(by Aimee Lee Ball)
The modest circumstances of my family did not lend themselves to foreign travel. We had a comfortable life—nice clothes, plenty of food, a house in the suburbs—but neither of my parents had traveled abroad. My dad’s service in World War II was as a pilot trainer on a U.S. Army Air Force base, and he died (much too young, goddam cigarettes) having never been to Europe.
I determined to explore the world as soon as I could afford it, and also determined to show it to my mom.
So one year for my mom’s birthday, when she did not want a party or a present, we arranged to visit my favorite city: Paris. For weeks before we left, I would mention the trip to friends with a little litany of justification (“My mother is having this milestone birthday…”). And one day my mom, who was a little witchy at reading my mind, said, “I don’t think it’s strange that you’re going away with me. I’m fun and I’m cute.”
Ever the journalist, I did voluminous research to make sure we would find the absolutely most pluperfect piece of cheese in the sixth arrondissement. But let loose in Paris, my mom simply went up to strangers on the street and said, “Fromage?” Somehow, her method always worked best.
One of our days in Paris was an unforeseen national holiday—a Day of Ascension—meaning that banks were closed. In my imperfect French, I figured out that there was a money exchange near where we were walking and told my mom to stay put while I went to acquire some cash. When I got back to the corner where I’d left her, she was nowhere to be seen (and these were the days before cell phones).
I circled the area, calling her name, not quite panicking, although ironically feeling what my mom must have experienced when I was little and wandered off while she was conferring with the butcher or drycleaner. Then I came across a sidewalk sale outside of a ladies’ lingerie shop. There was my mom, picking through bargain-priced camisoles and girdles, somehow without speaking a word of French, getting the women of the neighborhood to help figure out her size in metric. (I had a flashback to my mother trying to fit me for my first bra, mortifying me by snapping that AA over my shirt right there in the aisle of the department store.)
On our next trip to Europe, we chose Greece—first time for both of us. Again, Mom provided the laughs. She would somehow chat up a truck driver delivering vegetables at the marketplace, or bond with a pair of Japanese teenagers performing as “Pink Lady” at a tourist site. I loved watching her at a seaside restaurant every night in Athens, where she’d select one of the fresh-caught fish on display to be grilled for our dinner, inspecting its eyes and gills just as she would have done in a market at home—somehow conveying exactly what she wanted with body language of admiration or dissatisfaction.
Traveling with my mom, outside of our normal comfort zone, as companions on an adventure, helped me to see her as the world did, perhaps even helped me redefine her. Throughout our years together, as we made the natural transition from parent and child to two grown women, we tried, mostly in an inchoate way, to figure out who we were to each other over and over again. As it turned out, she was cute and fun. And although we would continue both loving each other madly and occasionally maddening each other lovingly for the rest of her life, I think it was through our travels that we became kinda, sorta friends, although she never relinquished her rights of maternal approval or disapproval.
The most extraordinary part of the trip to Greece was an excursion to Petaloudes on the Isle of Rhodes, a/k/a Butterfly Valley. In late spring, the Oriental sweetgum trees there give off a scent that attracts Jersey tiger moths. On the walking path leading into the valley, vendors were selling bags of fresh apricots, so our mouths were dripping with juice as we arrived at a scene worthy of Hollywood: the air filled with thousands of moths that had become glorious butterflies.
Long after we returned home, Mom and I had a predilection for anything apricot, and I always think of her when it’s on the menu.
1 c. dried apricots
1/4 c. brandy
2 c. flour
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1 stick (8 T.) unsalted butter, frozen or very cold
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. milk
1 egg, beaten
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. almond extract
1/2 c. sliced almonds
In a small pot over medium-low heat, cook apricots with brandy until softened.
Chop apricots and set aside.
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Sift flour, baking powder, and baking soda together.
On the large holes of a box grater, grate the butter into the sugar.
With two knives, cut the butter and sugar together.
Combine milk, egg, and vanilla and almond extracts.
Stir dry mixture into butter and sugar.
Stir in wet mixture.
Stir in brandied apricots and almonds, just until combined.
(Batter will be somewhat stiff.)
Line a 12-cup muffin tin or 6-cup jumbo muffin tin with paper cups, and distribute batter evenly.
Bake smaller muffins for 20 - 25 minutes, larger muffins for 25 - 30 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.
(The brandied apricots all by themselves are great over ice cream.)
(adapted from Epicurious)
1 c. sugar
1 lb. fresh ripe apricots, pitted and sliced
3/4 c. Prosecco
Place sugar, apricots, Prosecco, and 2 c. water in a medium saucepan.
Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until apricots are very tender, 10 - 15 minutes.
Transfer mixture to a blender, and purée until smooth.
Add water so that mixture measures 4 c.
Transfer mixture to a large shallow baking dish, and freeze until solid, at least 4 hours.