Corinne O’Shaughnessy : Memoir/Essay : March 2020


Southern Legitimacy Statement: Honestly, I don’t really have a Southern Legitimacy Statement except to say my grandfather was born in Texas. He was orphaned at 3 (father was knifed in a barroom on stilts, mother died shortly after from a broken heart, although that’s hard to imagine), left home at 10, and became a wireless operator in the Louisiana bayous. He died before I was born, but I like to think I’ve inherited his spirit. I am a retired New York City public school teacher.


“In your twenties,” my professor Joseph Epstein is saying during our college writing seminar, “life pretty much revolves around sex.”

I am almost 20, sitting very much at attention. My nine classmates and I are in a small, yet unusually comfortable room, tucked away in the library. Professor Epstein is a compact man with a subdued presence…until he starts talking. Then he’s mesmerizing–a story teller you naturally lean into.

“Your social life,” he continues, “centers around: trying to have sex, having sex or talking about the sex you’ve had.”

Bits of my co-ed dorm life, conversations with friends at coffee shops, barbs parlayed with co-workers while stacking new titles at my bookstore job, zip in and out of my brain. Yes, I nod, bouncing up and down a bit in the springy chair, that sounds about right.

This is not a digression, nor a random sharing of insight. Professor Epstein is referring to characters from a short story he has written. One is a forty-something old-world type, an Eastern European Count, who is lured into a relationship with a much younger new-world type. After their first date, young colleagues in his office ask him, “Did you boff her?” or more crassly, “Did you dip your wick?” Questions his contemporaries are not compelled to ask.

“In your forties,” Professor Epstein continues, a few fingers covering his mouth, his pinky and thumb propping up his chin, “your social life centers around food.”

My shoulders slump a little, and I sit motionless. Huh?

“You and your spouse go out to restaurants with other couples and talk about the food,” he continues.  “You talk about how this restaurant’s food compares to the food at previous restaurants. Then you make plans for which restaurant you want to try next.”

I grip the arms of my chair. Blink a few times quickly. Oh dear god, I think, as I begin to comprehend, please don’t ever let that happen to me. Please don’t ever let me become more interested in food than I am in sex. I take a silent vow that I will never, ever succumb to this symptom of aging. 

Twenty-five years later, I’m married with two children. Professor Epstein’s observations all those years ago, are whispering into my consciousness. I’ve probably made 7,000 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and 650 batches of spaghetti sauce. My bare feet are accustomed to stepping on Cheerios, and I have dug entire meals out of the back seat of our car. 

When my younger son was about three years old, he started a stage in his life where he ate every meal as a dinosaur. He’d crawl back and forth on the kitchen table, stick his face in his bowl or plate, grab the food with his teeth, shaking it back and forth to make sure it was good and dead. Sounds emanated from his body that would convince the most knowledgeable paleontologist that we had returned to the Jurassic Period. I didn’t have the heart to make my young dinosaur sit upright in a chair, fork or spoon in hand. My seven-year-old found his brother’s antics highly entertaining, but my husband kept eyeing the high chair with the restraining devices only an adult could undo. 

“Jimmy,” I lobbied, “he’s not going to crawl back and forth on the dais at his wedding.”

But I, too, had to admit, I longed for a meal where dinosaurs did not roam and conversations were not five non-sequiturs shouted above the din of simulated death throes. It would take a few more years to manage the delicate balancing act of no one being sick, room on the credit card, and available babysitters. When my husband and I got the rare opportunity to go out, we went straight to a restaurant. 

I’d spend the entire day in anticipation. Careful thought went into what we would wear. For me, clothing that wouldn’t bind my belly. For my husband, something dark to hide the inevitable drips of sauce or coffee that would end up on his shirt or pants. 

After the hostess shows us to our table, we sink into our seats, knowing we did not have to get up repeatedly for the rest of the meal. We run our fingertips over the crisp white crumb-and-unidentified-sticky-thing-free table cloth, then delicately handle the menu. We savor each choice, our eyes flitting from shrimp cocktail to crab cakes to main courses like truffle risotto and broiled sea bass. We prematurely glance at desserts, then settle on something like the Alaskan King Crab legs and the Branzini special. Savoring our wine, we remind each other to chew carefully, slowly, as we move luxuriously through the courses. Conversation is limited to Mmmm with the crab cakes and Ahhh with the Caesar salads and mmmm, hmmm as we swallow the last of the main course. I let out a faint scream of delight when the waiter brings two crème brulees and an espresso for each of us. Sipping from the tiny cups, we sit back and mentally replay each course of the meal we just ate. We hadn’t cooked it and it was good.

Not too long after my boys grew less meal-time demanding, I read an article Professor Epstein had written about having had open heart surgery. I wrote him a note to tell him I hoped he felt better and by the way, he was right, the forties are about food. He wrote back, with what I imagine was great restraint, to say that he would forebear telling what awaits in my sixties.