When you go, you‘ll leave something behind. My mother left behind half a loaf of banana bread, and it just sat there at eye level, top shelf of the refrigerator. Mom stayed for the first half, which we’d eaten without much ceremony, and then she left. This last loaf wasn‘t her best by far — it was on the wet side — but it still approached the caliber that we’d come to expect, well beyond the natural potential of bananas that had lived DoleChiquita lives, taunted with petrochemicals until harvested, tallied by ersatz slaves and force-ripened by exogenous ethylene. Mom cooked with old corporate bananas — beyond speckled, unintentionally overripened to resemble the fallen pods of St. John‘s Bread — laid to mush with chattel-reaped cane sugars and enriched bleached flour (wheat flour, niacin, iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid) bottom-line harvested from corporate Nebraskan farmland.
Depending on her mood, my mom could make some truly wonderful MidwesternEast European food, specializing in cabbage borscht, pot roasts and chicken paprika. My dad, too, with his advanced degrees in Red Meat and Fancy Ketchup, had accidental moments of culinary achievement to rival the most Barnumized vend-o-matic stews and sandwiches. But it was Mom’s consistently awe-inspiring banana bread that first invited me to appreciate the significance of food preparation in the scheme of evolution. And now here was the last in a long line of supernaturally tasty treats, her final creation. I visited it, this unexpected altar, there on the refrigerator shelf, and held the door open to watch it commiserating with pickle relish, a Country Crock, Dad‘s matching jugs of fancy ketchup and cheap barbecue sauce, a half moon of Colby cheese . . . friendly neighbors in water-tight containers.
This banana bread was wrapped, as they all were, in cheap cellophane — the kind that doesn’t stick as well as Glad or Saran, so you have to eat the food quickly, now, before it dies.
As I mentioned, this wasn‘t Mom’s best work. That would‘ve probably been one of the breads baked in the autumn of 1975. Within two hours of any September or October oven chime, some of my brother’s friends would show up and just . . . hang out. As if they had some other business being there.
”Sooo . . . how‘s it goin’, Ms. Shulman?“
”Sooo . . . how‘s it goin’, Ms. Shulman?“
”Ms. Shulman! So! How‘s it goin’?“
After the bread had cooled, inch-thick slabs (no nuts, no frosting) were self-served with tall, bubbly-ripply green-tinted glasses of ice-cold milk or Moo, one of America‘s first soy beverages. And after the fourth or fifth visit by my brother’s same friends, it dawned on me that my mom in fact made exceptionally wonderful banana bread, or that some of my brother‘s friends were at least reasonably stoned every day, or both.
[solo trumpet fanfare]
[repeat until kitchen fills to capacity]
Word spread. By mouth, by phone, by bicycle, by my brother’s 1964 Plymouth Belvedere station wagon. Burdened with exotic gifts — Franciscanware, paper napkins and tall cold glasses of milk — distant wise men on camelback followed stars for days to bow before the majesty of Mom‘s banana bread, so tender and mild.
Loaves rarely lasted more than two days, even during ice storms.
If I define a feathered recollection from the ’70s and apply the Banana Bread Nostalgia Filter at a density of, say, 15 percent, all surrounding memories‘ happiness quotients increase by 60 percent, for an ONG (optimized nostalgia gain) of 45 percent, sometimes more. ONG notwithstanding, I remember the faces of the banana bread–eaters frozen in expressions of post-orgasmic bliss around such phrases as ”Jesus CHRIST this is great!“ and ”Is it always like this?“ and, pointedly, ”FA-A-ACK!“
It was these and other melodies that sang out to me now, muffled in Springfield plastic wrap from the top shelf of the refrigerator.
Part of me wanted to eat it all in one sitting, as an almost angry ceremony of something I couldn’t quite put into thought — a vague rebuttal to the tyranny of mycosis fungoides, T-cell lymphoma of the skin, a usually mild or at least subtle form of cancer that, in a very small number of cases such as Mom‘s, becomes a hideous torture, kills and leaves behind a corpse pocked with the sort of thick, ulcerated craters feigned by makeup artists in A-bomb-aftermath B-movies. Not recommended.
So no; just small pieces, at first. When, after a week or so, my father and I had eaten it down to about an eighth of a loaf, we put it in the freezer to fend off mold. Over the summer and into the fall of ’88, we chipped away at the last of all banana breads after dinner (together) and in the middle of the night (alone).
(Always difficult to eat for the first few decades following a loved one‘s death.)
* * *
Unfortunately, my mom was a godless humanist, so even though she was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met (apart from her being my mom) she‘ll have to spend eternity endlessly tortured in hell with the likes of Gandhi, Mark Twain and Brandy Alexandre (more at the Celebrity Atheist List — www.celebatheists.com). Visit the Godlessheathen Home Page (www.infidels.org~godlessheathen) to find out why.
Wayne M. Hilburn’s 100-percent pornless 104 Things To Do With a Banana (http:wayne.hilburn.tripod.combananas.html) includes recipes for banana bread (everyone seems to think theirs is the best), banana cutlets, chutney, cream-of-banana soup and a hundred more. Also included: banana history, nutritional information, posters, stickers . . . everything.
Some memorial parks sell real estate intended to provide quote permanent unquote memorials. But when I visit remains, I don‘t feel closer to the people, just closer to their remains. I respond much more to personal objects. Any old banana bread (no nuts, no frosting) conjures memories of my mother; an old Captain Spaulding–style pith helmet invokes a strong sense of my deceased brother and his mysterious relationship to Groucho Marx. (It’s a long story.) Some of us might be well served by the World Wide Cemetery (www.cemetery.org), ”a place where Internet users, their families and friends can erect permanent monuments to our dead.“ Monuments here are organized alphabetically and by geographic location, date of interment and cause of death. Laid out beneath Edvard Munch‘s The Scream, the WWC’s Suicide Memorial (www.interlog.com~cemeteryMemorialssuicide.html) seems especially useful. ”Old stigmas surrounding suicide can make it extremely difficult for survivors to deal with their grief and can cause them to feel terribly isolated,“ says the sign. ”It is our hope that the World Wide Cemetery‘s Suicide Memorial might help people who have been through a similar experience to get in contact with each other and thereby reduce their feelings of isolation.“