Last Friday evening, our family got together with some dear friends in their backyard. We ate veggie burgers at a great distance, but our host declined. Somehow in the mountains of North Carolina, her husband had procured fresh oysters; she was saving herself for them, she said.
Sylvia, as adventurous in food as in all things, piped up. “I’d like to try an oyster,” she said.
Shell in hand, she sipped at the juice. “It tastes like the ocean,” she observed pleasantly but couldn’t bring herself to gulp down the slimy thing inside.
“Do you like raw oysters, Mama?” she asked me, passing hers off to her father.
I shook my head. It was a simple answer to a simple question, but the memories it triggered were anything but simple, for they were among the best and worst of my childhood.
When I was thirteen years old, my mother handed down to me one of her old t-shirts. It was a blue shirt with “I eat ‘em raw at Jay’s Oyster Bar” printed on the front. All in all, it seemed an unlikely thing for my mother to own, as she preferred her oysters steamed and was never one for slogans or souvenirs. Perhaps that is why she had passed it down to me.
At thirteen, I considered my mother the embodiment of cool. She shopped at the Limited in the mall and wore tight, tapered jeans that I coveted. At the time, her whole closet smelled of Chloe perfume, the scent of which seemed to me the epitome of class. I loved it when my mother came to track meets or Open House nights, for I thought that if the kids at school saw me in her presence, a little of her je ne sais quoi might rub off on me and they would see me in an entirely new way.
My mother was very strict about her wardrobe. We were identical sizes at the time, but I was not allowed to borrow her clothes. Because of this, they assumed an almost mythical power. If I could only wear that Chloe-scented, red button-down shirt with the collar popped just once, I felt sure that my schoolmates would say to themselves, “Wow, we were wrong about Erica. She really is cool, after all.”
And so, when the oyster bar t-shirt was passed into my hands, I was hopeful. I suppose I believed in some transitive property of coolness: My mother was cool. The shirt was my mother’s. So, the shirt must be cool. If a = b and b = c, then a must surely equal c.
You probably know where this is going. The first day that I wore the t-shirt when I dressed out for P.E., I was teased mercilessly. I am sure that my mother was oblivious to the sexual connotation of the slogan or she would never have given me the shirt. Unfortunately, it was not lost on the ruthless eighth grade boys at Greco Junior High, and that was the gist of their ribbing. I did not, at that age, fully understand the jokes they made at my expense— and neither, perhaps, did they— but I understood enough to feel both mortified and betrayed.
The other memory is the one that I shared with my friends around the fire last Friday evening.
Growing up, I did not often get time alone with either of my parents. On the weekends, we kids were mostly left up to our own devices, as long as we played outside and were not underfoot. But once a year, my mother took us each to the mall individually for back-to-school shopping.
As with most things that I associated with my mother, this yearly outing verged on the sacred. We lived in central Florida, where August could be brutally hot and humid, so stepping through the double doors into the air-conditioned department store was like entering another realm. To this day I am notoriously indecisive when buying clothes, and I wonder if the seed was planted in those mall dressing rooms with my mom. She would sit in the corner and watch me patiently as I posed and dithered, basking in the completeness of her attention.
When we needed a break, I would follow her eagerly to Mr. Dunderbak’s. Both now and then, Mr. Dunderbak’s seemed an improbable business to find in that Florida mall. After the bright fluorescent lighting of the department stores, the inside of the German deli was as dark as a cave, the air spiced with the smell of ripe cheese and sausages. Years later, when I read to my kids about Harry Potter entering Diagon Alley through The Leaky Cauldron, it was the feeling of entering the dark and pungent air of Mr. Dunderbak’s that came to mind, that sense that I had passed from the garish, everyday world to somewhere truly special.
My mother and I would sit together at a small table in the tiny shop. I was allowed, on those excursions, to order chocolate milk, and although I drank a nearly identical carton of chocolate milk every day with my school lunch, it never occurred to me to equate the two. The chocolate milk at school was cloying and quotidian; at Mr. Dunderbak’s, it was delicious, classy, European. It was the taste of having my mother to myself.
If my mother could be counted on for predictability, it was my father’s spontaneity that I remember best. Knowing my father, it is no surprise that those moments were often of the gastronomic sort. As a teenager, I spent the most time with my father being shuttled back and forth from the ballet studio across town. On rare occasions, I could convince him to stop for frozen lemonade or Dunkin Donuts on the way home, and those treats are etched into my memory, symbols of my father’s love and generosity.
But my most treasured memory of time alone with my father was at DJ’s Oyster Bar, which sat at the corner of a busy intersection a few miles from our house. Where was the rest of my family the night that my dad and I had dinner there alone? My sister must have already been away at college, my mother and brother probably downtown at the youth orchestra or karate. All I am certain of is that the outing was not planned, for I can still feel the spontaneity of my dad swinging the car off Busch Boulevard into the parking lot, the sudden and wonderful realization that we would not be heading home to heat up leftovers after all.
Inside, we wound our way through the tables and sat at the bar in back, where my dad ordered a bucket of steamed oysters for us to share. The man behind the bar shucked them on the spot. It was a relief to me that we would not be eating them raw; the ribbing I’d endured in junior high was still too fresh. There was a white packet of all-you-can-eat saltines on the bar, and thirty years later, I can still remember vividly the soft, musky flesh of the oysters against the salty crunch of those crackers.
Did I like them? I remember that I loved them. But what I loved most was my father’s enthusiasm as we tucked in, seated side by side at the bar, while the oysters in the bucket dwindled to nothing. My father loved those oysters, and I loved sharing in the immensity— the intimacy— of his enjoyment.
I have never eaten oysters since, as if I’ve known that they would never taste so good again.