The Lemon Table: Appetite

The Lemon Table, by Julian Barnes is a collection of eleven sweet and acerbic stories centered around the theme of life leading up to death.  Barnes so vividly portrays each character, whose circumstances as they reach the ends of their lives are as varied as their responses, that you will recognize yourself or a family member within the pages.

“The Appetite” was at first my least favorite story, but it has stayed with me.  I hear the voice of Viv’s husband who was once so tender as to declare, “Viv, I want to have a long affair with you, after we’re married.”  Now at the end of their marriage, senility has made him prone to vial and vulgar outbursts but there are still occasional spots of brilliance where the name of a place might bring back a memory told with words that paint a picture.  More and more though, Viv must be content with a simplistic banter that holds a meaning all its own.  Each repeated word, an echo of his former self.

Cup,” he repeats.  By which he means he doesn’t like the way Americans give measures in cups, any fool knows how the size of a cup can vary. He’s always been like that, very precise.  If he was cooking and a recipe said “Take two or three spoonfuls of something, ” he’d get ratty because he’d want to know if two was right or three was right, they can’t both be right, can they, Viv, one must be better than the other, it’s logical.”

Viv continues with what has now become their evening ritual.  She waits till his eyebrows lift, signalling  approval as she calls out dinner options  from the cookbook.  Oxtail Soup perhaps or maybe tonight it’s Steak and Kidney Pie.   Steak and Kidney Pie.  And so she reads the recipe aloud.

Three-quarters of a pound of veal or lamb kidneys.”

“Or,” he repeats disapprovingly.

“Three tablespoons butter or beef fat.”

Or,” he says louder.

“Seasoned flour. Two cups brown stock.”

Cups.”

“One cup dry red wine or beer.”

“Cup,” he repeats.  “Or,” he repeats.  Then he smiles.

And for a moment I’ll be happy.

As stated earlier, it is easy to find bits of ourselves in the characters Barnes puts forth.  I relate to a moment in “The Appetite” when Viv reflects on the irony of her current situation:

From the start he had the better memory, that’s the joke of it.  I used to think that I’d be able to rely on him, on him remembering; in the future, I mean.  Now I look at the pictures of some weekend break in the Cotswolds twenty years ago and think, where did we stay, what’s that church or abbey, why did I photograph this forsythia hedge?”

Partners remember and notice different things.  He makes sense of the map while I can’t take my eyes off the people. He remembers the name of the churches while I remember how they felt.  When you’ve been together for just so long, you let go of having to know or concern yourself with the things that don’t interest you  when you know someone else is tracking them.  It’s not that you can’t, you just don’t.

When I first went back to living on my own, I quickly discovered and took pleasure in the fact that I could handily install  light fixtures, assemble furniture, and put up my own blinds and curtain rods.   Guys have these things called tools, I realized.  Once you learn how to use them, its takes all the mystery away.  And the funny thing is, the tools were always there.

Still, that pride in one’s independence is no doubt sweeter when there is someone to share it with.  So when I turn to the recipe book to make something of the apples stored from my fall harvest for tomorrow’s book group discussion of The Lemon Table, I smile every time I see the word “cup” or think of a substitution to follow an “or.”  Perhaps on a difficult day, Viv adds a “heaping cup” for good measure.  On good days, it is enough just to be familiar.  In recipes and in life, it is nice to have options.  And in the end, precision is vastly overated.

During the First World War, George Leslie Hunter (1877-1931) spent time at his Uncle’s farm, painting in the evenings. During this period his still lifes often involved every day objects sometimes interspersed with a more exotic item, in this case, the tassled fan. This still life also included a partially peeled lemon, in reference to the Dutch masters of the 17th Century that Hunter so admired.

The Lemon Drop Lady

Sweet, sugary Brach's lemon drops. Made with r...

Brach's Lemon Drops, Image via Wikipedia

Today is Valentine’s Day and I have just returned from a highlight and cut. Not because of the day but because it was the only appointment my stylist had open for quite some time and I really needed refreshing. 

In the course of conversation with my stylist, I mention my blog about all things lemon.  The stylist at the next station overhears and inquires, “Well, you must know the ‘The Lemon Drop Lady.’  She is stopping by for a bang trim.”  But no, I have not heard of The Lemon Drop Lady. I don’t often experience such serendipitous moments and am curious to find out more.   The talkative stylist obliges. 

The Lemon Drop Lady was an elementary teacher, now retired and substitute teaching. She is a little woman and as cute as can be; sweet and known for always having lemon drops on hand.  If a student doesn’t feel good?  A lemon drop is the cure.  Having a hard day?  A lemon drop will make it better.  Of course, students may take advantage at times, but no matter.  Mrs. Lemon doesn’t turn anyone away.  Sadly, Mrs. Lemon’s husband died two years ago.  There was a huge turnout for his funeral, for he was almost as also well-loved as Mrs. Lemon.

I am excited to meet this fixture of our community.  I can almost picture her: small floral print blouse, faded denim skirt, comfortable shoes, and gray hair in curls.  And then Mrs. Lemon breezes in.  “Oh, I had the class from hell today!” she exclaims all a-flurry before lighting in the salon chair and crossing her slender legs clad in camel leggings and neatly tucked into dark brown Etienne Aigner riding boots.   She reviews her requirements with the stylist who then graciously introduces us. “I tell you, classes aren’t what they used to be!” she says by way of introduction and I can’t help but nod along. 

We settle back into our seats, continuing to converse even though we are now separated by a mirror petition.  “You know, a few years before I retired,” she shares, “the Superintendent visited our school and I told him, ‘In 46 years no one has ever stopped me from giving out my lemon drops.'”  This was shortly after our board passed a health law about snacks and treats not exceeding a certain sugar and fat ratio.  “I wanted him to know that no one from the district had complained before,” she lowers her voice, as if we are in cahoots.  “And don’t you know!  When he met with our staff at the end of the day, he ended the meeting by telling everyone, ‘I will never be the one to stop her from giving out lemon drops, by God!’  That’s what he said, ‘By God!'”

“I’ve seen a bag of lemon drops go from 79¢ to $2.49,” she continues. “One year, Brach’s called the store I was buying their lemon drops from and wanted to know why they kept selling out when none of the other stores did.  The store told them about me and they gave me a free case!”

“What’s your best lemon drop story?” I ask, thinking of all the children she has encountered over the years. 

“Oh, there are so many,” she sighs.  “You know, my last name is really Melon, but they call me Mrs. Lemon.  I still run into students who are adults now and they remember.   They ask me if I still make those lemon drops!  You see,” she relays, “I used to tell them I made the lemon drops and Mr. Lemon sprinkled them with a special mix of powders and sugars that we gathered from our travels all over the world.  When Mr. Lemon died a couple of years ago,” she confides softly, “students were afraid to, you know, ask me for them anymore.  But I told them it was okay because Mr. Lemon shared his special recipe with me and now I sprinkle on the powders and sugars.”

Mrs. Lemon’s trim is complete and she wraps up our conversation.  “It was so nice to meet you,” she says standing where I can now see her.  I note the stylish petal pink cable knit sweater, manicured nails, and  matching pink quartz earrings.   

“Go home, have a glass of wine, light some candles, and take a hot bath,” my stylist tells her, knowing she will return to an empty house this Valentine’s.

“I will if you will, girlfriend,” I say and we high-five.   Mrs. Lemon schedules an appointment to touch up her highlights in a few weeks and breezes out the door as blithely as she entered.

If you know a Lemon Drop Lady, please don’t reveal the secret behind the magical powders and sugars that she gathers from her travels around the world and sprinkles lovingly over each drop.  And when their sweet and sour powers spread tingles on your tongue, just close your eyes and believe.