Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Where there is smoke...

Not long after my father’s funeral I was staying with my mother (Sainted Belgian) at the ancestral home, cooking her meals and trying to cheer her up. Or not even cheering her up, just trying to get her to say something else about Dad, other than “He was the nicest man in the world” and “We had 61 perfect years”. Those are respectable things to say, of course, but in moderation. After the iterations reach the triple digits, I start getting nervous. My eyes cannot focus and my toes do this weird spasmodic thing that makes me think I am reverse-evolving into some amphibious creature.
Along with failing to cheer her up, I was cleaning and purging her food cabinets and freezers. (At a later date we will discuss the plague of pantry moths that presaged my father’s death.) I defrosted some steak and that evening I was cooking it in the frying pan, along with butter, salt & pepper. The truth is that I almost never cook steak, no not almost, actually never. If we have steak at home CSB cooks it on the grill. This steak I was cooking generated quite a lot of smoke, so much smoke that I thought it might be a good idea to remove the frying pan from the burner and hold it out the back door for a few moments, because in case I neglected to mention it earlier, there is no exhaust fan in my mother’s kitchen. In former times it was possible to close the door to the back stairs, and thereby prevent the smoke from rising to the smoke detector at the top of the stairs, causing the alarm to alert the local fire department while emitting a piercing screech that would have not have disgraced a mosh pit of love-addled teenage girls; but about 6 months ago a Stairlift was installed for my father, and in order to fit all the machinery of the Stairlift (a device also much enjoyed by grandchildren) it was necessary to remove the door to the back stairs. So now there was nothing to impede the ascension of smoke.
My mother’s is an excellent kitchen, except for the electric stove, which I loathe, and the plague of pantry moths, and my mother’s insistence on storing her salad spinner in a nuclear bunker in Utah; but the lack of a fan coupled with low ceilings, has been known to cause problems.
And it did, once again, cause problems.
Waving the erupting pan of steak outside in the chilly air was too little, and too late. The alarm began to blast, and it continued to blast. I reassured my mother that the house was not on fire, but dinner might be late. She went down to the basement intending to hit the reset button on the alarm system.
At the bottom of the basement stairs (yes, the same basement where I have discovered such treasures as 87 empty Bonne Maman jam jars, a wad of 1919 Deutschmarks, and a collection of broken Dresden Christmas music boxes) if you turn left you encounter the control panel for the alarm system, and if you turn right you encounter the electrical panel. My mother turned right and flipped a breaker switch. The lights went off somewhere, but the noise did not stop. She flipped another breaker switch. More lights went off, but still no silence. She repeated flipping breaker switches until the entire house was in darkness, and still the alarm blasted.
Then the firemen arrived.

Have I mentioned that Captain Bill P. of the Hingham Fire department is a dear friend of the Aged P’s, and mows their lawns and stores his vast collection of farm machinery in their lower barn, and that his dog Duke is the only dog allowed upstairs? Perhaps I have not, in which case, I do now. Captain Bill and three other firemen arrived in full fire regalia, but we couldn’t initially appreciate their outfits, because the lights were out. Attempting not to feel & appear a complete fool, I told Bill that the steak had created all the smoke and that the house was not otherwise burning up.
But he noted the absence of lights, or the darkness, and being a fireman he drew the obvious conclusion, which was not at all obvious to me, and thought there might be an electrical fire inside the walls. And this would be a bad thing. So Bill headed to the basement, while the other firemen went in different directions, because that is what firemen do. As they dashed past they stopped, and said to my Mother, and then to me: “I am so sorry for your loss.” Then they continued dashing and seeking the source of the smoke and all this trouble.
Bill of course went straight to the alarm control box and hit the off button, and lovely silence swaddled the dark house. He then, aided by a fire department issue flashlight, examined the electrical panel, realized all the breakers were popped and drew the correct conclusion. Light followed upon silence. One of the firemen, who had earlier offered me his condolences, reappeared and told me he had gone to grammar school with my cousin Johnny. Like Johnny, he was a large man, but beardless.
The strangest thing was that the steak was not burnt, and was in fact quite edible. Once the smoke had cleared, we dined with relish and toasted the cow.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Just because they are funny

Funny hats on ladies in a field in New Hampshire, ca. 1919. Found in a photo album that belonged to my paternal grandparents. It is filled with people I don't know. But they often wear remarkable hats.

Funny noses at Acquiares, Turrialba, Costa Rica, Thanksgiving ca. 2010 Possibly the last picture of my Dad and me.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Hollandaise Theory of Life

A little before Christmas, I came up from New York and helped move Dad from the hospital into a rehab facility. With his usual optimism and determination, he intended to do extra physical therapy in order to be home with Monique and good scotch sooner than predicted.
Upon discovering that his room came equipped with an actual television, he asked us to find the PBS News Hour. As it happens, the PBS news hour is not aired 24 hours a day.
What was showing on that wintry afternoon was a vintage cooking show. The most vintage and venerable cooking show of them all. Julia Child, wise Francophile giantess with the mid-Atlantic vowels and a fearless way with a whisk.
What you need to know about a proper hollandaise sauce, and what Dad and I learned that afternoon from Julia Child, is that an egg yolk can only absorb so much butter, and no more. If the sauce is too buttery, you must whisk in another golden egg yolk, and when the sauce is too eggy, you whisk in more butter. Julia continues this dialectic, this dance of the ingredients, until the sauce has reached the perfect consistency and flavor, and then, as she would say, Bon Appetit.

In other words, Julia cooked as Dad ate. Confronting a selection of stinky cheeses after a good meal, he needed the accompaniment of a good red wine. And then like Julia Child, he kept ratcheting upward in order to maintain the appropriate ratio of wine to cheese. He performed this balancing act with meat and gravy, with salad and salad dressing – he was the only person I know who finished off his salad dressing with a fork - with meringues and whipped cream, with sardines and beer. What mattered was ending the meal in harmony, where all the food was finished and all were satisfied.

Is it too much of a stretch to say that he sought and achieved the same balance, of taste and texture, of meat and gravy, of savory and sweet, in his life? His first eight decades were spent building up his textile waste company, seeking sources of raw material all over the world – often in the kinds of places where he would be served rabbit heads for dinner, and yes, he appeared to enjoy it all, even the eyes, a delicacy. He worked hard because he loved his work. There was no occasion too random that he could not steer the conversation to possible uses for recycled fibers, or the price of Rainforest coffee, or the sugar quota. He started each morning with a Cheery Good Morning that was famous on five continents, and pored over inventory spreadsheets with his first cup of coffee.

Then at 80 he suffered his first stroke, and once it appeared that he would survive it, he settled in and savored the yin of life. With his constant traveling curtailed, he stayed at his beloved Orchard, he went back to his beloved Harvard and became a ‘Learner in Retirement’. And back at Harvard he enjoyed weekly lunches with the succession of (mostly vegetarian!) grandchildren who followed in his footsteps there. In his 9th decade he even read a few, - admittedly only a few, admittedly only those written by a close relative - books of fiction.

After 8 decades as an omnivore who generally declined dessert, in his 9th decade Dad developed a sweet tooth. He came to enjoy the tip-of-the- tongue sweetness offered at the end of the meal. He savored pear tarts, Tres Leches in Nicaragua, Cata’s apple pie, fresh honeycomb, chocolate chip cookies and ice cream with crushed brandy snaps.

He balanced the meal.

Even his death was the balancing act, manifesting of the Platonic ideal of Moderation in All Things, including Moderation. Having decided with Monique and his children that he was sick and tired of crises that meant being rushed to the ER and being painfully prodded with needles, Philip came home for good. He spent a week in state in his old bedroom. All five of us were there, every day, reading him the OpEds from the Times and poems of Yeats and Kinnell. Carl, he of prodigious memory, recited Robert Service. Dad listened to Maria Callas singing Verdi and Brigitte singing hymns. On his last day on earth he was visited by his dear friends from Central America, who brought him blessings and love from the coffee farm he so loved; and that evening he peacefully passed away surrounded by all his children, one intrepid grandson, and his still beautiful wife of sixty-one years.
The life is done. His plate was clean.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

R.I.P. Philip Lehner

This is the notice that appeared in today's New York Times. What it doesn't say is how remarkable his death was, surrounded by his wife, a grandson and all five children, singing hymns and reciting poetry, Yeats, Kinnell, and Robert Service, specifically. (Though there was some concern that the off-key singing hastened his end.) We had brought him home from the hospital a week earlier to start with hospice care, and many friends and relatives were able to visit him at home and say good-bye. Saturday afternoon his closest friends from Central America, Alfonso and Carlos, arrived and visited with him - though by then be was not responsive. Still, his impressive eyebrows twitched until the last.

LEHNER--Philip, born October 24, 1924 of Hingham, MA, died peacefully at home on January 5, 2013, surrounded by family. The son of Hans Lehner, from Germany, and Germaine L'Eveque, from France, Philip was born in Boston. He entered Harvard College in 1941. During sophomore year, he was selected into the Navy Intelligence Service. After one year learning Japanese in a Navy intensive language program, he was stationed in Hawaii translating intercepted Japanese messages. Philip quickly was promoted to Lieutenant (jg), one of the youngest naval officers in WWII. At the battle of Okinawa, he interrogated Japanese prisoners. He assisted Admiral Jerauld Wright as a translator at the surrender of the Japanese naval forces in Korea, and joined an intelligence team to determine the Japanese military capacity. He returned to Harvard and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1948. He joined Leigh Textile Company, a family fiber recycling business based in Boston. Philip and his family members built Leigh Fibers into the largest textile and fiber reprocessing and recycling company in the United States. Leigh opened an office in Montreal and eventually became the largest textile waste company in Canada. On round-the-world voyages trading textile waste, Philip's facility with languages - German, French, and Spanish as well as Japanese - allowed him to form close relations around the globe. In the early 1960's Philip partnered with two other families from Central America, to establish Grasas y Aceites, S.A., which grew to be the largest vegetable oil mill in Nicaragua. Philip bought Cafetalera Aquiares, a coffee farm in Costa Rica that has become a model for ecologically sound management. Philip led his partners to invest in Ingenio Taboga, helping to build it into the largest and most sustainably managed sugar cane operation in Costa Rica. Philip loved sailing in Hingham Harbor and in Maine, passing on that love to all his children.
Philip established funds at Harvard, Smith, MIT, Brown & Nichols, and Milton Academy, and supported environmental and childhood education programs. Philip is survived by Monique Brancart Lehner, his wife of 61 years, his brother Pete of Hingham, MA, five children - Christine (Chucker) of Hastings-on-Hudson, NY; Carl (Sandra) of Holderness, NH; Michael (Monica) of Boston, MA; Peter (Fritz) of New York, NY; and Brigitte Kingsbury (Hal) of Cape Elizabeth, ME, 15 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Donations in Philip's memory may be made to: The Trustees of Reservations, 572 Essex Street, Beverly, Massachusetts 01915;

There will be a funeral service at St Paul's Church in Hingham, Massachusetts this Thursday, January 10th, at 11 a.m.