If I feed you, can I keep you?
I’ve been thinking about the deeper meaning of the kosher dietary laws of Judaism. I do that now and then, for fun. Common wisdom says that these edicts were necessary to avoid contaminated food, back in the days before refrigeration. The rabbis wanted to steer people away from bottom-dwelling clawed critters and pigs that live in their own filth. Less common wisdom—and perhaps the real reason, in my opinion—is that kosher laws were designed to keep Jewish children from fraternizing with and eventually marrying people of other religions. What is sharing a meal if not a bonding ritual, an opportunity for a social interaction?
Although Drawing Breath is not about a Jewish family like some of my other books, the sharing of meals still bonds the characters in different ways. Caitlin Kelly, a budding painter, is sixteen and very fond of Daniel, the art teacher who has been renting her mother’s upstairs apartment for the last six years. Daniel has cystic fibrosis. At thirty-four he’s passed his doctor’s “expiration date” but refuses to give up on his art, his students, and, although he feels it’s remote, the possibility of finding love.
Yet the women in Daniel’s life unwittingly or overtly use food as a social weapon, their way of tending to him and claiming him as their own. His overprotective older sister, Denise, brings groceries every Saturday and throws away food that’s gone bad, even though he’s fully capable of doing this himself and has told her so. On Sundays, Caitlin’s mother, Maureen, invites Daniel to have supper with them. Through this ritual, Maureen can tend to him, like she’s done for others through the many charities she works for.
Over the course of the book, Caitlin’s friendship with him deepens, and the gift of food and care is a safe way to express her affection. She makes him brownies when he’s sick. She brings up the Tupperware containers of leftovers when he can’t come down for supper. She knows from all those meals that he hates broccoli. Along with their shared love of art, knowing what he likes and doesn’t is a way of connecting with him. Even though she cringes when women like her mother and Denise treat Daniel like some kind of freak because of his condition, she sometimes can’t see that she’s as proprietary as the rest of them. And in some ways, even more so.
One day, an interloper arrives, in the form of redheaded Bess, who is rather gaudy-looking, in Caitlin’s opinion. Intent on striking her own culinary bargain with Daniel, she knocks on their front door. She claims she’s one of Daniel’s private students, and wants to repay his generosity by making him dinner while he’s out. Caitlin, home sick from school that day, is feeling especially protective:
“I didn’t think he was taking private students anymore since school started,” Caitlin says.
Bess bites her lower lip. “Well, it’s not really a formal class.”
“I guess that’s why you don’t have a sketchpad.”
“Look.” Bess lets out her breath. Her hair looks wilty. There’s a smudge of mascara beneath her left eye. “I don’t want to get anyone in trouble. But I’ve got twenty dollars’ worth of free-range chicken, buffalo mozzarella, and organic vegetables in this bag. Maybe I could just put them in your refrigerator and come back later when Daniel is home?”
Caitlin considers this. If she takes the bag, Bess will have to come back to the Kelly’s apartment, exposing the woman to more germs she might take to Daniel. If Caitlin sends her away, maybe Daniel will be angry with Caitlin for not letting Bess just go upstairs in the first place.
“Wait here.” Caitlin sighs and fetches the key from the pantry closet.
Thanks for coming back to share more food for thought, Laurie!
Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader,
and former graphic designer. She is the author of two
novels, The Joke’s on Me (4RV Publishing, LLC, July
2011) and Drawing Breath (self-published, May
2012). She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley
withher very patient husband, a commercial
illustrator. Learn more about Laurie at
http://LaurieBoris.com and her Amazon Author Page.