Having Your Cake

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Photo of the first piece of the first try – too many raisins and before adding a dusting of confectionary sugar

 

Pam’s Pictorama: The holidays came late this year to those of us at Pictorama and therefore I ask for your indulgence as tidbits continue to pepper these posts in coming weeks. One reason for this is fairly self-evident – generally I am a cheerleader for making the most of what is good about the holidays, but with my dad’s death in August, none of us much had the stomach for it and we approached Thanksgiving gingerly. Setting the bar low helped, and we limped through without any group weep-a-thons, although I guess that would have been okay too.

At some point in the days before Christmas, I found myself reading the electronic version of the New York Times (something I do early in the morning over breakfast while Kim is already grinding away at his pages at the other end of the table) and as usual continued reading on my (usually) brief train ride on the Q to midtown. I believe I was on the Q when I read an essay about a lost fruit cake which had been sent to the author by his father several months before the father died. The cake was from a company, not homemade, and never arrives, but the son ultimately orders another and eats it. I had two reactions to this essay. The first was to get weepy – believe me, when I started the essay I had no idea a father was going to die in it or I wouldn’t have chosen it. However, more important to today’s story, it carried a reference to Poor Man’s cake which is something I have not thought about in years, and frankly thought was a term that might only be known to my family and that I had no idea was in general use.

A Poor Man’s cake, also known as a Depression cake, is one that doesn’t require the use of eggs, sugar or butter – all things that were in short supply during the war and Depression years. Like fruitcake, it will keep in your refrigerator or freezer for a long time – although as my mother pointed out when asked, we never put it to the test as we always consumed it in full immediately. It was a staple in my grandmother’s repertoire, at the heart of an ongoing rotation of recipes and it was as likely as not that she’d throw one together if she was in the house. (So often did she make certain recipes – this one, her one for bread which was heavenly and some of her Christmas cookies – that actual recipes seemed to elude her when asked. My sister Loren did work on writing some down. It was all a bit of this and that, done by touch and texture.) As I teased out my memory of her version of the cake, I remembered that it utilized boiled coffee, margarine (or bacon fat as an alternative) and molasses.

I became mildly obsessed with re-creating the cake. Maybe I needed a holiday distraction of sorts. Meanwhile, for those of you who aren’t familiar with my origin story – when younger I actually did time as a pastry chef (and a garde manger) working under, among others, Jean Georges Vongerichten at his first restaurant in Manhattan. That is clearly another whole post, but I mention it to say, while I definitely know my way around pastry, I haven’t made so much as a loaf of banana bread in years. Here at Deitch Studio, we’re pretty maniacally careful eaters (green smoothies, largely vegetarian) and while we might happily eat a bit of cake or pastry out in the world, I do not buy it, let alone produce it. Suffice it to say that the baking muscle has seriously atrophied, and executing even this simple cake required some both metaphorical and real dusting off of things.

In addition, the Pictorama kitchen is a tiny thing. I have often lamented that if we got a large dog it wouldn’t even fit in our kitchen. With some forethought I can claim a space of about six square inches to work on our limited counter space. Ironically, working in professional kitchens in Manhattan was good practice for this as I never had more than about a foot of space to work in – real estate is at a premium for them as well. Storage is another issue and as I did a quick assessment I realized my cooking supplies are somewhat pared down.

As I remember, my grandmother often used a Pyrex loaf dish. I know I owned or had owned one of these – I actually did make banana bread in it at one point. A quick search did not however turn it up. It either wandered out of the house in a cabinet purge, or has skulked far out of reach. (I did however find a pastry scale – so serious were my past baking endeavors – and the possible purge of a Pyrex dish while keeping that does seem somewhat ironic.) Undeterred, I turned to eBay and within 48 hours and for $5 I had one that was identical to what I remember. There were things I decided I could forgo, such as a flour sifter and a cooling rack.

Happily in the age of Google it took no time at all to find a number of recipes and by piecing them together I began reconstructing my grandmother’s version of the cake. The recipe I offer below is an amalgam of several recipes. I have replaced sugar with molasses, butter/bacon fat with margarine, water with coffee. Additionally I have changed the seasoning. There was much debate about the use of ground cloves and my mother remembers my grandmother using them, but I found them overwhelming in my first go at this and struck them out subsequently. I cut the amount of raisons – the original recipes called for two cups which seemed absurdly heavy. I realized that the recipe I took most of this from used baking soda and I used baking powder – I’ll probably try baking soda next time. As you can see from the photos, it is a pleasant looking cake, but not a real beauty. It is some rib sticking coffee cake – vegan for that matter as well.

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Cake two in the Pyrex loaf pan – yum!

 

I finished the cake with a sprinkling of powdered sugar which was what my grandmother did most often. (Oddly, the Upper East Side of Manhattan was literally sold out of powdered sugar. After trying Whole Foods and Gristedes, I purchased the very last bag at Fairway. Holiday cookies I assume? Weird, right? I began to wonder if people had stopped using it.) I have a memory of her occasionally using a chocolate glaze on it as well, although mom doesn’t remember that.

Even with my first try, the cake emerged as something close to what I remember. (I credit this with it being pretty much a no fault recipe!) Years of after school snacks, in evidence at every holiday and many weekend mornings was this cake. It had been a part of my life growing up that was a constant and I never really thought about until it was gone. My mother has never been a baker and when my sister died much of the family baking lore went with her. While asking about the cake, my mother and I have had several wonderful talks about other food we remember my grandmother making. She and her sisters were all gifted chefs – one sister owned a restaurant and was a private cook in wealthy homes.

Cake #2, shown with sugar at the top and made yesterday, is now tucked in my bag as I head to New Jersey this morning. I am anxious to show it off to my mother and cousin who will be stopping by for a piece later. I don’t know that it will become a staple here, but I suspect we can count on my making the occasional one now that I am getting the hang of it. There’s always my office, ready to consume some additional carbs if we are overwhelmed by my new cake ambitions.

Reading the recipes online I saw some complaints about some of the recipes running dry. I have not had that issue at all and suspect that the replace of sugar with molasses helps with that. I also think the loaf pan is better than the suggested two small cake pans as thinner cakes will cook faster and be more prone to drying out. I have included the nutritional information although I would imagine that it is a bit skewed with the adjustments I have made, likely lower calories and carbs with fewer raisins and no bacon fat!

Recipe:

  • 4 tablespoons of molasses
  • 2 cups coffee
  • 2 tablespoons margarine
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • Confectionary sugar to taste for topping

Directions:

  1. In a medium saucepan combine the molasses, coffee, margarine, and raisins, over medium heat. Bring to a boil for 5 minutes, then set aside to cool.
  2. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C). Grease and flour a loaf pan.
  3. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Add the ingredients, a little at a time, from the saucepan and mix until well blended. 
  4. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes in the preheated oven. (Test with a knife to see if cooked through.) Cool in pan for 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack (if you own one!) to cool completely.
  5. Sprinkle confectionary sugar or add chocolate glaze once cool.
Nutrition Facts:
Per Serving: 174 calories; 1.4  39.6  2  1  158 
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Handkerchiefs

Pam’s Pictorama Post: The only physical possessions of my father’s I brought home after he died are a series of white handkerchiefs. Dad was a devoted cotton handkerchief user. That was just a fact of him, like having greenish hazel eyes. I never thought about that never-ending line of handkerchiefs, for example when he started using them – why he preferred them to Kleenex. I wish now I had thought to ask, but as I said, they were just a fact of him. I think he would have found the question perplexing anyway, and he would have given me a look he reserved for those occasions when I would zip a question like that in out of left field – eyebrows raised and a shake of the head before probably saying he had no idea.

These handkerchiefs are not of a decorative, natty nature, peeping out from a suit pocket. These were practical and daily used, workaday hankies, always fresh and white though. I have no idea where he purchased them or how frequently. Presumably there was a very long line of them, the tatty ones ultimately pulled out by my laundry doing mother who also put herself in charge of thinning out all his worn out clothes with an eagle eye. (Dad was never very good at de-accessioning things. He was a keeper of all things – an accumulator in fact if left to his own devices.) I wouldn’t even know where to purchase such a thing, although I assume these days Mr. Google would accommodate me if I attempted it.

I brought dad some freshly laundered clothes from home shortly before he died and one of his handkerchiefs fell out when he went to put a shirt on. We both stared at it. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I hadn’t thought about them, those handkerchiefs, in a long time. It seemed incongruous to see it in his hospital bed. After he died I packed up those handkerchiefs that remained in his drawer and brought them home with me. I began carrying one, without the intention of using it, but just to have it like a lucky penny. Yet, like some heretofore unknown law of nature, if you carry a handkerchief, you will ultimately find yourself using it and I have.

This brings to mind a myriad of points about hygiene and maybe even the ecology of the disposable versus the washable, but frankly it doesn’t really matter. It seems a case can be made either way and I will leave it at that. Privately I think of them as my own stack of crying towels, a bit unkind perhaps, but there is some truth behind that. And I am learning that, after all, there are worse things than crying. Meanwhile, they are a talisman, albeit a practical one, tucked away in my handbag.

 

Time Flies

Pam’s Pictorama Post: It has been a rough year and one that has lead to some reflection as I hit our anniversary today. Kim and I aren’t big on ceremony around it; we generally recognize it without much fanfare – usually an exchange of small toys, a card, perhaps a day out together just knocking around as I think today will be as we look 18 years in the eye. Unlike today, October 14, 2000 was an unseasonably warm day. However, like this year, the prior weekend had produced a hurricane or at least tropical storm, leaving me relieved that we had changed our minds from a fanciful outdoor ceremony in Central Park over Columbus Day weekend which had been my original thought. It would have been a bit of a disaster. For the record, today is a crisp, chilly typical mid-October day in New York, although the trees have yet to change color since the cold snap is only recently upon us.

I am always the first to say I had a bad attitude about marriage for a long time. Frankly, if you weren’t going to have kids I couldn’t really see anything in it. It just seemed like another one of those society created conventions that people felt the need to go along with. I cheerfully crossed it off my list. I can’t speak for Kim, but I have to assume it hadn’t made it to the top of his list either since he is considerably older and hadn’t given it a try yet. He did bring it up early on in our relationship, but I suggested he stop talking about it.

Even when I began to contemplate it seriously it was also to accommodate society – ensuring that Kim had health insurance. My employer, the Metropolitan Museum, informed me that nothing short of marriage would do that. So marry we would. (I like to say that I loved Kim enough to want him to have health insurance – really, is there a better way to say I love you?) The other factor was that my sister was in the latter stages of fighting an almost decade long battle with breast cancer (one she would lose a year later), and I did have the revelation that if I wanted her to be at my wedding and well enough to enjoy it this wasn’t something I could put off indefinitely.

Perhaps it was all these things, but it came together one day I was sitting at my desk and an email newsletter I used to get from a Buddhist publishing company hit my inbox. There was an extensive quote from the Dalai Lama about not deferring happiness – in essence, that there is a tendency to defer even those things that will make us happy, and that we had to quite simply have to make space for them in our lives if we wished to pursue happiness.

I’m not sure I can do the full equation of why it suddenly hit me that this was exactly what I was doing about getting married – thinking we would do it eventually, in the vague future, maybe after this or that. The switch flipped and I changed my course immediately. Kim and I had been together for almost six years and had been living together in this studio apartment for almost all of them. As my sister Loren said when I told her about our impending nuptials, if we could live in one room together for this long we were most likely compatible.

Obviously I can only speak for myself, but I was surprised that being married really was different than living together. I felt it immediately. The wedding rings – a symbol I had somehow dreaded (feminist writings about them being like the ring in a cow’s nose ran in a loop through my head) – were somehow more like matching secret decoder rings we shared. In many ways, marriage was like forming a corporation – we became a team in a way I had not imagined. On the very rare occasion (I can only think of one) when we have a knockdown drag out fight, the marital bonds give important pause about the dissolution of the relationship. Most importantly it greatly amplified a feeling that I had of knowing I had a person on my team no matter what. We wholeheartedly accepted and embraced the role of champion of the other.

Ironically in a way I have become a great fan of marriage, yet I can’t help the nagging qualification that I consider it a small miracle I found someone as splendidly suited to me as Kim. I do believe that when I considered marriage in the abstract I never allowed myself to imagine that I would find someone as endlessly interesting as I find Kim. (Essentially, if I had known I was going to get to marry Kim Deitch I may have had a better attitude about the whole thing.) I have been gloriously lucky enough to find someone with whom the never-ending conversation of married life remains always fascinating. Yes, marriage like anything worthwhile is undeniably hard work, but I easily consider it one of the best decisions I ever made. Happy anniversary Kim!

Cars

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: Probably because I have been thinking a lot about my father recently, a memory of the beloved Matchbox cars of my childhood has pushed its way to the top of mind. One of my earliest memories was racing these cars with my father on the wide expanse of a bare wooden floor in a house we lived in when I was a toddler. Dad would get on the floor with me and my sister and we would choose cars and push them – Ready, Set, Go! and see which would go furthest. Some cars were favored as being believed to be faster and some were just cooler than others.

So stubborn and persistent is this renewed memory that I began to think about purchasing these cars again. There are toy collectors who are largely preoccupied with repurchasing their childhood – a glorified version of their childhood or exactly what they owned, or perhaps what they never had. I, of course, am generally a sort of extreme version of the last, assembling the childhood of an extremely wealthy if somewhat odd British-American child of the 1920’s and 30’s. Other than a few books (posts on some of these can be found at The Cricket in Times SquarePush Kitty and also The Story About Ping) I have not attempted to replace any toys of my own past.

However, I was gratified that images of my favorite cars were immediately and easily found. A child of the early 1960’s Lesney’s Matchbox cars (founded in Britain in 1957) had probably only reached our shores a few years before, the true explosion of these models just taking hold. Unsurprisingly, there are a myriad of fan sites and Pinterest pages devoted to collecting Matchbox cars. Photos of my favorites were readily found online, leading also to discovering others I have owned. These very cars are in fact also available, in a wide range of condition, for sale on eBay – albeit not inexpensive and frequently necessitating the purchase of several cars along with the ones I want, ones that I have no interest in. Therefore, I have not yet pulled the trigger.

For some reason I was shocked to discover that my very favorite car, the white converible with the red seats as above, was a Mercedes Benz – expensive taste even as a child! It was the favorite and fastest. Another prized one was the Mercury Couger below. In researching this I was reminded that we also had an ambulance (that blue bit on the roof slides back and forth and I was crazy about that) and a beloved double decker bus, both special, but slower when racing.

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This Mercury Couger was usually in competition with the Mercedes Benz above

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Matchbox Ambulance, Studebaker Wagonaire, we’d race this one, but not the fastest

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Also slower was this double decker bus

 

The detail on these cars is what you remember, the doors opened, some you could pop the hood open; sometimes there were trailer hitches on the back. I can’t seem to find one we had where the exposed engine wiggled up and down when it ran – it made a slight ticka-ticka sound as a result – and it was fast! These details made them memorable and wonderful. Cast in metal, they had a bit of heft to them. It turns out that the series was founded by a man who was a co-owner of the nascent toy car company, Jack Odell, who designed the first tiny model car for his daughter. She was allowed to take a toy no larger than a matchbox to school. Frankly, I had never realized that it was a British company and was surprised to realize this – I had always associated them with the much later purchase of the company by Mattel in my mind.

My dim memory of purchasing our Matchbox cars is that they were in a display or bin at the supermarket near the register where you could convince mom of a last minute impulse buy – they were designed to be extremely affordable and this ploy worked. Meanwhile, I do not believe my parents were making any significant unisex statement with the fact that my sister and I played with cars, and we had electric trains too. I seem to remember the occasional baby doll, although admittedly they were not high on my or my sister’s list. (I did have a lovely metal baby carriage that I used to coax the cat into and would occasional try to dress him in some doll clothes however.) Barbie later ranked very high with me and certainly there are those who say she epitomizes a sexist toy. (I adored my Barbies, more about that another time.)

By the time my brother was in the picture, my mother’s toy politics profile was raised and she was marginally disapproving of guns and war toys. However, my Barbie dated a GI Joe purchased instead of the lunkhead Ken sold for that purpose. (GI Joe was full posable with articulated joints, Heidelberg dueling scar and all, and was the optimum date; Barbie also had an off model doctor doll – Dr. Bob maybe? – she deigned to hang out with occasionally.) My brother had water pistols and at least a nominal few GI Joe’s as well so mom wasn’t maniacal about this. However, I think it was largely the availability and affordable nature of Matchbox cars that got mom to pop a new one in the shopping cart occasionally to quiet us kids down. Dad brought home what may have been a rip off by Esso of a gasoline truck at one point, purchased at the gas station or given as a premium. I was entertained and pleased to learn that Mr. Odell designed them originally for his daughter.

Try as hard as I can, I do not remember the cat, Snoopy, chasing these when we raced them although he must have. (I think Cookie and Blackie would assume this game was meant just for them.) Memory tells me that eventually we had a case for our cars and this one below strikes a familiar chord. Mom and Dad probably just got tired of constantly stepping on them. I seem to remember that too!

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Cookies and Ice Cream

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Pam’s Pictorama Post: It is a tempestuous red and blue dawn on a lovely, cool July morning in the aptly named Fair Haven, New Jersey. I am sitting in bed eating a bagel and drinking cold coffee accompanied by my father’s cat, Red, with Dick Powell as The Singing Marine on TCM to keep us company. The bagel is a very reasonable one, although it has a vegan spread on it instead of butter – mom didn’t know I would be coming so only her own vegan offerings are available. I have a miserable chest cold, but despite that this would be a perfectly lovely perch if it wasn’t for the fact that I am here because my father is dying.

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Red, my father’s constant companion, is my host cat when I visit

 

Most of my experience with dying has been of the fast and furious kind, starting with people dying young, mostly in accidents. Then when my sister Loren died of breast cancer, the actual end was upon us suddenly somehow, even after seven years of struggle. Dad on the other hand, is going by inches – slipping just perceptibly more one day or week, but then finding a new plateau. It is painful to watch and not the way anyone would really chose to go. After an especially bad dip I came on Friday, despite the chest cold. I found him mostly lucid, but falling into unconsciousness.

The nurses and hospice folks are gentle with me, preparing me for the obvious. They are all very nice people – as I said to a friend yesterday, the nicest people you never want to have to meet. First spring then turning to summer weekly visits to see him and his slow, but steady decline, and offer support to my mom. It is sad and difficult, but undeniably inevitable in a way my sister’s death at 40 was not.

My early visits home were accompanied by chocolate for Dad. I brought whatever I thought might tempt him a bit, sending chocolates online, bringing chocolate bickies from London after a trip. As he transitioned to in-patient hospice care I shifted to a favorite of his since childhood, black and white cookies. I remember being introduced to these first from my grandparent’s house in Mamaroneck, New York. Those visits were spotted with the large black and white cookies with slightly sticky frosted icing, and slices of marble cake, bottoms wrapped in yellow paper – the taste of either brings me back to long Sunday afternoons of my childhood. Dad remained a life long fan of the black and whites (a friend in college called them moon cookies which entertained me) and Penn Station offers a reasonable, if packaged, version that he likes and I pick up on my way through to NJ Transit.

***

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My father has always loved ice cream. It was an open family secret that you could almost always talk him into an ice cream junket. If you were driving on a trip, pulling off at an exit for a Howard Johnson’s sundae was always an option, and more successful ploy than asking to stop for the bathroom. In our New Jersey town, an evening trip to the local Dairy Queen was an easy coax.

As spring turned to summer his condition worsened. Father’s Day approached and he had asked for ice cream (something more satisfying than the little cups offered with his lunch and dinner daily as per my instructions). A good friend frequently picks me up at the train to take me to visit him, I knew that week she could not. While it wasn’t at all logical it kept scratching at my brain that there must be a way to get ice cream from Manhattan to him somehow, but I failed to figure it out.

Kim has been devoted about accompanying me on most of these weekends to offer moral support. However, on that particular weekend I was traveling alone and hopped a cab at the train station. For those of you who live in suburbia you may understand that a local cab is nothing like one in Manhattan. Instead, it was a broken down Chevy sedan, driven by a guy about my age in cutoffs and flip flops. (I have frequently found myself in a cab with  someone I went to school with – while this was not the case, but could have been easily enough.) The cab had torn upholstery, hemorrhaging stuffing where I installed myself in the backseat.

I gave the address and the name of the facility which has sufficed to get me to there previously as this is a relatively small town. Having lived there most of my young life I know the area well, but he took me in a direction I didn’t know, a fact that dimly registered in my distracted mind as I settled into my own thoughts,  preparing for my visit and what I would find.

When I snapped to attention I realized that I was at a strange intersection, and as I was formulating an inquiry to get us where we needed to go, the driver turned around and asked me in a cheery voice, “Would you like to stop for ice cream?” You can imagine my amazement. I said, “Excuse me?” Him, “Yeah, there’s a great place for homemade ice cream just about 200 yards from here.” “Well, yes, actually I would love to, but your a cab driver, are you sure you don’t mind?” “Naw, it’s fine.” Me, as we pull into the empty parking lot next to a tiny white building that houses what turns out to be a family owned business, “Can I get you something?” Him, “No, I’m good.”

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Ryan’s Ice Cream, Tinton Falls, NJ

 

So off I go, into this small white box of a building which has evidently been here for decades, attended by a high school student in summer job mode, the wares – more than a dozen large containers of homemade ice cream, taking up the length of the store. I purchase a medium order of chocolate chocolate chip for my father and a small cookies and cream for myself. Dad’s medium size ice cream was a bit unreasonably large, but happily he ate every bite much to my surprise. He hasn’t been able to eat nearly as much subsequently, but I keep bringing it. He’s partial to chocolate on chocolate, but likes vanilla with bits of Heathbar in it too, a blatant rip off of the Ben & Jerry’s flavor. Clearly ice cream will be more or less the last thing to pass his lips.

****

Part Two: I think we may have passed through all the possible good stages, these are the last days I guess. Dad is uncooperative, stubbornly blatantly so, refusing to take his medication or talk to me. Gone is the gentle joshing of a few days ago about who is bossiest in the family and maybe the tiniest mouthfuls of ice cream. He will only take a few sips of this or that. Dad, a few weeks shy of 88, has fought his death, with every fiber – blood clot in the leg, a raging infection, congestive heart failure all topped off with N Stage COPD – he has worked his way through nine lives in the last few weeks alone, rising again and again like an unlikely phoenix.

Just two days ago he was telling me he was thinking about getting up with his walker the next day. (This extremely unlikely given the state of his leg, but who am I to be discouraging at this point?) So, I sit, with the stubbornness he has willed to me, at least equal to his own – I always say doubled by that I inherit from my mother. I play early jazz on my computer, then classical music. He’s never been a fan of music in particular, but I think it is a nice change of pace for him and he might as well hear something other than the tv if we aren’t going to talk. Or rather if he doesn’t want to listen to me prattle on as our conversations have been one-sided for some time now. I have given up on reading to him from the New York Times.

As for me, if I am not here I am fretting about not being here, when I am here I worry about my inability to do much, to engage him. I have foolish thoughts about how other people are probably better at this than me – my self-inflicted burden for being competitive in every aspect of life and finding my own perceived inadequacies when left alone to my own devices. I reflect on how my father has actually always been good at just being there – never too chatty, but always willing when called upon to drive or sit somewhere he would do it, if silently, but without restlessness. I tell him stories about this now.

There are other things to be said about my father, but for now I will just say a few. A camera man for ABC News for his entire career, honored with two Emmy’s, nominated for a third, he was a man who loved his job and deeply embodied it, staying with it despite the physical nature of it, camera rig on his shoulders, until he was almost 70. By no means perfect, his current illness brings out an periodic belligerence – hard although I think it unfair to expect someone in his current situation to have be perpetually cheerful. His 6’5″ frame has long been folded into this bed, still massive, but shrunken. Always a silent man, he once joked that it tickled him to intimidate the occasional man I brought home. Perhaps in the future I will write more about him, the good and the bad, but for now these are the things I think about.

*****

Dad died on August 11 and I sent six pints of ice cream to the hospice, with his and my thanks.

 

Change?

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Luckily for me someone thought this was Felix and posted it on eBay where I snatched it up immediately. I believe this little change purse (obviously much beloved by one or several children over its lifetime) is Norokuro, the Japanese cat/dog character of early comic fame there. I have written about Norokuro a few times before when speculating on a celluloid toy (in the post found here, Norakuro, the Japanese Felix? and Pam Toy Post) and someday would love to find a stuffed toy one if such a thing exists – I have seen no evidence of that however. While searching for such a thing I did come across this photo of a larger than life one from an exhibition of his creator’s work, Suiho Tagawa, at a museum in Koto City, shown below. That guy reminds me of the giant Dean’s Mickey Mouse we have in our bedroom, but is a bit disappointing somehow. I am hoping for a more cuddly version to turn up.

Meanwhile, this worn little nubbin of a toy change purse is splendid. I am not certain, but I think his eyes moved originally and the zipper is designed so it looks like a large, toothy, grinning mouth. It is quite small – wasn’t holding much change and a bill would have to be folded some, although I confess I know nothing of Japanese currency at the time and maybe it was more adequate than I think. The inside is surprisingly untouched and new looking, the same blue as the back shown below, with a small tag that reads Chase Japan in English. He is well designed in my opinion. And, quite simply put, I would have been nuts about this as a kid, utterly delighted to own him.

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I have dim memories of owning less remarkable change purses as a child. This one tugs at my memory and vague, tactile but indistinct memories of mid-sixties versions of my own rise up. I know I had a bright blue cloth change purse in the shape of an animal of some sort, but there were plastic ones too, long lost to time and evidently memory as well. Strange, when I think about it, that change purses are so interesting to children considering that money doesn’t yet have real meaning, and not to mention that during my childhood the ownership of them would have largely excluded boys. Somehow though, if you had one of these with a few coins in your pocket you felt like you had the world on a string!

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Who Is Pam Butler

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Today’s post is from the appendix of Kim’s upcoming book, Reincarnation Stories, and is a rare Pictorama husband and wife co-production. I wrote it, several months back, although some of you have heard the story before. Enjoy!

Reincarnation

It begins one day, simply enough, riding on the subway. Kim forgot to bring something to read and he picked up a free newsletter for the Learning Annex – cheesy adult “courses” taught by reality tv show stars and people promising you that you too can make a killing in NY real estate. (Yep, I think Donald Trump was advertised in one of those – who could have guessed?) I read over his shoulder. Semi-seriously he announced that there was a course in past life regression that he thought he would take – he’d always had a story in mind around reincarnation and maybe it would be a good jumping off point. So I flippantly said I’d do it too. And just like that, we decided to phone and make a reservation.

What I didn’t tell Kim was that I had been approached about past life regression before and the thought had sort of terrified me. I suffer from a potentially debilitating form of arthritis and more than once it had been suggested to me that I might try to go into my past lives to see what might have caused it. Well, I figured if I had either done something so awful in my past life, or even worse, had some dreadful injury that shook my joints to this day, that I sure as heck didn’t want to know about it and relive it. Still, this was the Learning Annex – no need to take it seriously. It would be fun to do with Kim and if he was going to a past-life regression course I sure wasn’t going to miss it.

As it happened, the day we were scheduled to attend in the early evening turned out to be a complicated one for me. It was a sunny and beautiful day as I remember, I want to say spring rather than full on summer. I was working for the Central Park Conservancy at the time, but had taken part of the day off to attend the funeral of Lydia Mananara, a woman I had worked with at the Metropolitan Museum for many years. She wasn’t much older than me and had died of breast cancer. I had cared for her cat, a lovely plushy long haired tabby-stripe, while she was in Italy seeking alternative treatment or perhaps just spending time with family there, over the course of many weeks. After the funeral there was a reception at the Met where I saw former colleagues and met family and friends of hers I had not known. It was a strange moment of displacement having worked there for so long and being back for what may have been the first time since leaving.

That evening after work, Kim and I went down to Union Square and to the address of what appeared to be some sort of elementary school. I remember thinking that this was turning into one very long day, and we trudged into a classroom with table desks pushed together to form a large U. There were about ten people in the room and they were as varied as the human content of any subway car on a given morning commute, a few young, some older, generally nondescript. The course instructor entered and he too was pretty generic, middle aged and pale. He started out by telling his story.

Seems that when he was a kid somewhere in the Midwest, a visiting hypnotist had come to town and he had gone to see him perform. In what he’d later realize was an unusual vulnerability to hypnosis, he slipped easily into that state and, jarringly into a past life. Frankly I can’t remember if he was actually the subject of the hypnotist or if he fell into the influence from the audience – the latter seems unlikely. Anyway, he went on to describe, in fairly horrific detail, being a small child running for safety to a root cellar from where he spied his family of prairie settlers terribly murdered by Indians. Of course he had no idea why he experienced it, but a number of years later he took the opportunity to be hypnotized again and this time in his past life he was an adult, hidden away on a mountainside witnessing the slaughter of other settlers by Indians once again. This time he understood it to be a past life and devoted future time and energy to developing the skill to hypnotize himself and travel back to past incarnations.

He ended his presentation and offered that he would now help us all slip back into our own past. He turned the lights down, but traffic thrummed out the window and florescent lights hummed in the hall. At first quieting my mind and focusing seemed unlikely. Still, I had developed some meditation chops and it didn’t take very much for me to still my mind into the desired quiet before going to a “safe place” and then rolling back into something else.

He “woke” us up to wherever we had landed in our minds and asked us to look around. I was in the desert, a barefoot and nearly naked young man in my teens. The soil beneath my feet was sandy but hard and a reddish color. The teacher’s voice instructed us to take note of the year (I want to say it was the 1880’s, but I have trouble remembering that more precisely now) and things like who was President, to take note of our surroundings. I don’t know who was President and at first I thought I was in Tibet – a place I had been twice and had a great affinity for – but I gradually became aware that I was in the American West instead – and that I was a young Native American male. I was aware of being absolutely dirt poor, hungry, and not educated. I was essentially a dumb young kid.

His voice now guided me to go to the day I died and to take note of how I died. Seems like I was killed in a stupid fight with another kid – I don’t know over what. He told us to take care now to apologize to anyone we had hurt. I found myself apologizing to the guy who killed me (maybe I killed him as well?), and then I apologized to my mother and my grandmother. I had left them alone when I died and it had been my responsibility to take care of them. I felt bad about it all, but in a dispassionate sort of way. The instructor now guided us out of the past and into the current moment. He turned the lights on and suggested a break before we spoke about our experiences. Kim and I found a water fountain.

Kim, “Man, that was a waste. Nothing!” I looked at him surprised, “Really?” and quickly told him about my experience. We both wondered if somehow the teacher’s own experiences related with Indians had influenced my subconscious. I didn’t know about that, but I did know I wasn’t looking forward to telling him that I had been an Indian!

After the break we sat back down in our seats. Kim and I were seated about halfway around. Like Kim, not everyone had experienced anything and only two other stories stood out for me that day which I remember. One was a not especially cogent tale of another planet and this stayed with me because the instructor didn’t seem to find that unusual and said it happens – other planets. The other was quite moving. There was a young, attractive woman in her twenties who had found herself a bench at a bus stop near Union Square, but in the 1940’s. It was July and very hot and she was 9 months pregnant. She died in childbirth later, I think the same day. I wonder to this day what brought her to the Learning Annex that evening to have that experience.

As for me, I reported in the most straightforward way possible what I had seen and experienced. It certainly isn’t the past I would have imagined for myself and yet that is what makes it compelling. As someone who has long been interested in Buddhism I can easily accept the concept of a past life, one in an ongoing parade – hopefully ultimately toward enlightenment. The idea of even a brief window onto a self that was so different – impoverished Native American teenager who gets himself killed in a fight over something so stupid that it, unlike these other simple facts, was not indelible through time. Only that I had been young and stupid and gotten myself killed when I should have been taking care of my mother and grandmother remained. I guess the good news is that I got a bit smarter over subsequent lives. The instructor did give me a bit of a fish eye – or maybe I imagined it. But I don’t think my former self was doing any of the killing he had witnessed.

I am not sure Kim believes that my experience wasn’t entirely one of suggestion placed in my mind by the instructor’s own stories. It was a day when I had already had my share of contemplating mortality and it is more than possible that the experience was a combination of what I brought to the table so to speak. All I can say is that bit of time in another body seemed real and different, and the poignant moment of apology one that had been a long time coming.

On that day I certainly didn’t get any insights into the arthritis that troubles me, and it didn’t lead to a desire to do it again and learn about other lives, if that is indeed possible. Instead it left me with a strange sort of shiny spot in my memory. As if out of the dim past one small bit has been brought into high relief. Real or not, I keep it there like a talisman, a lucky penny, dropped from the past into my lap here in the future.

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