Thursday, March 11, 2010

Of Life and Lutefisk

Life is complicated right now so something from the archives...

Pickled herring, meatballs, fruit soup, lefsa, rommegrot, lingonberries, lutefisk. A traditional Scandinavian Christmas Eve seemed like a good idea when my sister, fresh from a trip to Norway, first suggested it. Our parents are closing in on eighty. Dad is beginning to lose words like fish off a line, describing objects so he won’t have to name them. He loves lutefisk.

My sister pulls the package wrapped in white butcher paper from the fridge. It is suspiciously heavy. Dad has doubled the order. I was a child the last time lutefisk and I crossed paths. I roll the four pound slab of fish off the paper and into the pan. My sister and I stare at it. I give it a poke. It looks ordinary enough–like fish. Perhaps my memory has distorted–exaggerated–the lutefisk experience. I’m an adult now with an adventurous, sophisticated palate.

Mom begins mixing the roux for the cream sauce. “The Lutheran Church served so many lutefisk dinners,” she says, “they ran out of cream sauce halfway through. You can serve it with melted butter but it’s just not the same....” My folks scan the newspapers for lutefisk suppers like other people look for garage sales. Come November, they’ve got their lutefisk supper circuit mapped out.

“It’s just fish,” my Illinois-born, non-Scandinavian husband says. “How bad can it be?” My sister and I exchange looks as the house fills with the unmistakable eau-de-fish smell that will linger long after the Christmas tree is back in the attic and my parents have left to winter in Florida. What have we done? The grandkids–25, 23, 20 and 17--are all game and close enough to the age of lutefisk consent. We’ve protected them up to this point.

We open the oven, turn our faces aside, hold our breath. The smell makes our eyes water. We stare at the pan. It’s happened. The ordinary-enough fish we put into the oven has transformed into exactly what I remember–a slimy, viscous pile of gelatinous fish goo.

We sit down at the table. My normally reserved father, nearly bursting into song, has heaped his plate full. “I can’t believe you’ve never had lutefisk,” he says. My mother ladles on the cream sauce.

I look across the table at my daughter, the youngest, who has paled. Eager to prove his grit and his mother’s “wussiness,” my son slaps an ample spoonful on his plate, jams a fork full into his mouth. His eyes widen, he stops chewing, stops breathing. I try to hand him his water glass. He shakes his head–afraid, no doubt, to open his mouth.

The dread in the room is palpable. My husband shifts in his seat. One niece, regressing to a childhood state, pushes her “fish” around her plate with her fork realizing too late that it leaves a slime trail wherever it goes. My daughter, napkin to her mouth, bolts from the table. My sister has managed to swallow her bite and is filling her wine glass to the rim. Dad piles his plate with seconds.

I decide the only way to deal with the tablespoon I’ve put on my plate is in one bite--the swallow-it-whole, no-chew-technique. I close my eyes, push the fork as far back into my mouth as possible and swallow. The cream sauce has congealed by now and is no help at all. My throat constricts, my eyes water. I struggle to swallow.

Is that humming? I look at my dad. Bliss radiates from his face. Somehow this vile goo sliding down my throat has become a great gift. In this moment, the world is a simple place again where memory doesn’t betray and synapses don’t fail. He is young and vibrant–a son at his own parent’s table, a husband with a blue-eyed beauty of a wife and two rosy-cheeked girls. He raises his fork, beams at us all. “Now how can you not like lutefisk?”

For those whose family tree is Scandinavian-free, Lutefisk or Lyefish is, according to, "A traditional Scandinavian dish prepared by soaking air-dried cod in a lye solution for several weeks before skinning, boning, and boiling it, a process that gives the dish its characteristic gelatinous consistency." Gee, if only I'd taken a picture.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Back to the first visit....

After finally arriving at my sister's group home in rural Minnesota after more than a decade's absence:

Joy looks much as I remember her. Brown hair cut short. Pale skin. Square face with prominent jaw and brow. She is sitting in a wheel chair with a large tray table. Her arms and legs are thin and her feet are so tiny you’d think they’d been bound. I avoid her eyes for a while because it is her eyes that hurt. They are deep-set and astonishingly blue–my mother’s eyes and more.

My mother was drop-dead gorgeous as a young woman and for many decades after most women settle in to being merely attractive “for their age,” she was a knock-out. A mother turned runway model for a brief time. She loved being beautiful and prized physical beauty in others. Joy was a beautiful baby. The only one of us born with dark, curly hair. She had flawless skin and she had those eyes.

I try to make eye contact. She seems to look past and through me. What does she see and how much of what she sees does her brain register and process? Impossible to know. One caretaker tells me stories about her mischief–how she likes to pinch and occasionally laughs when she catches the caretaker off-guard.

I honestly don’t remember too much more of that first visit. I remember the La-Z-Boy recliners in the living room, the aquarium of tropical fish, a cat and a gazebo out back. I remember Joy’s bedroom with its white gilded furniture and lavender walls. I remember that Joy startled easily when I touched her shoulder without speaking first. I remember thinking I may as well have been a stranger. Joy was my sister but I knew nothing. I remember speaking softly to her and caressing her hair. It was all I could think to do.

And the staff? They put the coffee on, offered me a cup and gave me my sister’s file to peruse. They were happy I had come and, as far as I could tell, resolutely non-judgmental about my decades of absence. The sad truth is that few people in their care have even yearly visitors. Still, I am horrified to learn that my parents had neglected to send forwarding addresses when they moved. Every contact number in Joy’s file was outdated. Nothing but dead ends. My name or that of my older sister? Nowhere to be found.

This, at least, was something I could do. I could be the one at the other end of the line

Joy Mackey, Age ??