered every area of the apartment, each completing the chores we preferred and cooking the dishes we had practiced to perfection.  She insisted that the coffee tasted better if I brewed it and fixed her cup. I insisted that lunch was far superior when she made it.

Before people learned to recognize us as a traveling duo, they were skeptical of the arrangement. I imagine that they thought that two disabled women traveling together made even more disability, that the presence of disability multiplies exponentially in the presence of another disability. I think these ideas only hold truth if we cling to the idea that disability represents deficit. If you put two deficits together, then naturally, you get a greater deficit. How can a disabled person help another disabled person? How can two disabled women manage to get anything done?

Just as naturally, when I work, travel, shop, cook, or hang out with Christina, the idea of deficit does not seem relevant. I won’t say that our disabilities disappear, because the very ways we’ve learned to help each other are based on our weaknesses and strengths. For me, our collaborations, fed by creativity, determination, and humor, offer a very simple message.

Rather than speculating about the abilities someone possesses and what limits your thinking will impose, stand back and observe. Watch as Christina tells me the exact location of the perfume I want to sample. Listen as I place my hand on her armrest and the hum of her electric wheelchair (a recent upgrade!) matches the gravelly scraping of my cane on the cement. I’m sure we’ll come to a store that doesn’t have automatic doors — she’ll tell me where the handle is and I’ll open the door and hold it for her. Does it look difficult?

I don’t mean to suggest that we never encounter obstacles. Sometimes there isn’t enough room for me to get ahead of her and open a door. Sometimes a door doesn’t open the right way and we have to back up and turn around. Often, a person steps forward and offers us assistance.

I suppose what I’m wondering is this: When I’m with Christina, I don’t sense a deficit. Do you?

“You have nice brother.”

When I started high school, my older brother Simon (we call him Sammy) was embarking on his senior year. He drove us to and from school in an old NewYorker, and, because of my disabled parking decal, he was able to park the car in one of the school’s handful of disabled parking spaces. The handicapped parking was incredibly convenient; I always knew where the car would be parked, where I would be dropped off and picked up. If Sammy said, “See you at the car,” I knew where to go.

Each morning, Sammy would pull into the spot, we would exit the car, and he would head off to his locker, calling a goodbye over his shoulder. I later discovered that he was chastised by teachers and fellow students for “abandoning” me at the car.

“I can’t believe you don’t wait for your sister,” the scandalized bystanders would say. “You just…take off. You don’t open doors for her or anything.”

Sammy would reassure them that I preferred this treatment, that I did not want to be placed in a bubble. But it was difficult for the students and teachers to understand my desire for independence. Among the 1600 members of our student body, I was the only one that used a white cane – and there was a period of adjustment for me as well. High school marked a change in my cane use; I began using the cane in every area of life, instead of only using it during my weekly mobility lessons.

Before the cane and I became inseparable, I relied heavily on the use of a sighted guide – taking the elbow of a companion, classmate, or family member and letting the movement of their body alert me to upcoming obstacles. I still enjoy this method when traveling, because it allows me to easily keep pace with someone. Now that I’ve added a cane, the sighted guide primarily functions as a navigator.

Sammy shines in a story from the pre-cane days. He was leading me across a parking lot on our elementary school campus; I was following behind him since both our arms were full and I couldn’t take his elbow. Knowing that our teachers were watching, he decided to have some fun and promptly began to zigzag across the parking lot. Obediently, I followed his wild staggering, trying not to laugh as our elderly, easily-flustered teachers shouted, “Simon! Stop doing that to your sister!” My brother has always been an expert at entertaining or shocking the onlookers.

Traveling with a white cane gets me a lot of stares, and I am literally blind to this visual attention. In one case, my mom, my sister Marie, and I were having lunch out, when Marie leaned toward me and said, “Emily, this woman has been staring at you for the past 20 minutes.” I asked what had gotten the starer’s attention, and Marie replied, “Oh she heard you unfolding your cane. But don’t worry. She stared at you, so I stared at HER!” With fierce protectiveness, she explained to me that, as soon as she had noticed the woman’s stare progressing beyond curiosity into rudeness, she fixed the onlooker with an equally intense gaze. Finally, the woman averted her eyes and Marie was satisfied.

When my brother and I are conscious of an audience – a group of coffee drinkers sitting al fresco or a line of irritable customers at the store – he finds a way to enhance their daily experience. Not content that they should simply behold a blind girl traveling with her brother, he wrenches his arm out of my grasp and says loudly, “Let’s play Marco Polo!” This is my cue to pipe up in (false) frustration, exclaiming, “Sammy, I don’t want to!” He ignores my protest and starts to inch away from me, and I begin calling, “Marco…Marco” in what I hope is a timid, unhappy voice. Eventually, after we’ve heard a few horrified gasps, we reunite, giggling.

In one such case, we were wandering around Wal-Mart playing Marco Polo and laughing hysterically. We must have been a lot more visible and audible than I thought, because, as we were leaving, a greeter standing by the exit approached us. She stepped close to me, a little too close, and peered into my face. She turned to my brother and said, with a very heavy accent and in broken English, “This your sister?”

“Yes,” we both answered.

“She no see well?” she asked, continuing to stare at me.

“No,” he replied, caught off-guard. “She has low vision.”

The woman leaned toward me again, peering into my eyes (I imagine), and stepped back. She patted my shoulder and declared, “You have nice brother.”

She doesn’t know about the lemon rinds, I think to myself. Or how, when I’m searching for the sink in the kitchen, Sammy places my hands under the running water and says in a loud, serious voice a la Annie Sullivan, “Water! Water!”

And then there’s the time we were shopping at Chamblin, famous for its cramped aisles, boxes of books strewn everywhere. I was following Sammy down one aisle during a marathon trip (we both love books) and he alerted me to the boxes all along the aisle by loudly tapping them and saying, “Box!” I asked if he intended to hit every object in the store, so that I’d have a more thorough understanding of my environment, and he proceeded to smack the shelves and say “Shelf!” and wave his hand above his head and shout, “Ceiling!”

With one hand he piles unwanted lemon peels on my plate or takes an unexpected bite of the food I’ve just prepared, but with the other, he offers me tactile explanations, copying the motions of appliances or kitchen tools I want to understand. He affectionately called me a blindie, long before I adopted the term and used it in everyday conversation. When I got my dark sunglasses, he called me Stevie or Ray and teased me about making a holiday album with them – “You could call it The Blindies Do Christmas,” he joked.

Sometimes we enacted elaborate improvisations, where I would test-drive different occupations. My favorite was a scene in which I was a blind radiologist and he was my assistant. I would take the imaginary film and say, “Good heavens, this man’s lung looks terrible! We have to get him into surgery at once!”

Sammy would cough and respond, “Doctor, that’s a leg,” and I would exclaim, “What’s he doing with a lung in his leg?! This is serious!”

These moments remind me of two important lessons: 1) I should not take myself too seriously,  and 2) I do have nice brother.

Clean Up Your Act: Household Chores and Low Vision

If you were to ask my mother to name one of the happiest days of her life so far, she might tell you, “The day I got married,” “The day my son got married,” or maybe, “The day my daughter got married.” (In my fantasies, she smiles brightly, dabs at her eyes, and replies, “The day you were born.” And then she leans in and whispers, “You’re my favorite. Don’t tell the others.”)

While all of these answers are appealing and each contains a profound amount of truth, I suspect she might be fibbing just a little.

I suspect that she might acknowledge as a contender the day she attended a seminar on teaching independent living skills to the blind. She came home, armed with a handful of new ideas and a sturdy container of Puffy Paint and set to work making all the household appliances accessible to me. And I waved a sad goodbye to my chore-free childhood.

For those of you unacquainted with the magic of Puffy Paint, it is a thick paint that dries and leaves a three-dimensional, tactile (puffy) impression. It is often used to decorate T-shirts, tote bags, and other frivolous items, unrelated to housework.

But Mom employed the Puffy Paint in all sorts of unwelcome places – squirting little dots around the dials of the washer and dryer, marking the buttons on the dishwasher, and labeling the gradations on the oven knobs. And as if that wasn’t enough, she then proceeded to teach me how to use each of these devices, all the while saying cheerily, “Just think, I am teaching you independent living skills! People pay for this kind of instruction! Later, when you’re living on your own, you’ll be glad you had a dedicated mom who taught you all this!”

Once I had memorized every dial in the house and learned the ins and outs of washing laundry or dishes, we moved on to vacuuming. Here I must confess, I have NEVER liked the vacuum. We have always had an uneasy relationship, because the  vacuum produces a hideous, loud whine that I do not enjoy. But I had to get over this initial distaste and learn that vacuuming, just like most of the other chores, was something that did not require good vision. Mom taught me that the art to vacuuming was to cover the floor in a systematic pattern. Once she threatened to pour baby powder over an entire carpet to drive the skill home in a visual way, but we never had to employ that extreme tactic. I just started at a corner of the room and continued.

The principle of using a pattern rather than depending on one’s eyes carried over to dusting, mopping, and even scrubbing a toilet. The motion was what mattered; once you learned how to scrub a surface, it didn’t matter that you couldn’t see it.

This is not to say that I received an unfair share of chores, merely that I was taught to “do my part.” In a house with 6 people (2 parents and 4 children), we all had our assigned tasks. There was only one chore from which I was readily exempted.

Six people of varying ages and and at varying stages of life meant a lot of socks. A lot. Once clean, socks of all sizes, colors, and fabrics – argyle, silk, dress socks, grayish white socks with the occasional hole – all ended up in The Sock Basket, a worn out laundry basket that sat in a back corner of the house. No one ever wanted the duty of trying to match all those socks. This was such a loathsome chore that Mom assigned it as punishment if one of us got in trouble!

I don’t know what possessed me, but one day I volunteered to match socks. Maybe it was the mellow atmosphere of the room or the hours of dreamy contemplation the chore afforded. Maybe it was the tactile joy of handling all the different fabrics, freshly laundered and smelling like detergent. Somehow, the chore appealed to me, and Mom readily sent me off to match socks. So I sat for hours by the bin, happily pairing socks together.

It was not discovered until much later that I had no actual criteria for helping socks find their mates. If a pair felt good together, they went together. I believed in encouraging all sock alliances – argyle and silk, fuzzy and dressy, blue and black. All socks were created equal in my expert young opinion.

When this discovery was made, I finally received the satisfaction of being banned from a household duty.