Welcome, and Clams Casino

The more I write, the more I appreciate reading and being read. So, welcome, and thanks for spending some of your reading time here! Expect a short essay two or three times per month–mostly memoir, with a few reflections on the writing process.

And if I haven’t already tracked you down to announce it in person, I read my first post, Fighting Woman, on the Denver Orbit Podcast (ten or so minutes into episode twenty-seven). You can find it here.

Clams Casino

One summer day when I am twelve, Michael, who is my mother’s best friend, teaches us how to make Clams Casino. Michael has a regular place at our dining room table. He and Mamma always smoke and laugh together after dinner, his lopsided grin under wavy black hair bringing out the deepest green of her hazel eyes. On Daddy’s days off from the Weather Bureau, he and Michael sit at the backyard picnic table and drink cans of Stroh’s. I like to perch on the patio steps in that summer of 1978, listening as they talk about politics and travels and all of the things we have to be grateful for.

After Michael dies the next spring, I hold on to the bright memory of our summer feast. I watch again as my mother stands next to Michael at the kitchen sink. She looks small leaning toward him, her head barely reaching to his shoulder. Michael demonstrates how to press a blade into the tender seam of a clam shell, then twist until it snaps open to expose a mound of flesh resting on its own blue-green reef. He says:  Ragna, I’ve seen guys stab themselves right through the palm doing this, so be careful!  She smiles and takes a turn–soon she wields the clam knife like an expert. I help sprinkle the opened clams with a blend of cheese, bacon, and spices. I stare into the oven as they bake, transfixed. Meanwhile, the wild blue crabs that we have scooped out of Chesapeake Bay are waiting to be steamed, bubbles of salt water foaming at their crusty mouths.

That morning, Daddy had driven Mamma and Michael, one sister and me to a cove along the bay, a place with a pier and a welcoming stretch of beach. He’d supervised the noosing of chicken-necks onto lengths of twine that hang under the surface, just deep enough to be in shadow.  I lie on my tummy and rest my chin on my stacked fists as I watch the dimple where a bait line meets still water. I inhale the mingled scents of salt air and creosote. Soon, my eyes catch a flash of blue as a crab latches on to eat while paddling backward with its its tiny swimmer-legs. I pull the taut string slowly and wave an alert to my dad so he can slip the net under our prey. The crab thrashes as Daddy raises it from the water. We untangle it from the net, then go to the next line and pull up another.

Mamma is wearing a bandana on her head, paisley red against the dark of her hair. Her legs are tan under jean shorts. Even dressed for the beach, she radiates elegance. She strolls along the shore, her shape growing smaller as she scrambles to the edge of a rocky breakwater. I watch the bait lines and look for her again. Soon, I feel her light step on the boards of the dock. Tendrils of hair have blown free as she explored, and sheer sunlight bounces from the water back up into her face. She is filled with peace. In a little while, we head for home.

Today Michael laughs with us as Daddy uses long metal tongs to hoist pugnacious crabs from kitchen sink to stove. The claws of one giant are clamped onto the legs of another’s, forming a crustacean chain that travels through the air and lands with clanks into the beer-belching steam-pot. My father holds down the lid of the pot until the crabs stop fighting. In the dark heat, the blue shine of their shells transforms to brick red.

We fill water glasses and pull down the can of Old Bay seasoning from the cupboard. Layered sections of The Washington Post protect the kitchen table, set with wooden mallets, small knives, and stacks of paper napkins. We sit in a circle and toast in Icelandic: Skal!  First, we eat the clams, succulent flesh under lightly flavored cheese. Michael is pleased as we marvel at the tastiness of Clams Casino. Then, we settle in to pick our crabs—removing the top shell and pulling translucent cartilage away from segments of crab meat. The afternoon stretches into dusk. I use a wooden mallet to break open the hard shell of a claw and dissect its pieces, chewy flesh still holding the shape of pincers.

I put my hammer down and look into my mother’s face. I absorb her concentration and her pleasure in the day.  She lifts a morsel of back-fin to her lips, holding the delicate bite between her thumb and the edge of a serrated steak knife. She doesn’t drop a speck, wastes nothing. I see that the sunlight reflected off the bay still dances on her cheek,  shimmering all around us, from face to face. I pull that light forward through time and extend it to shine through the dark day of Michael’s funeral. When I tug again, the taut string glides through my hand like water.

4 thoughts on “Welcome, and Clams Casino

  1. dubrav01

    In these first two posts a sketch of Ragna begins to take shape, this time in a clam and blue crab ceremony luminously described by her young daughter. Priceless memory.

    Like

  2. Ruth Possehl

    I appreciate the intermingling of senses,light and color. They add a vibrancy to the interplay of past with a sensation of presence.
    I agree, your mother’s complexity–and your complex relationship with her– is taking shape.
    What an honor to read this, Jenny Lynn!

    Liked by 1 person

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