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.


Fighting Woman


We called our mother Mamma, not pronounced Momma in the American way, but mummah, as it sounded in Iceland, with a pause on the combined m’s. She forbade our calling her “Mommy,” the indignity of the American word implied by her mocking tone as she said it. When I was small, I only ever called our mother Mamma. The second syllable turns upward in my memory, holding the shape of a question, of hope and home.


When I was little, Iceland was the scent of sulfurous water that clung to my father’s skin after he returned from a trip there. My mother’s island home was the smell of smoked leg of lamb—a frozen red haunch wrapped in foil that had been smuggled past customs, then softly boiled to anchor our feast on Christmas Eve. Iceland was a dragon-shaped map on our dining room wall. And Iceland was the place that held my mother’s name, simply and crisply:  Mamma.

So “Mamma” was the answer I gave when a neighbor in our DC suburb asked me my mother’s name. He re-introduced himself to her, and they laughed at my not knowing her real name. Embarrassed by my ignorance, my mother taught me, syllable by syllable, how to say her name properly.  She wrote down every letter, and her handwriting, so elegant and even, was itself a lesson in correctness. She had me repeat her name over and over until it rolled off my tongue with sharp r’s and a crisp Icelandic rhythm. Most grown-ups, including my father, called her Ragna, using open vowels and mushy r’s. But I knew how to say her full name: Ragnhildur Gudrun Finnbjornsdottir Ellis.

Ragnhildur:  Fighting Woman.

My mother fought incorrectness, both in pronunciation and in behavior. She fought the dulling ordinariness of American culture, with its casual manners and sloppy clothing. At night, through cycles of peacefulness and of combat, she simultaneously fought my father and alcohol, her berating voice rising and falling for hours. Then came the thump of her shoulder hitting the wall after my father shoved her hard and staggered to the front door and escape. She fought to hide the bruises, but showed them to me when I came out of my room to try to take care of her. Year in, and year out, she was Fighting Woman.

She fought hard for the steady sanity she gained in her sixties. Now that I can see the pattern of illness in her descendants, diagnoses lined up like breadcrumbs in the woods, I know she fought cyclical depression and psychosis. When I was growing up, I sometimes thought she was a monster. But the monsters were in her head, and, as strong as she was, she couldn’t defeat them.