SUSAN EVANGELISTA: PHILIPPINE AMERICAN WRITER

PUMPKIN SOUP

Susan Evangelista

 

umpkin soup is sensuous beyond words. You can smell it from way beyond the kitchen – the fragrance of basil and the autumn richness of the soft, piquant gourd. If the cook has an eye for beauty and pours the thick, burnt-orange liquid into a white porcelain bowl and tops it with a spoonful of sour cream and a sprig of cilantro, it is irresistible. Smooth and rich, creamy with a touch of sweetness and a touch of the earth, full-flavored of autumn, of sharpened winds and falling leaves. Not too hot, just the right warmth for heightened taste and a satisfying childhood feeling. In from the cold.

George’s mother had always been a little slap-dash about cooking, although she certainly knew what a balanced meal was. She herself was particularly fond of vegetables, but had never even expected her children to like them. Still, they had to choose two, out of a field of four, with the Sunday roast: carrots, potatoes, and onions from the roasting pan, and then usually corn or peas cooked separately. When they were small children, their father would bribe them, first to eat one pea for each member of the family, and then, as their horizons expanded, one for this friend, that neighbor, this teacher. By that time of course it had become a somewhat amusing ritual that the children put up with because peas didn’t have that much taste anyway. They had never tasted pumpkin as children, not even as Thanksgiving pie.

For a while George was married to a woman of very Germanic temperament, a woman who was strict with her own pleasures and strict with his. Only so much butter, so much wine, so much love. She worried about George’s weight, and tried to keep him on a strict diet, but he felt starved and began to take pleasure in cheating outside – as a rebellious Germanic child might. He first tasted pumpkin soup in an artsy little café way out in Virginia’s wine country, where he had gone with someone else. When he married Sandra, everything was different: for one thing, the kitchen was his, and he made love to his new wife first by cooking good food.

George, however, had eaten nothing on the last day of his real life, before the accident. He had awakened feeling heavy, over-indulged, and had taken only a cup of mint tea before going to work. He had been on his way to lunch, promising himself it would be light, when he fainted and struck his head on the pavement. That wasn’t the day he died, but Sandra always thought of it as the last day of his real life: what followed was a weeklong nightmare of hospitalization and tests, misdiagnoses, hope and no hope. And then he had died, quietly, peacefully, in his sleep.

Sandra had been devastated. Now, three months later, she still kept George’s ashes in an urn on one side of the sitting room. She couldn’t bear to part with them, although she maintained that she simply hadn’t decided where they belonged, and when she knew, she would move them. But their presence comforted her, and seemed right.

Meanwhile, in the freezer in the basement were stored several crocks of the soups George had made: sherried cheese, ham and lentils, pumpkin, all made with love and care and painstakingly stored away so that there would always be something good in the house, something wonderful and special, even for the most unexpected guest. Circumstances would never take them unaware.

But they had just the same.

The memorial service was on an icy day in December, cold, but clear and bright. George’s children were there, his daughter Janet, pale and drawn. She looked at Sandra in total disbelief as she withdrew the solid block of pumpkin soup from the white waxed freezer container and set it gingerly in the heavy sauce pan. "Nearly the last of George’s soup", she said, without looking up.

"We’re going to eat that?" she asked, clearly horrified.

Sandra looked up and the eye contact calmed them both. "He made it to be eaten," she said. "I can’t just throw it away."

"Keep it, keep it, keep it," Janet’s internal voices shouted. But she said nothing more.

Well, that would have been one solution, maybe – just keep the crocks stored in the freezer, for years and years. Until when? Until the pain was less? Until a new freezer was needed? Until Sandra herself was gone? Of course there wouldn’t be any question of eating them at that point – maybe the people who opened them wouldn’t even know what they were! Even if they had known George, and had known what a wonderful cook he was, they wouldn’t have understood the love and care that went into the soup, the smell of it, the texture, the taste!

"What is it, dear? It smells wonderful." Aunt Sophie had come bustling into the kitchen to peer over Sandra’s shoulder. "Soup," said Sandra a bit tersely. "George’s best."

"Oh," Sophie beamed. "There’s nothing better than homemade soup, and to think George made it for us. Lovely!"

Janet rolled her eyes at the doddering old woman. "He’s dead, you know," her internal voices started in. "You do realize that, don’t you? Dead. Gone. Nothing will bring him back."

And it had been such a small thing that had taken him away, actually. A small stumble, a little dizziness. That was all.

Lunch was very informal that day, as it had to be. For one thing, there wasn’t enough space at the table for everyone to eat together, and anyway, there was a great deal of coming and going. Janet rushed out to the train station to meet her husband and the two boys; Paul spent some time on the telephone settling a few business matters in Milwaukee; Henry, younger than both Paul and George, and not really a career person, was sent shuttling back and forth to pick up some elderly aunts at bed and breakfast places.

And in between Sandra tried to supervise the buffet table, replenishing the salad, reheating the soup, breaking out yet another loaf of the rich brown bread George had been so proud of. (No, he hadn’t made that, but he had found a charming little bakery tucked into a side street not far away, started up by an Austrian family solely because in their new country they felt a tremendous hunger for the proper bread of their village.)

Aunt Sophie parked herself in the deep curling up chair in the living room, and sat slurping her soup, after assuring some of the younger people that that is what the Chinese feel you ought to do. She read it somewhere in a magazine. Good Housekeeping? Well, never mind. Occasionally she would ask a niece or nephew to fetch her some more bread – a little jam on the side, please. And then she would ask, "Have you tried this wonderful pumpkin soup? Your Uncle George made it, you know. My, but he could cook!"

Sandra herself really couldn’t think it through – she just had to do it, ladling the stuff out and getting through the day, the service, the whole thing. She sipped a little soup, felt George’s presence, and actually found it calming.

Somehow the dishes got cleared away after lunch, and everyone got dressed and off to the memorial service in the university chapel. All kinds of people were suddenly there – people from George’s office, right down to the janitor, people like George’s barber, and even the butcher from the neighborhood supermarket, business associates, college friends, former neighbors.

Sandra wanted the service to be Bach and Mozart and the poetry of Rilke – deep but not overtly religious – and memories and tears, but comfort too. Old friends talked about George as a young man, adventures in Paris, culinary experiments, the pilgrimage to Ithaca, N.Y. to visit Moosewood, the famous vegetarian restaurant from which the cookbooks came. They talked about kind things George had done and funny things he had done, mistakes he had made, and times when he had turned out to be brilliant. And many of them had the feeling he was standing behind them, or off in the corner, chuckling benevolently. You could tell the way they would glance over their shoulders, or suddenly look way off into the distance. George.

Finally Janet stood up to make a statement for the family. She was still wired – tense and brittle. But as she looked around, she saw so many faces she knew, people she had known since childhood, and she felt the vise around her heart loosen a little. She talked about the kindness shown to the family by the people present after George’s sudden death, Sandra’s pain, but her feelings of gratitude as well, family support, togetherness. Then quite suddenly she found herself talking about the soup they had had for lunch – that is, everyone but she had had – her father’s soup, cooked a week or so before the accident. She was rambling, talking too fast, completely out of control – but she felt like these people would understand.

But then as Sandra stared at her, she saw her eyes too leap to the back of the chapel, behind everyone, to the white pillar where stood – George, of course, watching his daughter with a mixture of love and concern. Sandra couldn’t see him, but she was sure that Janet did.

Janet’s lip trembled and the tears began. Her voice broke as she hastily made a final thank you to everyone and sat down. No one touched her, even for comfort, as she sat weeping in the pew – they had been waiting for this, for the brittle one to break, and they knew it was good for her.

Only George’s immediate family went back to the house. Other relatives, aunts and uncles, including Aunt Sophie, kissed Sandra, promised to stop by tomorrow before leaving town, and returned to their hotels.

Back in the house, Sandra, exhausted, poured herself a glass of red wine and headed for her bedroom. She ran a hot bath, put her hair up, set the wine on the side of the tub, and climbed in. Despite the music she had put on in the bedroom, she still heard the pots and pans banging around in the kitchen. "Janet", she said to herself. The microwave beeped. And then she knew absolutely that if she went downstairs, she would find Janet sitting silently at the kitchen table, eating the pumpkin soup she had earlier refused. And she knew George would be there, smiling quietly at his high-strung daughter.

Many months later Sandra packed up all George’s cookbooks, intending to do something "worthy" with them – give them to a friend who was a gourmet cook, or maybe to a cooking school. She barred herself from looking through the books as she packed them, for George had always been attracted to food pictures – he’d see something that looked interesting and then try to make it, as much from the picture as from the recipe – and she was afraid that seeing those same pictures would be too painful.

That night she slept fitfully, and just before dawn, George appeared at her bedside, looking perplexed. "My cookbooks," he said. "Why have you packed up my cookbooks?"

"Too many memories," she said. "How can I keep them?"

"But how will you ever learn to make yourself a good soup then?"

"Good question," she responded, waking up with the words still on her lips.

Later that morning she unpacked the box of books, and set aside the Moosewood, the soup book. She couldn’t bring herself to try the pumpkin right away, but within the week she had the ingredients for a good lentil soup, and the carrot soup. And she cooked them both, the lentil on a raw, rainy night, and the carrot on a cool, clear autumn afternoon. She put part of each recipe in a freezer container, to store safely for some other time when she would need a good soup and not be able to make one.

 

* * * * *

REMAINS

by Susan Evangelista

 

Pumpkin soup was one of my brother Lou’s favorite things to cook – he’d buy fresh chunks of pumpkin in the fall when it was harvested in the newly crisp weather, and cook it up until it was soft and actually smelled like autumn. Then he’d strain it, and blend it with herbs and cream, until it was just right, rich and warm, slightly sweet, perfect for an evening of cold breezes. Warm whole wheat bread, a little red wine – what more could anyone ask?

We had never eaten pumpkin as children, not even as pie on Thanksgiving. I don’t know why, but I assume it was because my father didn’t like it – he didn’t like most vegetables, usually referring to them as "rabbit food." Nevertheless, my mother loved soup, and considered it the most nourishing of all foods. She used to serve it to Lou for breakfast sometimes, on cold winter mornings when he had to leave for school while it was still dark.

Somewhere along the way, in later life, Lou became a real gourmet cook. It seems his first wife believed in disciplined eating and kept the indulgences down, maintaining complete control of the kitchen. Then after the marriage ended, Lou found himself eating TV dinners night after night – and within a week, resolved to learn to cook. From there it became a passion as he began to make his own bread, his own pasta, casseroles, scones, and on. Along the way he amassed a wonderful collection of cookbooks from all ethnicities and for all special purposes: Filipino, Greek, Albanian, Moroccan, vegetarian, vegan, low salt, high energy, just salads, just soup, just pies. When he married Juanita, they shared the kitchen, but he happily did most of the cooking. His work required him to travel a lot, but Juanita would often go along, and they collected new ideas, new recipes as they went, and then try them when they got home. It was a good life.

But now he was gone, dying to this life. There had been another kind of life for a couple of weeks, after his mysterious fall, as he lay in the hospital awake and talking but unable to remember what had happened. He had been alone that day, walking from work to the train station along Chicago’s Lakeshore when he had fallen or tripped or been hit – no one knows. The people who called the medics didn’t stay around. The hospital didn’t call Juanita – so she had started her own search when he was already two hours late. She found him, and in some ways he seemed normal, but his poor brain was damaged beyond repair. Two weeks later that dark half life, that strange interlude, was over too, in the fall on a cold, drizzly day – a pumpkin soup day.

The funeral was small and private, and nearly immediate, held in the Friends Meeting House in Hyde Park, where Lou and Juanita lived. I wasn’t there – they would have had to wait days for me, as I was in Tasmania, in Southern Australia, visiting a friend. But there would be, said Juanita immediately, a memorial service in about six weeks, and of course I would be there.

Juanita was rigid with tension on the day I arrived for the service. When she met me at the airport and we hugged – well, of course I hadn’t seen her since Lou had died – she really held on tight. And of course we both had a few tears to wipe away. Later that night when we were standing around the basement and she was pointing out mounds and piles of papers and materials Lou had left and talking as well about how much money there was (a great deal more than she had thought), she said, again through tears, that she really didn’t want any of it. She wanted Lou. Of course.

Mother was in the house but not there at that moment.

Anyway, the service was early December – Lou had been dead for nearly six weeks – weather was good and clear (although icy cold) and people came from all over the place – Jo Jeffrey flew in from Detroit, where we had grown up together, next door neighbors, with her bedroom window right opposite Lou’s; and Dan and Carole Doeppers, part of our extended Manila-Madison family, drove over from Wisconsin.

And for lunch we pulled out crocks of frozen soup – pumpkin and carrot – both made by Lou from the Moosewood Cookbook, probably Moosewood Light. This must have been alright with Juanita, or she wouldn’t have done it – but she just felt so thin and tense and wired every time I touched her that I couldn’t really tell.

Mother seemed to be holding in; we all have our own ways of mourning, I guess, and she would not dare to let herself go.

When a Jesuit in the Ateneo dies, all his personal belongings are brought out into one of the sitting rooms and left there, for anyone who wants them to take. Therefore it isn’t unusual, if you complement one of these Men of God on a shirt you take to be new, to get an answer like "Oh, thank you. This used to belong to old Fr. ____, who died last month." So the dead man lives on in little ways.

But Dan told me later – much later – that he felt there was something grim about eating the soup Lou had cooked, as if it amounted to sucking out every last bit of his life. I felt more like he was still contributing, even to his own final rites. I remember he and Juanita had prepared their own wedding feast, and nothing gave Lou more pleasure, alive, than cooking for people, finding ways to match their dietary peculiarities with just the right gourmet dish – a cashew-mushroom stroganoff for his cream-loving vegetarian sister (me!), a boneless chicken adobo for visiting Filipino nieces and nephews. This gathering was for him, so he’d want to have an in-put.

I suppose Mother was a bit at war with herself, in as much as she is very practical. Wouldn’t it be a shame to throw out the soup Lou had worked so hard on?

Still.

I suppose Juanita didn’t want to sit there and eat it all by herself some cold night. Suppose she had saved it, let it sit in the freezer for many years, until the pain had dulled and she needed to buy a new freezer. What then?

So we ate the soup for lunch, savoring its richness and the warmth of family. Lou’s two sons were there, Miles with his wife and daughter, and Whitney with his girlfriend. His two sisters, Martha, and myself were there, and Martha’s husband Don and their eldest daughter Rachel, "just a bit" pregnant. And Jo and Dan and Carole, who were all like family. Juanita and Mother, of course, the two closest to Lou, and Juanita’s brother Everett and his family. There was a sort of chaotic sense of arrivals and up-dates and details – lots of phone conversations.

And then out into the icy air and over a few blocks to Bond Chapel, one of the gloriously heavy, stately old buildings on the University of Chicago campus, for the memorial service. Non-religious, Dan noted later – I hadn’t noticed – but it was all poetry and music and memories. Bach and Rilke and May Sarton and even Emily Dickinson. Don did most of the readings, as he had done in the original funeral. I was to speak.

I tried to talk about the Lou of my childhood, the older brother who played the trombone in the elementary school band, he said, for the sole purpose of being there to rescue me when the baton I twirled flipped out of my grasp and rolled under a car. Indeed. In my view, if I needed to be saved, it was mostly from him, and his dark influence! Throughout childhood he would plague me with stories of how I was adopted, left on the doorstep in a basket, proof of this being that I did not like chocolate as much as the rest of the family did, and I did not have curly hair. He never ever let me forget the time I got carsick and threw up all over his deck of goldfinch cards. In my first forays into the world of baking, I would make a nice white cake and melt chocolate chips on it for frosting, and Lou would eat a bigger piece than anyone else and then pretend he had been poisoned. By the time I was sixteen and didn’t have a boyfriend, he started telling me I was "over the hill."

But for all that, we got along pretty well. True, he did sometimes scare my friends away and fought an on-going battle with our next door neighbor and my best friend Jo, but he treated her, really, like another sister. Her cooking efforts were also labeled poisonous, and she too was over the hill at sixteen, but when she dated someone he didn’t trust, he would wait up for her – and shine a spotlight on her and the boy the moment they got out of the car!

Our teachers in Roosevelt Elementary School considered Lou brilliant as well as well behaved, and of course found me wanting in both respects. He was rather an introvert, read a lot, knew all kinds of strange things. At the age of ten or so, he started puzzling over such problems as whether a tree in the forest really made any noise if there was no one near by to hear it fall. He had me convinced that the cynical axioms "There is no such thing as free lunch", and "Absolute power corrupts absolutely" sprang from his very own sources of eternal wisdom. And to this day I find myself quoting him to people.

He had surprised us all when the next generation of children came – his, mine, our sister’s – with the concern and earnestness with which he conversed with them. My youngest daughter Ami, born on his 39th birthday, was especially fascinated by him. She shared his Taurian love of luxury and creature comforts – and his intensity – but not his inwardness. I ended my five minutes by reading a letter to Lou, a final good-bye, from Ami, and it was light but loving, recalling how the year she had studied French, he had wanted her to marry a fabulously rich French man, maybe a count, and on one corner of her country estate, build a cozy little cottage for her dear uncle. She would never forget him. My voice slipped out of control at that point, but just for an instant.

A law school friend talked about meeting Lou somewhere in Europe and convincing him that the two of them could jump on a train to Paris without any waiting hotel reservations. Structured, conservative Lou was doubtful, but went along, only to find that that particular weekend was the peak of French tourism and there was absolutely no place to stay. Lou didn’t learn to travel lightly until many years later, and was thus sorely burdened with a heavy bag, as the two trudged around Paris at midnight and beyond, with the friend suggesting alternately that they go to a bordello or join the homeless under the bridge. Lou, of course, rejected both suggestions. Neither ever forgot the sunrise the next morning, though, and strangely it actually cemented their friendship.

Juanita couldn’t speak, but asked a friend to read something from her, including quotes from her journal during the agonizing two weeks between Lou’s fall and his death, and some of her poetry. In the end she said she would think of Lou as off in other worlds, wandering through the cobbled old streets of a morning market somewhere in the sunlight of fall, thinking about exotic fruits and vegetables, and how they might brighten up classic old recipes. I have thought of him this way ever since.

The program for the service included Lou’s "personal recipe for oatmeal scones" which he said were "perfection when served with fresh raspberries". Ah, they would have been wonderful with the soup!

Back in the cold, still sunset – I wanted to walk home. Then there was a little red wine to fight the chill, and then off to Lou’s favorite Greek restaurant to further fortify ourselves. This too was a site of memories: this was where Ami, age six, discovered a belly dancer performing for a private party, and both she and Alex, 15, were served appropriately sized glasses of red wine by one of Lou’s favorite waiters. Tonight it was where my emotions broke through and I cried, relating how it felt to be alone in the sterility of the airport in Melbourne while the rest of the family was at Lou’s funeral in Chicago. Good thing little Kendall, Lou’s grandchild, distracted everyone by draping noodles into her hair.

And that was that. Everyone went home and we were only family again, and the next day most of the family left too. My mother and I stayed on, pulling other goodies out of the freezer and reminding ourselves that people must eat.

Now, some years later, Juanita has learned to make pumpkin soup for herself, although I think she prefers carrot. She got a good portion of Lou’s cookbooks all packed up to give away once, but he appeared to her in a dream and wanted to know where they all were, so in the end she kept them. Lou’s ashes sit in the dining room in a beautiful wooden box hand-carved by his son Whitney; Juanita says the time will come when she will know exactly what to do with them. But I find them comforting just there.

~end~

Copyright 2001 by Susan Evangelista; all right reserved.

Writer's Bio: Susan Evangelista has degrees from Swarthmore College. She first went to the Philippines in 1963 as a member of the Peace Corps. After completing a graduate degree at the University of Wisconsin, she returned to the Philippines with her husband. She completed a second graduate degree with a concentration in Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines. Her graduate thesis was on Carlos Bulosan. She taught literature and writing in the Ateneo de Manila from 1967 to 2000. In the year 2000, she retired and moved, with her husband, to Puerto Princesa, Palawan, where she continues to do some teaching and writing. She and her husband Oscar Evangelista have three children: Sara, Alex, Ami; one son-in-law, Mark; and two grandchildren, Matthew and Andrew. Her recent publications include Growing into Asia and Other Essays (UP Press 2001) and Creative Juices: Works of the Ateneo Faculty (Diwa 2001).

 

 


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