Monday, May 06, 2019

Everlasting Love and the Meaning of Life

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, now and then.  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, now and then 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…


Sunday, March 24, 2019

A Singular Pilgrimage

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.


Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Farewell to Wendy Mills

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.

Today, 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.

And 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.  

I've 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 the cruise.  

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.


Saturday, January 19, 2019

Shared Experiences

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....


Saturday, November 10, 2018

Once upon a time...

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 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.


Saturday, October 20, 2018

First Responders, Last Call

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 here!"

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 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.


Monday, September 17, 2018

Yesterday with Yurii

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.

Yurii and Oleksii

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.

Yurii & Sandee at U-Tiki Beach Restaurant, Jupiter Florida

Monday, September 03, 2018

Pasta For One

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...
Roasted garlic
Portobello mushrooms
Vidalia onion
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.


Thursday, August 30, 2018

Apples Amaze Me

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.

This 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 the Plan.

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.

Here, 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.