I stand, stock still, frozen, immobilized, and more – petrified, but not in the sense of danger, rather in the sense of one once biological, living and moving freely through space, and now motionless rock, stony, solid and everlasting, and I’ve gone and used up all my commas in the first sentence. But I’m like that.
Yes, exactly like that! I’m at a comma in my life. It’s not a period, putting an end to one thought and marking a beginning to the next. It’s not a new paragraph, I’ve already done that and I’m well into it. But it’s a comma, a point where there’s more to this thought, and worth a moment’s pause for emphasis.
It’s a small thing, that short inhale as you continue expressing an idea. Barely noticeable. But when you’re exactly in it, paying close attention to that precise moment, you’re breathless. And here I stand, in my comma, on the high precipice of this moment. I look back over my shoulder at all that has come before, and ahead to all the possibility of that which is to come, and I take stock. In this brief yet timeless instant, in the absolute silence of now, I can look back and take notice, without judgement, of all that has passed. I can see it shape the choices now before me.
Those choices loom large. The moment I take a step, as my foot hits a path, all the other choices change. Some disappear, some alter, new ones appear unanticipated, and down the hill I charge toward the next comma.
Only rarely is that moment recognized. Even rarer do I bother to allow it to belay me, although I should. Taking stock is always beneficial. But it’s rarely painless, so I generally walk on by.
Today, though, it caught me. And I stand breathless on that precipice. Looking backward. Looking forward. All those choices taken and those to come. Today, it’s not a measure of how well I’m doing (never good enough) but simply a notice of where I am. From whence and to whither. And for once, just this one time, at last, I can say: I am content.
This is a good place to be. It’s a good place to have arrived. It’s a good place from which to depart. The array of choices before me are varied and interesting and mostly non-threatening. So here in this motionless moment, lost to time, right here right now in this comma, all is well.
And what more can a person hope for in life, ever? Surely, ecstasy and over the moon thrills etc, but those highs are balanced by all the lows. I’m not talking about that sort of thing, the amplitude of emotion. I refer to taking stock, at any given moment, pausing in your comma. Finding it a good place, and ‘all is well’, is its own kind of thrill.
Pleased, I’m about to plant my foot on my next path. Wish me luck.
I awakened out of a sound sleep, confused. It wasn’t dark in my room, but I was certain it was dark when I went to bed. It’s easiest for me to sleep in deep darkness, so that’s the way I arrange my nights. The room was aglow, but not with the rosy light of dawn. My room was bathed in grays and blues. In seeming darkness, but every object distinct. It was the moon.
And what a moon! Certainly, the full moon has lit the bedroom before. Regularly. This, though, this was different.
I tossed the piles of blankets aside and stepped out on the deck to see.
Now, these musings are always a little intimate – deep dives into my mind or heart. But here you’re going to learn more about me than I planned to tell you, things that make the experience ring true, but that you really did not need to know about me personally. You do need to know, though, if I’m to convey the richness of these moments.
The setting: I live on the side of the mountain, sheltered under hemlocks and poplars, river birch, maple, red oak, and others I cannot identify. The understory of this mountainside forest is great rhododendron, ancient behemoths towering over twenty feet tall, thick with glossy evergreen leaves. All of this serves to make the deck off my bedroom quite private from the neighbors, with houses an acre or more distant, below me on the hillside. It’s wintertime, so the trees are bare, with the exception of the hemlocks, but none of those evergreens are above the deck. In winter, I can see sky overhead.
I live alone. I sleep alone. Pajamas are something I wear until I go to bed. I consult no one about the temperature of my room, so it’s the way I like it, unheated (until the outside temperature dips into the teens) and I pile my favorite blankets and quilts on the bed and burrow under them, in a nest of warmth.
So tossing aside the piles of blankets and stepping outside on the deck in the moonlight this night is a bit risqué, not to mention chilly, but I was not publicly exposed. What I was, though, was standing in pure poetry.
There was a misty rain falling, so silently that it was completely unexpected. Hugging myself for warmth from the chill rain, I took it all in. The world was every shade of bluish gray. Deep shadows were indigo. Bright light was that palest blue that shines off sterling silver. The level of light was that of early dawn or dusk, but washed of all color, save those tinges of blue.
And then, then I looked up, for the moon. I had heard there was a Wolf Moon tonight. Shrugging it off as just one more full moon, I had thought nothing of it and went to bed -early for me- maybe 10:30. Waking up after an hour and a half of sleep is not my routine. Once I’m asleep, I stay asleep until morning. The brightness of this wild moon had pulled me out of slumber. And the reason for the spectacular light was the sky. Overcast, with the thinnest of cloud layers, the sky was nearly white, and completely backlit by the full moon. I looked up at it through the inky deep blue lace of wintry bare branches, watching as wisps of deeper gray clouds skittered and raced across the face of the moon. The moon itself was an indistinct hazy orb of light, with a wide fringed halo extending far beyond the norm for such things. I stood watching the gossamer bits of darker clouds in their frenzy flying past the front of the moon, and I was unaffected by the cold, so deeply mesmerized was I, by this scene. The mist settled on me, definitely falling, like rain, but fine and soft like a falling frost. The world was utterly silent and perfectly illuminated. Still and serene. And like no other earthly landscape I have visited outside my dreams.
Finally, shivering, I stepped back into my room, thinking a hot shower would settle my nerves and I could go back to sleep. But the words kept spinning in my head, the whole time warm water relaxed the chill off my skin. Ethereal. Other worldly. Those skittering dancing filmy clouds chasing each other across the face of the moon. The woven basketry of the inky bare branches between me and all that outer space. The impossibility of a rain so fine and the quiet.
So I bundled up in pajamas, added socks and a sweater, and armed with sweet tea and reading glasses, sat down to share this with you.
And now it’s late, so I’ll publish this and bid you goodnight. I hope you saw the moon.
Decades ago, when Florida first got a lottery, Larry would joke that his retirement plan had nothing to do with working at Martin Marietta, he just needed six numbers.
We trotted that out for years. Every time we bought lottery tickets, we called them our retirement plan. Every time someone mentioned a retirement plan, one of us would pipe up with, “All you need is six numbers.”
Unlike those who think they have a lock on the winning combination, and use the same set of birthdays and anniversary dates to get their weekly tickets, we were a bit random. We didn’t buy tickets often, and were as likely to grab a ‘Quick Pick’ from the cashier, as anything else. It didn’t matter what the numbers were: the fun was in six numbers being our retirement plan.
I was shopping in a catalog this week, and stumbled across a gift package. It was for a pair of personalized bracelets, commemorating anything you please – a wedding, special trip, birth of a child, graduation… retirement. And all you needed to personalize it was six numbers.
I about dropped the catalog. I stood there stunned, all those moments of six number silliness running through my head. Six numbers for retirement. It took a moment to regain my focus and astonishingly, the six numbers were not as I suspected. They didn’t form a date. No, the six numbers were for a location. Latitude and Longitude. Degrees, Minutes, Seconds, for each.
And it hit me. This. THIS is my retirement plan. Because I’ve been on the move as long as I can remember. That’s the thing – to keep moving. To travel. To see, to experience, to go and do. Changing latitude. Changing longitude. Gathering all those numbers, six new ones every time. And since retirement, heaven knows, I’ve accumulated an impressive collection of six numbers! I’ve cruised the Mediterranean and been to Spain and Malta and sailed across the Atlantic and hiked the volcanic ridge in the Azores and had Turkish coffee in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and made pasta in Florence and eaten fresh sardines on the coast of Portugal. I’ve tasted grapes from the vines in California and remembered the Alamo and played hide and seek with the prairie dogs at Devil’s Tower and watched the mist rise off the lake so far north in Minnesota that even the fish are Canadian. I’ve danced in biker bars and shopped in the bookstore that inspired the moving Hogwarts stairs in the Harry Potter novels and stayed in a palace and a monastery and a spa and a 17th century inn and a teepee. I’ve made friends all over the world, and even revisited a few. I’ve learned to order beer in five languages and can lie in four of them. And there is so, so much more ahead. In truth, changing latitude and longitude, travel and collecting those six numbers from so many unique and diverse places, really is a fabulous retirement.
So if you ask me, the result is just the same. Having all those experiences? It is exactly like winning the lottery.
So often, I question my choices. Some of them are impossible to recant. It’s a matter of gathering all the information I can at the moment, measuring the options, and then making a leap of faith.
And some of those choices are fraught with emotion, which is what I faced as I stood in the closet, looking at Larry’s shirts, hanging exactly where he left them.
Let me take you back to a cruise ship in the Caribbean, some ten years ago. Larry and I had booked back-to-back cruises, and had sailed the first ten days with friends from Canada. They’d returned home, and other friends had joined us for the second cruise. But the first one had taken about all the energy Larry could muster. We were both alarmed at how quickly his breathing became labored. And having been told at an early age that his condition was terminal, we were both concerned that this was the end. We spent the trip saying our goodbyes over tears and coffee for breakfast each day. And then we pressed on and savored each moment of the day. Larry was pretty sure he wasn’t ever going to return home. He had resigned himself to dying on the ship. That was Our Little Secret from our friends. And while Larry held up the pretense and made sure to put on his best face for our friends, it was a bit more than I could shoulder.
Of course I confided in the folks traveling with us. Very much on the QT, but they were tremendously supportive. And Larry and I continued to make sure nothing was left unsaid between us, those tender moments in the early hours. We took a lot of comfort in the absolute certainty that we were in love and had no regrets. Ten years later, I have to say, those days were powerful lessons for us, and the impact of those tearful mornings enriched our marriage like nothing else could have.
After coffee, it would take Larry a while to get his day started. He would begin the morning mostly in slow motion, and then there were medications and breathing treatments before he would shower and dress and emerge from the cabin to greet the day. I took that time to abscond to the upper deck where I could sit with another cup of coffee and my journal, where I could pour out my angst without upsetting him.
I met a young woman on the deck. She had a willing ear and I had a need to share my story and unloaded the whole thing on this girl, as yet unmarried and childless and with little to prepare her for this middle-aged woman’s trauma. But she listened with care, offered what comfort and kindness she could. And she let me talk. And we decided to keep in touch.
Fast forward a million years or ten, and I was standing in the closet trying to force myself to take Larry’s shirts off the hangers, fold them up, and donate them to charity. I couldn’t do it. I walked out. And when I sat down with my ipad and signed into facebook, there was my young friend – now ten years older and wiser and married and a busy mother of two. I’ve been following her for a very long time, and periodically comment on her posts, which are usually filled with self-deprecation and wry humor and a healthy dose of dismay at the workaday life of a mom. But this day, she was posting about making quilts, about, “…a quilt made from a sweet mama’s dress. She was taken from her babies too soon.” And I knew exactly what I wanted to do with those shirts.
There was a lot of back and forth discussion, about how these are not artful quilts, but rag quilts. And about how I thought the backing should feel like a teddy bear, and whether the pockets should be there, and about stars. The stars are just especially meaningful to me. I never doubted that I was doing the right thing. The decision had the sense of peace about it that you only get when you know you’re heading in the exact right direction. It didn’t matter that she only makes rag quilts. To me, that meant that I was supposed to get a rag quilt. Because it is imbued with history – not only the history of Larry wearing those shirts, of buying them and washing them and packing them into suitcases as we went off to see the world together, but also including the history made on that cruise ship of tears with coffee and a sweet understanding young woman. We are all in this quilt.
Today, it arrived. I admit, I was nervous about opening the box. I opened all the rest of the mail first. I even read the advertisements. Finally, I carefully cut the tape at the end of the box and oh so gently opened it. Inside, naturally there was a sweet note (tied with a shell and a piece of coral – this is Florida) tied with ribbon around the tissue paper wrapping. I eased out the quilt and my heart skipped a beat.
There. Familiar patterns in a jumble of fabric. Memories rushing in of the time I fell asleep against this shirt or that, a flash of a day at the beach, or a chili party, or the times I nagged him to button his pocket so it would look tidy.
I pulled it to my face and cried hard. The backing is plush and heavy and thick and beautiful and feels just exactly precisely and perfectly like a teddy bear. The way a rag quilt is constructed means it’s just as warmly welcoming on the front, too. It’s magnificent. More than I could ever have expected. Stars are fashioned from the cloth of one shirt onto another. It’s all there, all the different patterns and colors and the memories of every shirt are seared into my skin as I’ve held my husband in my arms so many, many times, in each one.
Through a veil of tears, I saw an unbuttoned pocket on the quilt. A smile for Kelly. I had told her I would sleep with this quilt next to my pillow, and she had expressed concern about buttons stuck on my face in the morning. I gently buttoned the pocket and moved to button another. But wait. There’s a bit of plastic sticking out. What’s this? Oh. Oh, my. It’s a bag with a wadded tissue in it. Well damn. I guess I hadn’t laundered that shirt. Because Larry was always jamming a wadded fresh tissue in his pocket, heading out the door. She had put the pocket into the quilt. And put the tissue, carefully wrapped, back into the pocket. There is a heart there that goes beyond my understanding. This woman is an angel. Thank God I recognized her when I met her the first time. I asked God for an angel to look after me now and then when Larry died. Today, it was Kelly Gaudette. I tucked the bag, with its precious cargo, back into the pocket, and oh so carefully buttoned it closed.
The Sun and Moon sculpture, from Venice, hangs on my wall as a tribute to me and Larry. It was our ‘thing’. He wore a sun charm on a gold chain. When we fell in love, I gave him a lady-in-the-moon charm, because I told him he brought me into the light. He was still wearing both the day he died.
A year earlier, this papier mache sculpture had me and both his daughters in tears in the store in Italy, and it’s a treasure.
We three Wicked Women (I’m the wicked stepmother, they’re the wicked stepdaughters, and we are the Wicked Women, in the Boston sense of the word) were having a Carnivale adventure together, in Venice, Italy. Larry was very much with us on that trip. He slept when we slept, on his side of the planet, and was constantly on one of our phones, texting and video chats and sharing photos. He talked to waiters and shopkeepers and chefs and the people at our hotel. We walked him down the twisty alleyways and showed him gondolas and bakeries and the Grand Canal. But our phones were off the evening we entered the mask maker’s little gallery, and we were all thunderstruck by this piece. Hurried discussions ensued about who was going to buy it, which of us could most appropriately own it, how we were going to share this symbol which had expanded from a love story to embody our blended family so well.
If our family has a crest, this is it.
In the end, it was the stunning price. I was the only one willing to shoulder that. The elder immediately found a smaller piece representative of the same sun and moon symbology, and purchased that one for herself. The younger contemplated for a moment and looked at me and asked, “Could I inherit it?” Absolutely. And the transaction was made. And then she said, “Oh, look. She is sleeping in his arms.”
And I just died. In the nicest way. For years, Larry was unable to sleep lying down. He would sleep on the sofa, which had recliners built in. And he’d pull a pillow onto his lap, and I would lay there while we watched TV and invariably, I’d fall asleep with Larry playing with my hair or rubbing my shoulders. (Until a little rock and roll music played. Then the drummer awoke and I’d find my arms and back and even my head being played like conga drums. Ha! I never minded being Larry’s drums. It made me laugh. And I’d snuggle back down and go to sleep when the music ended.) It was a special thing with us, the business of falling asleep against him. It seems that on his first date, back in high school, he took a girl to the drive-in movies. She fell asleep against his shoulder during the movie, and Larry came home devastated, and told his mother about it. She, being a very wise mother, told him that he had been paid the highest compliment, because that girl clearly trusted him enough to be vulnerable in sleep. So each time I dozed off during whatever movie Larry was watching, he treated it as a compliment, and a testimonial to the trust I had in him. One day, having shuffled off this mortal coil, I hope to be able to thank his mother for that.
And now, looking at this particular sun and moon, that’s all I see. His comfort. Her trust. Their love.
purchase made, we had it shipped to Orlando, where Larry was waiting.
It arrived in the States before I did. He called the moment it
arrived. He was astounded at how perfectly it suited us, as if we had
commissioned it ourselves.
I had the silver star garland all over the tree for what turned out to be Larry’s last Christmas, and was draping over everything in sight, including everything hanging on the walls. When I took the decorations down, Larry asked, “Can that bit on the sun and moon stay up? I really like that.” And there is stays, today. It’s part of our story.
I’m so glad I have stars in unexpected places. They’ve always held more appeal than little hearts. Hearts are adorable. Stars just seem to hold the promise of the universe. So adding them to our sun and moon makes the picture complete.
Recently, I returned to Venice. Alone, I wandered into a familiar looking store and lo and behold it was the exact one. There was a similar piece on the wall and I asked about the provenance. I was given the artist’s name and information, and wrote to him about the sun and moon I have. He responded, “SoleLuna. The circular shape alone is a symbol of the never ending circle of life. Placing a half moon and half sun inside the circle supplies even more meaning. The sun is often recognized as a symbol of rebirth, strength and power. The moon is associated with the female in many cultures often in the form of a goddess.” I sent him a photo of ours, complete with the little star garland, and told him a bit of our story.
This is the first important piece I ever purchased. SoleLuna.
Sole. Luna. And the stars. So here at my home, it’s sole luna… e stelle.
Ok, y’all get ready for some really heavy stuff. This is the real deal. Meaning of life and all that. Seriously. Now maybe y’all don’t think I’ve got what it takes to talk about that. But you’ve all heard me say, just about forever, “This is the romance of the century. I just don’t have time to write the book.” Well, here it is. Distilled. The essence of why that works, how it happens, what makes it real. And it’s not that Larry and I were so special (of course, though, we were and we are, but so are you) it’s just that we took care to recognize what was happening, while it was happening. We paid attention. We took note. We gave credence to it, and treated it with care, with the reverence it deserves.
And you’re still reading, so you’re asking yourself what this ‘it’ might be. It’s love, of course. Isn’t everything? But that’s such a general term, used in every hackneyed greeting card sentiment. It’s selflessness, giving. Ditto. It’s not going to be summed up in a word. I have to tell you about us.
Larry was diagnosed as a teenager, with a terminal disease. That is, he was told he only had a short time to live. He was 14 years old, and told he would not survive his teens. By the time I met him, at 33, he’d had surgery to remove one lung, had been in and out of the hospital and told he was dying every single year since. So when he asked me to marry him, I was faced with the daunting prospect of marrying a dying man. Told you. Heavy stuff. It didn’t take a lot of convincing, though, that whatever time I could have with him would be better than skipping the sad part. (I had no inkling, then, what being a widow meant. The sad part, indeed.) And frankly, I was 29 years old, and that’s not a particularly bright age –apologies to twenty somethings everywhere, I promise, each decade will bring its own enlightenment – so I had a youthful point of view. If I was only going to have Larry five years, I imagined I would have Larry, exactly as he was, for five years, and then I would not. That’s as far as my mind stretched. I didn’t fully understand his disease, although to be fair, neither did the medical community, but deterioration wasn’t part of my thought process.
And miraculously, thankfully, I had that man for thirty years. Three entire decades. And we spent the first decade dealing with that prognosis, battling it like an enemy, fending it off, and raising children and having careers and making a life the same as every couple in their thirties does. We battled each other, too, and emotions ran high – love and anger and laughter and sorrow – and somehow, we came out the other side, children reared, careers settled, and the next twenty years took shape in the mountains. I was running a bed and breakfast, and taking care of Larry. At first, he was helping, whenever and however he could. But progressively, he just could not. Others filled the roles he’d once held. Handyman. Photographer. He became more and more housebound and as a result, so did I.
And through it all, I was sure I was the most pampered, spoiled wife on the planet. And Larry was sure he was the lucky one. You hear that, now and then, in a particularly successful marriage. I want to tell you what it means. In my case, it means I was married to a wonderful man, with whom I was head over heels in love, and he had only a short time to live. For me, that meant that every decision was based on making sure that he had the richest experiences. That his dreams all came true. If he wanted something, it became my quest to obtain it. If I overheard him mention something he would enjoy, it became my quest to make sure it happened. In time, every decision I made was based on making sure that Larry had the absolute most wonderful life possible. And of course, without having any idea it was unfolding that way –something I’ve only learned in hindsight- I was making sure I had the same.
Because, you see, Larry was doing the exact same thing for me. He knew he only had a short time, so he wanted to make the most of it. And for him, making the most of it meant being in love with me. How do I know that? Because he told me all the time. All. The. Time. Every single day. We had a little ritual of toasting every day. With wine glasses, with coffee cups, with cheetos or the remote controls. Didn’t matter. The thing was, we had to look each other in the eyes and mean it. Even on the crappy days. That’s not always easy, folks. But we did it. So yes, I knew he loved me completely. And he knew I loved him. That wasn’t ever in question.
Over time, this developed into a giving relationship, and I mean everything was a gift. Everything I did was a gift to Larry. And everything he did was a gift to me. I never sat a plate of food in front of that man that he didn’t light up and say, “Wow!” Ok, occasionally it was with humor, but he always followed it up with a thank you. And for most of our lives together, Larry cooked, a lot! And received the same accolades and the same thanks. Whoever cleaned the kitchen got thanked. Hang up the clothes from the dryer? Thank you! Make iced tea, you are so wonderful. Take out the trash, oh gosh thanks. Bring me ice water, you are a blessing. Because each of these was treated as a gift, by the giver and the recipient. And when your focus is on giving the one you love gifts throughout the day and throughout the years, there is no time to focus on what you don’t have, whether that is time or energy or things. You’re far too focused on love.
And there you are. Together.
“I’m the spoiled one.”
“No, I am.”
And while making Larry’s dreams come true, I accidentally made myself this magical life. And he made his magical life making my dreams come true. When every single thing that you receive all day long is a gift from the one you love, it gets pretty easy to live a life of gratitude.
Think about that for a moment.
When everything you receive all day long is a gift from the one you love…
I’m pretty sure we live this life in the singular. We come into it alone, we go out alone, and we live all the in-between alone. That’s not to say we don’t have company. Family, friends, community, humanity, it’s all there. Around us. With us, even. But you do live in your own head. Alone. (Except for that nagging, incessant voice that won’t shut up, especially when you’re trying to fall asleep, but even that’s just you.) And while we make this journey in the singular, we do find companions to share the trip, to walk alongside us, and there is joy and satisfaction in that.
The plurality that comes with friendship and family and marriage, is more a one-plus-one than an equals-two. Your singularity isn’t replaced with duality. It’s paired with another’s singleness. Finding your partner in life, your mate, your soulmate, will not relieve you of your oneness. You walk your journey alongside that person. And when you’re weary, he’ll stop beside you, and allow you to rest your head on his shoulder. And when he is injured, you carry him. And when there is joy, you dance! But your journey is, daily: your journey. Yours alone. Each day, you decide to continue in the company of your mate. Each day, albeit with a heavy price, you have the option to remove yourself from this pairing. That’s the nature of the singular pilgrimage.
I don’t wish to discount that which is created by our pairings. You plus me, my friend, we are more than just a pair, walking singly side by side. We create a friendship, a relationship, love, and a shared history. Neither of us have that alone; it exists because we share this walk together. And this phenomenon is why we seek others. It’s why we search for our soulmates, why we forge friendships and alliances.
But what to do when your soulmate’s journey ends before yours… You aren’t gone. You didn’t die. Your pilgrimage did not come to an end. You stop. You rest. You feel the great loss of that shoulder upon which to rest your weary head, the place you’ve become accustomed to resting. And the one person you’ve relied upon to shore you up during difficult times, that’s the one who is gone. The very one you need most to help you weather the loss, that’s the one who is missing, leaving only empty space beside you. There you are, still on your path, still with a journey ahead of you. You’ve lost more than a traveling companion. You’ve lost more than your place of rest. You’ve lost that which you created together: the friendship, the love, and the shared history is now only your memories. It only lives in that voice in your head, talking to you as you try to fall asleep each night. So much is gone. So much.
And yet, you journey. This isn’t a matter of choice. Each on a singular pilgrimage, weaving in and out of each other’s paths, forging alliances, making a difference, love and hate, comfort and fear, good and bad, weaving our tapestry of individual threads. Yours is blue and mine is yellow, and looking back from a great enough distance, we see green. But we know. In our hearts, we know. Blue. Yellow.
Time, life, it all goes on, even while we stand still in our paths and grieve, or rest… or dance, when we can.
How many thousands of times have I said, “Once you’re my bride, you’re
always my bride!” I’ve meant it, too, every single time. The brides
that pass through these doors carry a bit of my heart away with them.
The grooms are my heroes, knights in shining armor, sweeping their
darlings into their arms and taking them off on great adventures, as
they Happily Ever After.
Wendy and Ever After met face to face. This woodland faerie sprite of a
creature, joyful and loving, whisked into my life one October
afternoon, and promised to love Blake for the rest of her life. And so
she did. So she did.
on this day, nearly a year after losing my own true love, I can offer
no words of comfort to Blake. I can say comforting things – of course.
And I can give excellent advice, things that have helped heal my own
heart. I can say to him: find your gratitude, and live in it. Search
hard and dig deep, for the things that she meant to you, and hold them
dear. Be grateful. Be thankful. It will get you through. And later,
maybe, those words will help. But not today. Today is for the
heart-wrenching gut punch of grief. The relief to see her stop
suffering. The guilt for the relief. And the overwhelming sorrow that
drops you to your knees and makes you cry out in an unfamiliar voice.
Today is for sadness, and while I can’t help with that, I can empathize.
Sometimes, that’s enough.
For Blake: I can offer you this. I love the way she looked at you. The way she lit up when you came into the room. I saw her light up like that once when she was facing me, not you, and you came in behind her. She knew you were there, and just glowed with pleasure. It was the day she made us the turkey dinner at the Creek House. The day she taught me to cook the turkey upside down, to keep it moist. A day filled with laughter and newness and discovery and two couples head over heels in love with each other.
married a lot of couples. A lot! And they’re all in love and they’re
all promising Happily Ever After, but not all of them share what you
had. What you still have. I saw a kindness and a tenderness in you
that I doubt you shared with the rest of the world. You didn’t shine it
on me, or on Larry. But you lavished it on Wendy. I saw it while you
were in Maggie Valley. I saw it again, over and over, when we went on
And I can give you one more thing: I don’t know if this will fit into your world. It does in mine. I realized one day that just because Larry died, didn’t mean I didn’t love him any more. So. I’m a woman in love. And being in love is a joyous thing. Every so often, in those first moments, first days, first weeks after losing him, every so often, a little glimpse of the joy of loving him shone through. Be watchful for them. They will sustain you.
And always know that when you were gazing at her, your heart so full, she was doing the same. If she can, I’m sure she still is. I wish you peace, my friend.
Ok, so this is enormous. My esteemed and much admired son-in-law lives
all the way out in California, three thousand miles and a couple of
lightyears away from me, here in Central Florida. We are separated by
distance, states and rivers and mountains, time zones and the
Continental Divide, age and gender and politics. And yet I love him
more than ice cream. This fellow is dear to my heart. And clearly, he
loves my stepdaughter, because he stays married to her in spite of
having two, count ’em two, -shall we say ‘challenging’? mothers-in-law.
As it is with most parents, it is an ongoing thrill for me to watch
them organize their lives into workaday and parenting and being a
happily married couple, a vibrant part of their community and productive
members of society. We love to see our children thrive. But I’d like
to think that even if I’d never met them, I would admire these people.
The fact that my son-in-law enjoys my company is hugely satisfying, and I
am grateful for it.
During my visit to them last fall, I stole away with said son-in-law to do a bit of necessary shopping (I needed something protective for the wine bottles I intended to transport in my luggage) and he chose the time to show me the sights. We stopped into the Jack London Square ‘First & Last Chance Saloon’ est 1883, and sat at a rickety table on a crooked floor and tipped back a cold one. Steeped in literary wonder, we talked about my book clubs back in North Carolina and Florida and he suggested, much to my surprise, that we two have our very own book club. Just the two of us. I was reeling, and it wasn’t attributable to the architecture or the alcohol. It was the notion that he’d be willing to share such an experience! Reading a book at the same time, discussing chapters, talking about what the author must have been trying to convey and how it resonates with you, how it changes you (because books change you) is something that cements friendships and relationships in a way other things do not. It is an intellectually intimate process. And you know both yourself and your friend on a level not anticipated before you started. So this. This was big, all right.
I was delighted when he said we could begin with Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain. It’s a book I kept intending to read, but had not. I was eager to begin, but you know how life is: it interferes with pretty much all your plans. So here I am, months later, ready to start.
Meanwhile of course, there are those other two book clubs. It’s winter now, so I’m in the Florida club. It’s a long established group and they’ve been generous about including me. The books are interesting, the process more formal than the fledgling Carolina group, but I enjoy both clubs for different reasons. I’ve just gotten the next book for February in Florida. It’s a biography and not particularly interesting to me, but I’m sure once I start reading, it will capture my attention. Biographies are like that – I enjoy them. It’s just not one I’d have chosen. That’s the beauty of a book club, you never know what you’re going to get.
The Carolina book club chats online. It’s one of my favorite things about them. It’s very rarely about the books. We save that for when the group gathers for discussion each month. No, the online chat is typically very social. We talk about our kids and household projects and the weather and vacations and share all sorts of silly memes, generally book related. A woman recently shared a picture of a book cover with a moving story of reading that book to a sick friend. The conversation was about the process of reading aloud to another person, and I was reminded how very much Larry enjoyed it when I’d read to him. I never did read to him in the hospital. When he was there, even for extended periods, even unconscious on life support, I never did read to him. I just talked to him, as if everything was fine. Rubbed his feet. Combed his hair. You know, stuff. But not reading. Now in hindsight, that would have been nice, too, but I have no regrets on this matter. Conversation made it feel more normal, and more like he would wake up just fine, any moment. So I didn’t read to him there.
I read to Larry at home. We started rather incidentally, on a long night-time drive. We were on the highway, far from a city, and radio stations were sporadic and static filled. Larry said, “I don’t want to fall asleep. How about finding something to read to me?” And we had such a good time, I read whole books to him, on a regular basis. It was way more fun than watching TV. I’d read to him. He’d rub my feet. It was lovely.
So today, I finally got around to checking out Kitchen Confidential from the library. I generally do this electronically, and read it on my iPad. Today, two copies appeared on the screen: an ebook, and an audiobook. Oh my. I hadn’t thought about getting an audiobook. But those things are chopped up and never quite what the author intended. And if you’re reading, especially nonfiction, half the fun is trying to ‘hear’ the author as intended. I noted the big red band across the audio version. It said, “Unabridged!” And then, my breath caught in my throat, because underneath, in very small print, “Read by the author.” By the author. By Anthony Bourdain. Anthony Bourdain, who died last summer, who I’m never going to get a chance to meet in person, who I admired so much, who would not mind one bit that I’m not using ‘whom’ in this sentence… Well. I clicked on the audio version.
Bourdain is going to read me his book. Himself. I won’t have to wonder which syllable or word he wanted to emphasize. He’ll be doing it. Every nuance of what he wanted to convey is going to be given to me, like a gift. Like he’s talking, right to me. Everything he wanted to tell, what he wanted me to know, he’s going to say. Like a book club with two members, just me and Tony. Like a long lunch. Like old friends.
And then, to share all of this with my son-in-law. I’m blown away. This is going to be the richest experience! I couldn’t wait to share it with you all. Signing off, turning up the speakers, off I go, to Parts Unknown….
Ok, let’s get this straight from the get-go: I’m not going to cry. Got that? No crying. Because yesterday I acted on a crazy impulse and had my eyelashes ‘done’. I didn’t even know there was such a thing and poof, today I woke up with eyelashes you could actually see in the mirror, and no great mascara raccoon eyes underneath, no blobs I should have washed off the night before, just beautiful silky black lashes like all the other people in the world enjoy, except us redheads and a few especially pale blondes. For me, this is an astonishing transformation, and I’d like to keep it that way. Particularly because of the whopping $225 I laid out for this lark, and full awareness of the seventy bucks it’s going to cost every time I need an overhaul. (Euphemistically called a ‘fill’ by the person on the receiving end of said dollars.) Not that the woman creating all this magic doesn’t earn every penny – she does! For more than two hours, she painstakingly attached one long black lash to each of my short red ones. She encouraged me to step out and ‘go all glam’ but I demurred, insisting that single, unfluffy, classic, normal length lashes in a traditional black (you’d be surprised at the options!) suited me just fine. When it was finished, I was impressed with the transformation. This look is what I strive for, but never quite achieve, when applying makeup. Now, it’s effortless. I’m batting my eyes at you right now. Trust me, they are pretty. I like them plenty. And the aesthetician (thank you, spell check) admonished me not to cry for at least 48 hours. So. There will be no tears.
Tomorrow is Veterans Day. Larry took the photo of the flag back in 1999. People are always surprised when they ask for a favorite holiday and I answer with Veterans Day. But this is mine, and for more than one reason. The obvious: I’m a vet. It’s such an honor to stand with pride when presented with an opportunity to do so, in any group of vets. It’s moving, to salute the flag as a civilian, hand over heart, instantly recalling the thrill of being able to salute it as a soldier. I remember, when I was in the Women’s Army Corps and later the US Army, each evening at dusk when the flag was struck and the bugler played To The Color. Everyone on base was expected to stop what they were doing and honor the flag. Career soldiers would scoot inside where they could continue whatever they were doing uninterrupted. But for me, saluting the flag was a privilege and I would walk a little slower to my car, just to participate. When someone says, “Were you in the military?” I stand a little taller when I say yes. It’s a point of pride. I’ll never get used to the current thank you for your service response, because I reserve that for the people who have been at war. My own service, although at the end of the Viet Nam era, was all stateside. But like all of us, I went where I was told to go, where I was needed.
But there’s more. For me, Veterans Day marks an anniversary. Once upon a time, one November day in 1987, my sweetheart stood in a jewelry store, having a diamond mounted into an engagement ring. I waited out in the mall, smoking what would be my last cigarette of my pack-and-a-half a day habit. I would have to trade the habit for the ring. This man I loved had to fight for his oxygen. If I wanted to be a part of his life, I couldn’t very well make that fight harder. So I was out in the mall thinking, “Wait. Don’t propose yet. Just one more.” But I stubbed it out and walked away. And Larry came out of the jewelry store and said, “Let’s go.” He’d been rehearsing exactly what he wanted to say. All I had to rehearse was, “Yes.” We headed over to the Sea Grille, a special restaurant where Larry had out of the blue, and quite publicly, kissed me for the first time, scaring the living daylights out of me and changing my life forever. He thought that would be the right place to propose. But when we got there, he was clearly uncomfortable. And boy, so was I. He was about to order drinks and I was about to attempt a cocktail without a cigarette. Hmmm. You could say I was distracted. And Larry was squirming in his seat. I thought it a bit odd that he’d be so nervous when the outcome was a given, but it turns out, he’d had a change of heart. Not about me. Not about getting married. About the venue. “This is all wrong,” he said, and escorted me out.
We went back to the house. He put on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and proceeded with the most long-winded convoluted proposal, evidently winging it, stumbling for the next sentence until with a sigh of relief he asked, “Will you marry me?” When I said yes, he kissed me, of course… but he had timed it for the bells at the beginning of the Time soundtrack. For the three decades that followed, he kissed me every time that song began. We raised four children who knew that when Time started to play, they needed to get out of the way because no matter where we were in the house, we would find each other for that kiss. Damn. No crying. No tears! I like these lashes. Whew. Ok.
Well maybe just one tear, for the time I forgot to take the Dark Side of the Moon CD out of the player when Larry was out of town, and had the player set to ‘random’. When Time started, the kids all froze. I didn’t know what to do. And then Gary, who was four, came running up to me and said, “I’ll kiss you, Mommy. I love you.” I said, “I love you, too, sweetheart,” and he said, “I love you three.”
Ok. Misty. No tears. I got this.
Larry kissed me at the Sea Grille August 14, 1987. He proposed to me on Veteran’s Day, 1987. We were married August 14, 1988. Dates are important to us. Dates matter. But they aren’t sacred. We moved holidays around to suit us, or family obligations. We celebrated in silly ways. Larry took me to Burger King for my birthday and wedding anniversary. He bought me things for Christmas if I asked for them. (Once, I told him that the most romantic thing I’d ever seen was when Rigo filled Audrey’s Christmas stocking and included emery boards. It was just so thoughtful. And every single Christmas after that, there were emery boards in my stocking.) I got roses on my anniversary, one red rose for every year of marriage, and one white rose for the kiss. But he reserved all his energy and creativity and grand gestures for November 11th. Veteran’s Day. He would laugh and say it was because it was the day I quit smoking. But I knew. I knew how proud he was to be married to a vet. And I knew he was marking the day he proposed. And he’d put on Pink Floyd. And Time would play. And he’d kiss me, and I’d hear bells.
I’m going to ruin these stinking eyelashes at this rate. Well. Who
needs eyelashes when you’ve had Larry Wright for thirty years? I win.
See ya later.
We’ve all been there, or known someone who has. It’s last call, we’re
pushing the line of being over-served, a bit worse for the wear, maybe
not staggering drunk but long past tipsy. Time for the taxi or the
designated driver or the dreaded phone-a-friend option. We’re thinking
about keeping the party going, and then sleeping it off. Some of us
have favorite hangover cure recipes. Some of us just grab a couple of
aspirin and pull the covers over our heads. We probably don’t have
rehydration at the top of the do-list, while the bartender recites the
adage, “Closing time. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay
But we should. We’ve all heard the admonitions about it. Even non-drinkers know the whole drink plenty of fluids drill. And a binge leads to dehydration, which is only going to make things worse in the morning.
Since losing my sweet wonderful Larry back in February, I’ve been dealing with a lot of stuff. Not just the emotional fall-out, but the actual stuff, not the least of which is a whole bunch of medical equipment and supplies. I’m thrilled at the amount that went out with Larry’s home health nurse, which she was able to get to Doctors Without Borders in Haiti. That’s fantastic. But I have more. Lots of it in Orlando, not just Maggie Valley. It’s really overwhelming. And I still have some of Mom’s old furniture in the house that has to go. The really tattered stuff has gone to the curb. The usable has gone to family, Habitat for Humanity, and I listed some medical equipment on facebook marketplace and craig’s list.
I’ve had quick a flurry of responses on facebook. Until today, my favorite was Jeffrey, in Tennessee. I listed an IV pole for $15. Jeffrey wanted to know if I could do a little better on the price. I figured if $15 was going to be a stretch for this fellow, he could have the pole. But I know better than to say free – because it encourages folks to not show up, and leave you waiting all afternoon at your meeting place. (This is the voice of experience talking, people.) So, I told him five bucks. And told him I’d meet him at my favorite coffee shop because I don’t mind being left there waiting. We agreed. Next thing I know, I’m giving ole Jeff a quick tutorial in how to add someone to a conversation because his sister wants to talk to me. This is when I found out he lives in Tennessee, a couple of hours away, and his sister will be completing this little transaction. She agrees to the meeting place. And then wants to know why we have to meet there. What’s this place. Why do I need to make her come to it. Why does it have to be at that time on that day. So, I say, the place is where we’ve agreed to meet. I’ll be there for a couple of hours. I can go back on the next day if that’s more convenient for you. Nope. I should drive to the next town over because that’s too far for her to come either day. I should drive over to the next town and wait in a parking lot for her to show up. So, again, I say I’ll be happy to wait for her at the coffee shop on a day that suits her schedule. And the belligerence commences. Am I refusing to come to the parking lot? Don’t I want to sell this pole? Why am I being so uncooperative? She has car trouble and doesn’t think her car will make it all the way to the coffee shop twenty minutes away. At this point, I have to wonder how her car is going to make it the hundred miles or so across the mountains to her brother in Tennessee, but before I could voice my concern, good old Jeffrey pipes up with, “Nevermind. I can get one for $10 right here in Tennessee.” I busted out laughing when I read that! Seriously? Why would he have his sister spend her afternoon picking this up, and then driving 100 miles, each way, spending far more than that in gas, if he could get one locally for $10? As a matter of fact, why would he contact me at all when mine’s listed for $15? This was getting really entertaining, as the sister blasted me once more for forcing her to drive out of her way for this now-$5 IV pole that she was going to haul across the mountains in her unreliable vehicle. I’m just watching this unfold. Still taking the high road, I responded…
Gosh! I’m so nasty! The two of them proceeded to tell me all about myself and then closed with, “Have a good day.” Hmmm. I don’t think they meant it. So. If I can figure out how to get that IV pole to Haiti, off it goes.
But wait! There’s more! Because I have a NEW favorite story to tell you. Today, I’m in Orlando. Where I have yet another IV pole. And yet another facebook marketplace listing for said pole. And I got yet another, ‘Is this still available?’ message. But I was out of town and said as much, to which this fellow said not to worry, there was no rush. He was polite and friendly and frankly that’s not been my experience with these buyers so far, so that was nice.
Today, I’m back in town and contacted him and he said he could meet me at the 7-Eleven near me in 20 minutes. I piled the pole into the back seat and took off. How easy is this? Traffic was ridiculous, and even though I was a few minutes late, this fellow was later. We texted back and forth while he was stuck in traffic. Jokes. Polite behavior. A series of cars came through the service area to get air for the tires, or gas at the pumps. The best were the ones with all the windows down and Latino music blasting out of the speakers. I stood in the hot Florida sunshine, leaning back against my car, sunglasses turned skyward, listening to great music, and felt like dancing! Where was my ice cold cerveza? What a great day. And my buyer arrives. This big burly mustachioed guy climbs out of a monster truck with a fire station license plate and insignia on it. Shakes my hand with his bear paw and introduces himself. I take out the pole and push it across the pavement to him.
Nostalgia rolls over me in waves. Any widow will tell you that grief
comes in waves, sometimes tidal waves, and it’s impossible to know what
will trigger them. I was transported to all those different times and
places I rolled IV poles around for Larry. Larry, in the hospital,
trying to sit up for the first time. Larry, housebound, trying to get
from the desk chair to the sofa. Larry, having his bi-weekly infusions,
taking the IV pole down the hall to the bathroom. Larry, unable to sit
up without help, and the pole is too far away so the hose is a
problem. Larry, with 27 (not kidding, 27) different wires and tubes
going into him in the ICU. It was stunning. And I had a grip on that
IV pole. Like letting go of it would be letting go of Larry. This all
happened in a flash, less than a second, but I was changed. I tried to
act normal. Act. Not be. And this fellow comes to the rescue, albeit
unknowingly, but that’s who he is. That’s what he does. He gives me a
big grin and tells me in a booming big voice, “My wife and I are
paramedics. Sometimes we like to drink a little too much and so we
start IV’s on each other to rehydrate.” Wait. What? Say that again,
what?! Nevermind the image of drunken paramedics starting IVs (now you
know why I’m not telling you his name) this was instantly transformed
into a party pole. And a whole new wave of memories came crashing in.
Crashing, rolling, weaving, layering, replacing those earlier images
with Larry, laughing to the nurse and demanding rum in his IV. Larry,
telling the rehab doctor, with a straight face, that he would like a
prescription for limes to go with his IV cocktail. Larry, insisting in
the ICU that if his mouth had to be swabbed, it be with Captain Morgan
instead of mouthwash (and much to my surprise, the doctor said, “Why
not?” and I came right back with a little bottle of it). Larry,
perpetually joking about what’s in the IV bags as he pushes the pole
across the room, making nieces and nephews more comfortable with the
scary sight. (He was also likely to pull off his oxygen hose, and offer
to it a teenaged nephew with a quiet, “Pssst, hey kid, want a hit?”)
Again, all in a single second. Big burly paramedic whips out a twenty,
doesn’t ask for change, and takes off in his great big truck. And I’m
left standing in the sunshine, Mexican rap music blasting from the jeep
that just pulled in, traffic pressing ahead and the little kid hanging
onto a woman’s hand as they go into the store, “Please please can I have
ice cream?” And all is right with the world.
Every so often, the stars just align and everything comes together perfectly. Eleventy bazillion years ago (ok, twelve, but who’s counting) my neighbors mentioned that there were Russian boys coming to town and they would be looking for extra work. Larry and I had our hands full with this growing property, and Arturo, Ivan and Pavel -all the way from Siberia- would come over to our place after working at the motel where they were housed, and the restaurant where they were working, and fill their days off with painting and pressure washing and planting and mulching and anything else we asked. It was a tremendous experience for us, to meet these young university students and learn how very different it is in America. Once I asked Pavel, “What’s the biggest difference between here and your home?” He said, “Life!” And when I asked further, he said, “The process of life. There on your kitchen counter is an electric mixer. You decided you wanted a mixer and you bought it.” Perplexed, I said yes. He went on. “If I get paid at the end of the week, and I pay my rent and buy my food, if I have $40 left and there is a drill at Lowes for $40, I can get a ride to the store and buy the drill.” Go on, I prodded. “At my home, I would have to save the $40 and then get on a list to buy the drill, and I would have to provide a good reason to be allowed on the list.” He explained that when you see a line, you get in it. It might be for shoes or it might be for onions. It didn’t matter. If there was something for sale, you bought it. Someone back at your apartment would need the shoes, even if they weren’t your size. Then Pavel laughed and said, “There would be no list for the mixer. My mother would never use one. She uses a spoon.” Larry and I referred back to that conversation, often. Pavel will always have a place in my heart for teaching me so clearly.
The following year, we were asked if we’d like more students. This group was Ukrainian. And somehow by some stroke of luck, Yurii and Oleksii stepped into our lives.
Are they not just the cutest things? These boys had energy to spare. Nothing was too difficult, too heavy, too demanding. Those smiles were always in place. We spent the summer working their tails off, too. They built the benches for the wedding cove (along with Larry, Dick, and Nicholas), they treated the hemlock trees, built in shelves for Larry’s office, painted, stained, set stones, built steps, re-engineered the creek (Larry’s favorite pass time) to make prettier waterfalls, they worked and worked and worked.
I wish I could tell you how much I loved having these boys here. Those
two summers were such special times. They really were a part of the
family. And it was hard to see them leave in the fall. The
first time, Larry and I realized we were sending our boys back to
Siberia, for heaven’s sake! We just wanted to keep them forever. When
Russia started fooling around in Ukraine, our hearts were in our throats
as our boys’ safety was at risk. We embedded ourselves into the
24-hour news cycle until tensions finally broke, but we still worried.
Facebook allowed the occasional peek every year or two into Pavel’s life in Russia, and Oleksii in Ukraine. We routinely posted the annual ‘happy birthday’. We learned of marriages, jobs. But only tiny bits of random information, a handful of notes over the past decade or so. And then. Out of the blue: messages from Oleksii! How are you, life is good, are you in Florida, Yurii is there – I had to break the news of Larry’s passing to this boy who responded, “Larry was the greatest man I ever knew.” They had forged an unbreakable bond, and it grieved me to have to bring sadness into his world. But he’d brought serendipity to mine. I was indeed heading to Florida, and soon.
So. Fast forward to yesterday morning, when a text message came from Miami – it was Yurii! We began to plan how to meet and before you knew it, I was in my car and heading to Jupiter, Florida, to meet this 30-something year old man for seafood at a waterfront restaurant. Yes, that’s right. I made a five hour road trip to have lunch, haha! Worth every moment. Yurii told me about the work he’s doing in Miami, a little about the company he works for, and how he’s having to relearn English. (We always found it vastly amusing that these boys came to the Appalachian mountains to practice English. Honey, I’ve lived in Maggie Valley for the past 21 years, and there are times even I can’t understand the language. So. By all means, let’s take folks who use a cyrillic alphabet, give them English classes in college and send them off to the land of yep and y’all. But they did it!) These days, Yurii is practicing his English in Miami. I’d like to point out that precious little English is spoken there, either. And his coworkers are Russian… which presents a certain tension of its own, given the political landscape. But there is more news. Yurii’s been married to Olga for seven years. He was quick to show me a photo – she is lovely! And if his business progresses the way it seems to be, she may be able to accompany him on a future trip. I’m imagining meeting her – Larry said “our boys” so often, can she be my daughter-in-law? I’d like that.
I have this image running around in my head. I hope you’ll enjoy it… Yurii and Olga, renewing their vows on their 10th wedding anniversary… at Timberwolf Creek… in the wedding cove the boys built. Love in the air.
I thought y’all might appreciate what became of those luscious tomatoes from Stony last week.
Sorry, I don’t do measurements unless it’s baking. Baking is chemistry. Stove-top is art. That’s my theory. Bearing that in mind, everything here is subject to taste. Add, subtract, substitute, knock yourself out. I’ve always found recipes to be great reading, and excellent suggestions to kick start your meal preparation. Except for baking. You have to be really careful how you play with recipes when you’re baking. Wet-to-dry ratios, gluten development, leavening agents, sugars, this has none of that required attention to detail. This is all about flavors and textures and making your kitchen smell so good you can’t wait to dig in.
For my version… much of which was dependent upon the contents of my refrigerator…
Stony Caldwell’s san marzano tomatoes*, chopped
Fresh basil, chiffonade (fancy way to say slice into ribbons)
Dried oregano and tarragon
Salt and pepper to taste
Angel hair pasta, cooked al dente (or to death, if that’s your preference)
Parmesan cheese to garnish
Melt butter in a cast iron skillet on medium heat. Mash the roasted garlic, and incorporate into the butter as best you can. (I love the stuff, live alone, and didn’t have plans to go out, so I used four cloves. Color me happy.) Add chopped mushrooms and stir until they start to lose a bit of their moisture, then add onions and saute until the onions are translucent. Add tomatoes, cover, and let simmer, stirring occasionally. Go ahead and bring your water to a boil, for the pasta. Salt the water. It doesn’t make your pasta cook differently, no matter what anybody tells you. It does, however, make it taste good. Add the pasta – it won’t be long, now! Stir that tomato sauce. It’s time to add the herbs. Cook it down, stirring now and then to keep it from sticking, while the pasta cooks. When the noodles are nearly done, scoop up some of the water and add it to the sauce. It’ll go all creamy on you – that’s the magic of pasta water. Who knew?!
Drain your pasta, twirl a big ladle full and put it in your bowl, top with sauce and a healthy sprinkling of cheese, pour your wine and voila. Dinner fit for a queen.
*For the curious who noted the other tomato on the earlier post, the Mr
Stripy went straight into a tomato sandwich when I got home. Seriously,
people. Not like there was another choice. Sourdough bread. Duke’s
mayo. Salt and pepper. We’re done here.
Yes, kids. It’s that day. Barber Orchards!
I was born in Central Florida. You can make fun of the capital C if you like, but now that I live in Western North Carolina – topping the list for capitalized directions – I’m more comfortable with the Central. Specifically, I was born in Gainesville and grew up in Orlando. The street of my early years was a cul-de-sac built in an old citrus grove, so we had fruit trees in abundance: orange, tangerine, grapefruit, even a lemon tree on the lot behind us. I grew up with these, and it made perfect sense to me, as a child, coloring fat round trees with small orange circles in them. But apples on a tree? That seemed mystical and distant, even exotic. I had only seem them in pictures, and of course my coloring books. Trees with red circles were ‘apple trees’ but that really didn’t mean anything to me. Apples came from the grocery store. It was right up there with mountains. Mountains were inverted V’s and if you added a little white scallop, they were snow-capped mountains. When my drawings became more sophisticated, I would make a separate row of V’s behind the first row, creating distance and perspective. I recall being awfully proud of that accomplishment. But there was never any question. Mountains were straight sided and ended with a point on top and one was absolutely separate from the next. Remember, folks. Florida.
In Orlando, where the only fruit on trees is citrus, the nearest thing that qualifies as a hill is the abutment under an overpass on I-4. It had not occurred to me to feel even remotely deprived. No, I’d never seen snow. I was always astonished to hear folks tell me they’d never seen the ocean. Those were the deprived people, not me.
At 18, I joined the Women’s Army Corps (another story!) and shipped off to Denver, Colorado. Holy moly wow great gadzooks the Rocky Mountains! Sure, there were a few high peaks with snow on them year-round, but you’d be hard pressed to find the inverted V’s of my childhood! The plains rose gently to the foothills, which rose sharply into the instantly recognizable skyline of Denver, with its skyscrapers against a backdrop of the front range. Jaw dropping, to a flatlander like me. And while I’m certain there were apple trees in abundance, I didn’t know how to recognize one without the little red orbs, so frankly, I’ve no idea when I first encountered one. I can tell you, though, that I was in my mid-twenties when I first plucked an apple from a tree. And it was a moment. For all the wonder experienced, we could have been standing on a planet in another galaxy. I was awed.
Just as mountains have never lost their mystery for me, apples are little miracles. Encountering them attached to a branch (or even with a leaf still attached, at a market) unfailingly elicits the same delight as that late summer afternoon in the Colorado mountains when I pulled that apple down, myself. I lived in Colorado for eleven years, and still startle at the word ‘orchard’. Apparently, to this Florida girl, fruit trees are in groves.
So, yes. I live in a magical, mysterious, fascinating world nowadays, with a home in the North Carolina mountains, where apples are an industry. My crayon colored world of V’s and red circles on trees has come to life. And nothing exemplifies that more than a trip to Barber Orchards.
Two announcements from Barber Orchards trigger a pilgrimage. The first is opening day, typically the first of August. The line queued at the baked goods counter is long, and filled with good-natured folks, whiling the time away visiting and scoping out the purchases of those in front of them. Employees stream by with tray after tray of apple donuts, turnovers, muffins (good heavens, those apple muffins!) cakes and fruit pies, refilling the sales counters which empty as quickly as they’re filled. One does not hesitate. Get in line. It doesn’t matter if you know what you want, you’ll have figured it out by the time you get to the counter, based on the chatter from the queue and those steaming trays of hot baked goods passing under your nose, if you don’t faint from pleasure first. I highly recommend the muffins. Unless you’re in front of me. Then choose something else. Just in case, you know. I’ve gotten to the front of the line before, only to be met with, ‘So sorry! You know you can call and place your order and we’ll have it ready for you.’ Do I know this? I do. Do I ever -ever- follow through? I do not. Don’t ask me why. I think the whole bakery roulette thing appeals to me.
day, however, was the siren call of the second announcement: the
honeycrisp apples are in. Now, people, honeycrisp are straight from
God. I don’t care what religion you are or are not. Honeycrisp apples
are nondenominational. Even atheists like honeycrisps (although I’m not
certain you can eat one of those apples and fail to believe). When
Bernie told me Barber Orchards had announced the honeycrisps, we planned
our lunch date around picking up our apples. Yes, we wanted to go have
lunch together, yes we had other errands to run, but these apples were
We were in and out in moments. I told Bernie I was going to take some
pictures -the whole place is insanely photogenic, with fruit and veggies
and jams and baked goods- and then asked a nice lady to take our
photo. I absolutely stink at selfies, and find them mildly
objectionable. I’d probably like them if I could just figure out how
they work. (Do I digress? People! Yes. Yes, I do. Every single
time.) Ahem. Pictures. There were two other ladies shopping there who
thought it was so funny that we were going to get our picture taken that
they promptly produced a camera and handed it to the same nice lady.
“Take our picture! Take our picture!” and so of course, I took their
picture, too. They thought it was great fun. So did we. Everyone at
the fruit stand seemed to be having as good a time as we were. It was a
delightful place to be, that afternoon.
you’ll find photographic evidence of our bounty. The two laughing
women. The sign for the bakery counter, and it’s surprisingly short
line, shows the route we did not take – I think the key to not
overbuying baked goods is to go out for lunch first! And when we got
back to the car, Bernie pointed out the apple trees, heavy laden with
fruit, looking for all the world like my coloring book.
It was a very good day.
Some time ago, when Larry died, I was searching for some direction, certain that there was a book that might give me some guidance about how to grieve. Well. How to survive the initial stages of grief. Back when I was in college, I had a math professor who taught in a fashion that made it easy to learn. We’ve all had teachers like that. They speak our language. It’s not a universal thing – people learn in different ways – but this man taught in a way that made things clear to me. So you can imagine how glad and relieved I was to find a book, written by that same professor, about grief. (If you’re searching: It’s called When Your Lover Dies, by Dr. Robert C. Brigham. You’re welcome.)
The book was such an easy read for me. I’d known both Dr. & Mrs.-also-Dr. Brigham, and they’d played instrumental roles in my life, for different reasons. They both held my deep respect and admiration. So the book made sense. The players were known to me. I didn’t have to put a face to the names, they were faces from my own memories. And Dr. Brigham continued to teach me, through those words.
One admonition he makes in the book – and there are not many! Mostly, it’s reassurance that whatever way you’re grieving is the right way to grieve and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. But there are a few strong suggestions. Agree to stay alive for five years. (That may seem odd to those of you who’ve not lost a spouse. But for those of us who have, we frequently just want to die and keep being with that one true love.) Don’t let the naysayers get you down. And accept every invitation.
Accept every invitation. If you’re anything like me at all, you love social events, make lunch plans, dinner plans, plans for outings, get togethers, all the time. And then as each one rolls around, you have a whole list of reasons for cancelling, staying in pajamas, raiding the fridge and lolling around in front of the TV/PC/book instead. I’ll go next time. Do I HAVE to go? I don’t feel so good, is that a fever, a tickle in my throat? Sigh. I have to put on all those clothes and shoes and I’m just going to be late anyway, I should just cancel. What’s that about, I wonder? But I do it every single time, whether I’m looking forward to it or not. And it’s not just since I’m a widow, Larry and I did the same thing. There’d be that glance at the clock, at each other, feet up in recliners sitting around in our pajamas, and the heavy sigh of well ok and then off to get ready. It’s not like we didn’t enjoy ourselves once we were out. We always did. We were animated and chatty all the way back home about what a great time we had and already making more plans for a repeat, but man, once we were back in pajamas, mmmm sweet ennui.
Meanwhile. Accept every invitation. Because Dr. Brigham said it was a good idea, because I understand the allure of pajama-clad cancellations, and because I trust Brigham better than I trust myself in the middle of what one gal called ‘hot grief’.
And I was invited, publicly, to attend church this Sunday morning. And I accepted, publicly, announcing my arrival time. So there I was.
And don’t think I didn’t have a whole litany of reasons to cancel when I woke up this morning! I overslept (and had a mere three hours to prepare). I was having a bad hair day (what else is new). I didn’t have anything handy for breakfast food (pay no attention to the fact I don’t ordinarily eat breakfast). My favorite pants are in the laundry (the whole closet full of too many pairs of pants, notwithstanding). I didn’t have a purse to match my new outfit (oh for pete’s sake yes I actually did think that, even though 1. I don’t ever think that, 2. I pick one purse and carry it for months, and 3. it actually matched just fine). When I got to the purse thing, it was such a pitiful excuse that I gave up, and returned to Dr. Brigham’s admonition to accept every invitation.
Checking myself about eight times in the mirror, I texted the folks who invited me and said I was on my way. I figured no matter what else happened, tomorrow would be Monday, right?
Hopping in my car and realizing oh great now I really AM going to be late, I was coming down off the mountain when I saw my neighbor, Stony, walking his dog down the dirt road. Stony takes a bit of describing. So does his dog. Stony looks for all the world like ZZ Top meets mountain man. Skinny as a rail, long beard, hat shadowing his eyes, and a bit bent at the shoulders, he epitomizes these Appalachian hills for me. He’s not old, as a matter of fact I think he’s younger than me, but he’s a figure of the ages, and appears to carry the weight of the world. He was in his best jeans, and a clean plaid shirt, and held one thumb aloft, in hopes of a ride.
Stony’s dog, Cujo, used to terrify me. He’s tried to eat me before. Like a snack. I have run from that dog. I have been petrified by that dog. I have been rescued from that dog. I freakin hated that dog. He scared me to death. But I have lived here a long time, and the dog with Stony posed no threat this morning. I haven’t seen either of them in years, and while Stony remains timeless and unchanged, that old dog was ancient. His patchy fur was gray-tipped, his head hung low, and every step was painfully managed. And, atypically, he was on a leash. I slowed to a stop and put my window down.
Now this man is a gentleman. He is unworldly and a little sketchy, mostly unkempt and moves slowly, but he is unfailingly polite and kind. He would blush and stammer and deny the word gentleman. But it’s in there, bone marrow deep. Maybe it’s just the manners born of a kind heart, but it’s there. So when I said, “Good morning, stranger!” to this fellow I haven’t seen in a couple of years, and this dog who hasn’t aged well, he looked up with a smile, tip-o-the-hat, and called me ma’am and asked if perhaps I could give him and his old dog a ride down to the church.
Well. If that isn’t confirmation that I was heading in the right direction, I don’t know what was. “Of course,” said I, and we got poor old Cujo loaded into the car at Stony’s feet and off we went. I explained that I was going to have to hurry when we got there, because I was expected and I was late, and the most awful thing to me was when Stony took that to mean I didn’t want to be seen with him. I did my best to assure him that I wanted him to come sit beside me as soon as he had Cujo unloaded and tied in front of the church where he planned to leave the dog during the service. And he said, “Oh no ma’am, you probably sit right up front and I’ll be all the way in the back.” We left it at that and I left them making their slow way across the parking lot while I tried to gain entry to the church just as the service was beginning.
There are three different doorways from the parking lot. Good grief. I wasn’t expecting confusion before I even got inside. This was a challenge. I went back to Stony (who was maybe ten feet from the car by now) and said, “Which door do you go in?” and he chuckled and said the front door. I took off in the general direction, but got sidetracked when I spotted a woman inside double doors at a table of bulletins. That looked promising. I popped inside and asked her, “This is my first time here, how do I get inside?” and with a wide smile, she pointed up a hallway, and I trotted that way.
Surprise. I came out via the transept, into a room of filled pews and the immediately visible seats were directly in front of me. I sat. In the very front row. This was not my plan, people. But there I was. I couldn’t exactly excuse myself and make my way to the back. But I was supremely envious of Stony right that moment, surely tucked into the back row, beside a door. I felt my color rise, spotted the folks who invited me up in the choir seats, and tried to make myself inconspicuous. I had no bulletin, no knowledge of how the service would proceed, and was thoroughly a fish out of water.
It didn’t take long for Ken and Beth to see me there, from their seats in the choir right smack in front of me, and for Beth to see my dilemma and come hand me a bulletin so I could keep up. And it also didn’t take long for me to start realizing that I was quite comfortable in this place, that there was a sense of welcome I don’t usually find in new surroundings, and I was enjoying this young pastor and her enthusiasm. And the choir was quite small, but beautifully balanced and blessedly on key. I could pick out the individual voices but only with effort. This is the way a choir should sound. I was enchanted. The sermon seemed quite short to me, although it wasn’t actually, it was just that the pastor held my interest the entire time. Folks made a point of greeting me, a stranger, when the time came for that. And afterward, Ken brought Pastor Ann over to say hello, and introduced me to his mother, and I was able to really feel a sense not only of welcome, but also of belonging. I am pretty happy about all that. After a nice visit following the service, I headed back out to my car to make my way home.
And as soon as I turned up my road, there was Stony, inching along with Cujo, bent over his dog in encouragement. I pulled up and told Stony that we should give that dog a ride home. We got him into the car again, and as I drove up to Stony’s house, he told me he’d already dug a grave for the dog. He’s a serious man, and clearly devoted to this dog. I got out of the car when we arrived, and we got the dog out, and Stony said, “You like tomaters?” To which I replied I certainly do. And we walked over to the front of the house where tomatoes climbed twine tied from ground stakes up to the gutters of the house. Stony carefully chose the ripest most perfect tomatoes for me, and handed them to me with care, and sent me home with my bounty and heartfelt thanks for the ride.
I told him next time, we are going to sit together in the front row, and stir up a little talk in this small town. I think he liked that. He shook my hand and thanked me again for the ride. He told me he wouldn’t need a ride for his companion, though, because Cujo wouldn’t be going to another church service. And he turned to help the dog across his threshold.
I’ve renewed my passport. Ok, let me just say that again. I’ve renewed my passport.
Heady stuff! I get butterflies just saying it. Never having imagined I’d even need a passport, and then getting my first one at 50, it just didn’t occur to me that I would ever be so worldly as to say, oh so casually, “Yes. I just renewed my passport.”
This, people, is a ticket to the world. The entire world. And I intend to make good use of it. Being unworldly, I didn’t realize the Department of State would return my old passport (complete with hole punches) so I resisted the temptation to cut out all the pages with my visa stamps, and just took pictures of all of them before sending off for the new documents. And holy cow. “Let me just take this precious booklet and entrust it to the United States Postal Service and sit around waiting for a government office to properly handle my passport, my information, and my money. What could possibly go wrong?” So yes, it was a big relief to get that envelope back from the civil servant who did indeed perform admirably.
I knew I’d never manage six weeks of pins and needles, so even though I won’t need this thing for months, I paid the expedited fee. It was worth the peace of mind.
Meanwhile, I feel like I ought to dress up and do my hair, fix my lipstick and go out to lunch. “Yes, my new passport came today. I’ve just about worn that old one out. Sigh. I’m so fashionable and world-weary and well-traveled. Yes. It’s all so very dull.”
HA! I’m bouncing around the room excited. I can’t stop looking at it. I can’t wait to fill it up. My next trip (Orlando, by car) requires nothing more than a driver’s license. The one after that (California, by plane) would also be possible with that same driver’s license, but you can bet I’m handing my passport to that TSA agent at the airport. Because I can.
Next thing you know, I’ll opt for pre-check just so I can be Fancy.