Mary in New Orleans, showing Ninth Ward children how
to plant a raised bed.
It’s summer and I just made my first batch of pickles of the year. That meant getting out the canner, which entailed boiling a lot of water, burning a lot of fingers and saying a lot of cuss words. All this reminded me of my adored friend Mary Petruska, who died in May.
Mary was a Manhattan loft artist who transplanted herself onto an old Wildwood farm in 2002. In New York, she had subsisted mainly on takeout food, but having transformed herself into a country mouse she wanted to do the thing properly so she planted tomatoes and enlisted a girlfriend to teach her how to can them.
Her friend took her into a steaming summer kitchen with all the hellish canning accoutrements—kettles of boiling water, pots of boiling tomatoes, hot jars and hot lids—and after one sweaty session and 10 scalded fingers Mary made her pronouncement with typical New York eloquence:
“F--k this s--t!”
Mary continued gardening—one of my favorite sartorial memories is of her out in the fields, leaning on a shovel and wearing an elastic-waist skirt she’d pulled up under her armpits for a dress —but instead of canning her tomatoes she just popped them whole, unblanched and unpeeled, into the freezer in plastic bags. Then, when she wanted to use them in cooking, she’d let them sit in their bag in cold water for 10 minutes, after which the skins peeled off easily.
I hadn’t known you could do that but it works fine. Of course, when you’re ready to cook, peeling and chopping the frozen tomatoes isn’t as convenient as pouring them out of a jar, but it’s faster on the front end and sometimes when I’m out of time I do it myself. I call it the F--k This S--t Technique, or, more family-friendlily, the Petruska Method.
It’s been over a month now since Mary died and there hasn’t been a day I don’t think of the way she did something or what she said about something else, her whole fun, funny, gracious, artistic, inconsistent approach to living. I herewith share my memories of Mary with you in this Bob’s Little Acre tribute to:
The Petruska Method.
When I was young and snotty I used to die laughing at those Helen Gurley Brown books that, amid gales of italics, taught Cosmo Girls how to Live Life. What was funny was the mixture of the lofty and the mundane, like: Girls, integrity and hard work will get you anywhere, treat your friends like gold because they are your greatest natural resource, and remember to rinse all the shampoo from your hair!
But now, older and humbler, I see is that life itself is a crazy mixture of the profound and the practical, and certainly my memories of Mary’s life are. We would talk about the evils of the money system, how much easier it is to have self-esteem when everyone is telling you you’re wonderful as opposed to rejecting your stories or dismissing your art, and what the hell we should cook now that it was too hot to use the oven. (I would ask her that every year.) (She would always say: pasta.)
Mary would say of people: “Everybody’s a mixture of good and bad”; about her incredibly fattening recipe for piecrust (¼ pound butter, ¼ pound cream cheese, a little flour), “So how many pies do you make?”; about social justice, “You meet the nicest people at a protest march”; and about other things, “F- - k this s-- t.”
So my apologies to Helen Gurley Brown because I am fixin’ to mix up the profound and the prosaic as outrageously as she ever did. Furthermore, I noticed lately that I am just as bad about italics.
I get by with a little help from my friends.
Mary frequently said that. She felt as strongly about friends as HGB and she had a positive genius for friendship. She was my best friend, I had no better, but after she died I heard at least two other people call her theirs. And while she was sick? So many old friends came from New York or California or out of the woodwork to say goodbye that when I couldn’t sleep at night I’d count them up instead of sheep. I expect she was their best friend, too.
At Mary’s memorial service all of us guests looked around at each other curiously, the arty types and Southern belles and attorneys and young ladies and old ladies and crazy gardening ladies. Who else could have brought us together but Mary?
We all got up to tell our Mary stories. I am a writer and I read from notes. There was an interpretive dancer and she took off her jacket and went around the circle kicking up her legs and making snaky arm motions. The manager from the Seventh-day Adventist health food store, when it came her turn, insisted that Mary had accepted Jesus as her savior during her last visit. The rest of us took that with a grain of salt. Mary had rejected religion pretty decisively. But I wouldn’t put it past her to let her friend think otherwise. That was another of her tenets:
Avoid unnecessary conflict.
Mary had this theory she explained to me once that relationship-wise, things would wind up the same at the end of the day whether she had screamed and cussed or quietly accepted. Relationship-wise, I think she was wrong. Hers, for the lack of it, demonstrated the constructive value of nagging. I used to tell her she should go back and take a refresher course in Bitch 101.
But in other situations her acceptance was graceful and wise. She didn’t have to prove herself and if some man wanted to prove his manliness she would cheerfully let him hog the chainsaw, or if some woman wanted to prove her kitchen genius Mary was happy to let her cook. If her religious friend wanted to think Mary had become a Christian, where was the harm in that?
In the end, Mary in fact objected to the term “battling cancer.” She wasn’t battling anything, she told me. What was the point? Me, I would have preferred her to rage against the dying of the light, but I could see the value, too, of going gentle.
Speak your mind.
Having said Mary avoided unnecessary conflict, I must add that if there was some good reason to speak up, Mary never held back. She lost her job at the theater from speaking her mind, which seems to me in retrospect the beginning of her journey toward death. But my favorite story about this was when we were protesting the local school board’s decision to cease funding the public library. Then-Superintendent Tobin was explaining that the amount the system paid the library each year could fund somebody’s salary. “Who would you have me fire?” he asked the audience.
Mary didn’t hesitate: “Tobin! Tobin!” she shouted.
The funny part is that she was working part-time then for the school system as a substitute teacher. Not anymore! She never got another call.
Lest I get too heavy, that is what Mary advised me for cutting the garlicky aftertaste of practically everything that comes out of my kitchen. She grew flat-leaf Italian parsley in the garden and also kept a plant in a pot in the kitchen in the winter. She showed me how to chop a fistful of the fresh leaves to temper my famous garlic vinaigrette. The garlic still tastes as good but the parsley complements it and alleviates the aftertaste. This wisdom, with that smattering of Italian words she liked to say— padrone, basta, brava!—she brought home from her year in Italy.
But if people objected to Mary’s own garlicky breath, or anything else about her, she would probably never even have picked up on it. “I’m oblivious,” she said.
She told the story of a famous artist and his girlfriend coming to one of her parties in the New York loft. The famous artist’s girlfriend, thanking Mary for the party, told her as they left, “We never give parties ourselves because our place looks like”—she waved an arm around at the loft—“this.” Until then, Mary hadn’t realized there was anything about her home unconducive to entertaining.
I think her obliviousness was one of the things that made her so good at friendship, and for that matter at parties. (Nobody could give a party like Mary!) She was always so comfortable, you felt at ease yourself.
. After Mary’s death I was talking with a woman she had once described as not particularly friendly. Turned out the woman was a medical professional with such a hatred of cigarettes, she was the first person I ever heard use the term “thirdhand smoke,” meaning the miasma that lingers in clothing or other physical objects that come within a smoker’s pernicious purlieu, which the woman contended could do innocent people harm.
And of course Mary was a smoker. So the woman had disapproved of her to the point of almost blaming Mary for her own early death from colon cancer because of those five or six cigarettes a day she still smoked. Meanwhile, Mary had noticed nothing except that the woman wasn’t all that friendly.
The business about smoking made me wistful. I remembered a day when we pulled to the side of the road to wait out a summer cloudburst. Mary wanted a cigarette and asked if I was sure I didn’t mind her smoking in my car. I was very happy that day and what I was thinking was ha! Like I’d mind anything she did as long as she keeps hanging out with me and being my friend.
That was all I asked of her but it turned out to be more than she could do.
Sorry. Let’s break for another gardening/cooking pointer:
You can freeze practically anything if you don’t know you can’t.
I learned farmwifery from books and I thought you had to parboil, or blanch, squash and other vegetables before freezing them. Mary didn’t know what either of those terms meant—remember, she’d dropped out of Canning 101—and she chopped up squash and greens like collards and spinach straight from the garden and froze them and they tasted fine. I now freeze some of my own squash that way, even zucchini. What comes out of the freezer is not as good as fresh but neither is the parboiled stuff.
Switching gears, here’s another tenet that made Mary good at friendship:
Mary’s Northern friends who came down to see her would always tell me, “If you’re ever in New York…” and I would thank them and never think another thing about it. But if anyone told Mary to pop by sometime, she popped. It’s one of the reasons she knew so many people. She went to family dinners, funerals, people’s houses, wherever she was invited. Why not? She liked people.
After we became friends in 2008, I met local people at her parties I’d never known though I’d lived here myself since 1990. Ironically, one of them was a woman who had recognized me from my newspaper columns and had said several times in passing, “When you’re in the neighborhood, why don’t you pop in?”
Never hold a grudge.
One summer day in 2010—Mary had on another of her skirts-worn-as-dresses—we were having dinner outside on the grass, as we did so often, when Mary’s life’s partner said something to her so mean, untrue and unfair, it made her mad enough to get up and walk away. But when, for some reason, I mentioned the incident a couple of weeks later, she said, really? What did he say?
Mary didn’t believe in nursing grudges and she was constitutionally incapable of staying mad. This was her central tenet and maybe the whole secret to her lovableness. She wouldn’t just forgive, she would actually forget.
It’s 2016 now and I still remember what the guy said that day on the grass. Hell, I remember things my life’s partner said in 1980. He says my memory is better than others’ but I know people with worse who are just as bad at forgiving. Another friend asked me once about someone we both knew: “Refresh my memory: Why do I hate his guts?” (Of course I knew the answer!)
But if Mary forgot the bad parts, there was nothing wrong with her memory of the good ones, and I think I’m going to end this too-long narrative with a story about that. It was the one fight we ever really had and it was about couscous.
Mary was giving her first real dinner party after she broke her leg in 2013. I’d been trying to go over and cook her dinner at least once a week while she was laid up so maybe that’s how I got so bossy in her kitchen. Anyway, that evening, she had cooked some kind of chicken and I had brought the salad (that’s my role in life, I bring the salad), but I pointed out that she hadn’t made rice or potatoes or pasta. She was offended—or more probably alarmed—at the implication there wasn’t enough food.“Bob (her life’s partner) and I are small people and we eat very little,” she said.
Which in turn offended me. I was not a small people and I did not eat very little. “But this is a dinner party and you’re going to serve wine without any kind of starch? People will get drunk,” I said.
At which point another guest, Jimmy Hedges, walked in with a bag of couscous from the Wildwood health food store. Mary had given him the couscous and he had decided he was never going to cook them so he might as well give them back. “Well, there’s the answer to our starch problem,” I said. Because, of course, all you have to do is put couscous in boiling water and bang! Instant Middle Eastern carbohydrate.
But Mary didn’t know that. See, she had a girlfriend who had a boyfriend who was a Moroccan chef and one of his specialties that Mary had learned from him was a salad you made by soaking couscous in cold water, then serving them with chopped tomatoes, parsley and feta. (That was one of the dishes she’d bring to parties—that, grilled Italian vegetables, and a carrot cake she made from a Duncan Hines mix.) She didn’t know you could make couscous any other way. ‘We don’t have time for couscous!” she said.
“Couscous don’t take any time!” I said.
And I don’t remember how it escalated but it ended up with both of us waving our arms in the air, Mary shouting, “If you know so much, you cook the dinner! You cook the dinner!” And me shouting, “If that’s how you’ll feel I’ll just go home right now!”
But while this was going on, she had somehow given me a saucepan and I had somehow put water in it and boiled it with a little salt, and during the worst part of the fight I poured the couscous in.
Every other time in life I’ve made couscous I’ve put in too much water or not enough but this time I had miraculously gotten the proportions just right, and while Mary and I were both in mid-shout, poof! The hard little grains magically puffed into fluffy, perfect, steaming, golden couscous. Mary just stared at the pot and said something like, “Oh.” And I said something about maybe a little butter for the top. Anyway, we stopped shouting and served the dinner.
Everybody had heard the fight and while we ate people kept talking about the couscous. I remember Jimmy saying he didn’t want any more chicken but he had room for maybe one more spoonful of those wonderful couscous. Finally Mary asked somebody to pass the butter because she wanted some to put on these delicious couscous. We grinned at each other and we hugged and made up and never had another real fight. But Mary remembered, and forever after, whenever we ate couscous, she would say, “My friend Robin taught me how to make couscous” and it would make me smile. I’m smiling now.
But the corner of one eye is wet and I guess that’s enough memories, even good ones—and all my memories of Mary are good, even the sad ones—for one sitting.
The couscous fight was the summer of 2013. Jimmy died the summer after that one, he drowned in his lake while Mary and Bob were up there visiting. It nearly killed Mary, too, but still we had one more summer, last summer, to discuss what to cook now that it was too hot to use the oven (pasta!), to grill chicken and hot dogs under the farm’s big sky, and to sit on the lawn drinking Bloody Marys when the tomatoes came in.
When I can tomatoes, I let them cook for half an hour, then strain out the juice, leaving a sturdier product for winter cooking. That homegrown tomato juice, mixed judiciously with vodka, and sipped from home-blown glasses (one of Mary’s million friends was a glass blower) was one byproduct of canning that Mary liked.
Which brings us back to canning, where we started out, so I will stop here. I could talk all day and never pin down the Petruska Method precisely. Suffice it to say that Mary was talented and brilliant and the worst speller I ever knew personally, kind and loving but with a New York snap to her, brave and generous and a little bit psychic, just a magic, magic person I was honored to know and will miss for the rest of my life.
I keep coming across pictures of her—I’m posting one here—and it hurts every time. There’s this dichotomy about death. (A) It seems impossible that the person you spent so many happy hours with is no longer alive; yet (B) all those happy memories begin to seem mythic—was life ever like that, or am I making it up?
I guess all this is what they call the human condition and we have to get used to it. But I don’t understand death. I will go so far as to say I’m against it. In fact, I think I will just end by saying about it, in the words of someone I loved:
“F--k this s--t!”
Mary and me just last summer, giving a party with the 100 chicken wings we won for winning second and third place in a short story contest. When I think of our time together it always seems to be summer and always a good time.