Monthly Archives: August 2012

Healing from Loss: That Special Photo

What do you do to keep some connection with a deceased loved one?

I tried wearing my daughter’s clothes, singing because she loved to sing, and serving sushi because that’s what she ate. I went to Australia because she loved Australia. On a beach in Australia my daughter had stood holding her arms out like she was hugging the world. In the photo, my favorite photo of her, her face is raised up and she is smiling like she is saying, “I finally found home. I could stay here forever.” Her body says, victoriously, ”I have won the war!”

Who does this? Who gets to go to a beach on the other side of the Earth and hugs it before a friend with a camera? Who looks up at the vast sky, smiling before a vast ocean, and stretches her arms as far as she can and has it photographed?

I tried it. I went alone to Australia to scatter her ashes and I found myself staring at the very same spot on that same beach in the photo. It was an empty beach, no people around. It was emptier still, a flawed haunting landscape before me,  because she was supposed to be centered in front of the jagged jutting point, arms lifted skyward. I stood there glued to that spot for a while, holding her stuffed Puppy and waiting like I expected to get beamed heavenward or struck by a thunderbolt or met by her ghost. Finally I scattered some of her ashes. When a tourist eventually passed by I asked him to take my photograph. I stretched out my arms like she did and tried to look heavenward, maybe to her.

When I saw the photo later, it occurred to me that I looked like I was frantically begging for help, strangling her stuffed Puppy, and on the verge of a breakdown. It looked like a picture of a distraught mother looking for her lost daughter on a beach. I learned you can follow your loved one’s footprints and you can try walking in her shoes, but you can’t expect them to always fit.

That special photo is a gift. I can point to that photo and see that she was happy.

There, in that place at that time, my daughter was happy. And I have the power to keep her that way forever. Do you ever find yourself talking to your loved one’s photo?


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Healing from Loss: Routine Replacement

Today, a new refrigerator was delivered. The old one was noisy and had towels stuffed underneath, like diapers, to catch its daily drippings. On hot days I had to hammer and scrape off ice chunks  to get the old freezer door, which pops open anytime someone shuts the fridge door, to close. The outer surfaces are plastered with pictures, photos of Marika, notes and calendars that are held on with magnets from Russia and Target. It all comes off.

Analogies around moving out of an old house and into a new one floated by briefly but my mind was musing more about regeneration and replacement. I kept thinking about how there were only a couple of things that dated back to the days when Marika foraged through this fridge in search of a snack or to slather a hotdog in gobs of relish. Only two food items had overreached their expiration dates; surprising, as the fridge had moved in when we moved in, almost fourteen years ago. Along with the routine replacement of ice cubes and ketchup, even the collection of hardly-used condiments like pomegranate sauce and anchovy paste  had  been replaced at some recent time. And now the fridge itself was being replaced.

As I weeded out and stashed away the contents, I kept thinking of how the cells of our bodies renew themselves constantly and that not a single cell of me is the same as when I was twenty. I thought of the replacement of blood and bone marrow. I remembered my trip to Turkey, where I marveled at the ancient ruins and structures. There, I tried to touch history with my eyes and hands, but was reminded that the worn wood and even the old stone of stairs had all been replaced over time, over and over again, until little or nothing remained of the original.

IMG_0274Among the contents of the freezer, I found an outdated bag of frozen fruit I had made Marika’s breakfast smoothies with. I found a tiny container of the raspberry sauce she loved. In the bottom of the back of that freezer, among a half dozen half-finished bags of coffee, I found the gel wraps Marika used to put over her soccer bruises.

Suki chewed noisily on fallen ice cubes. The fridge purred away as I emptied its contents into garbage bags or boxes filled with ice packs. I snapped a photo before the old refrigerator  was unceremoniously carted out of the house. Then, when the new Whirlpool Bottom-Freezer model was finally in place, I quickly transplanted most of the old stuff into the stark, sparkling and squeaky-clean compartments. And in the back of the new Bottom-Freezer, I squirreled away Marika’s old gel wraps. For new bruises.

It took years but I am now able to repair and replace, and take care of my home again. I wonder what I’ll be able to tackle next?

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Healing from Loss: Memories of Summer

What does summer mean to you?

Summer is my favorite time of the year but it is also one of my saddest times. The most vivid of my memories over the course of my life have always been of summer.

When I was four, I played outside after dinner in my white seersucker shorty-pajamas that were dotted in crayon colors. I rocked on a paint-chipped wooden horse rocker that lurched on the uneven flagstone patio next to tin garbage pails that reeked of old milk.

When Marika was four I took her to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival where mountains of watermelons were stacked under willow trees. Wearing her pink angel wings, she was sticky and dripping pink down her chin and chest as she tore into her slice of watermelon, not quite having mastered the art of spitting out the seeds.

I took Marika and her brother to the ocean with boogey boards. They were laughing and fearless in the waves as I stood stiffly alongside them, nervously jumping up with each swell.

When I was fifty and Marika was eleven, I had climbed the lifeguard’s tower, high up over the waterfront at Camp Scatico, to blow the whistle that commanded the whole of Girls’ Side to stop for a buddy count and when, baked from the sun, I climbed back down to the white paint-cracked docks, Marika gave me a big wet hug.

Summer has always been a time of campfires and roasting things over them on sticks, blueberry and then raspberry picking, watching fireflies, getting wet without worry, wearing shorts and sandals, and feeling light and free. But you know the summer will end and there are question marks or blanks about what comes next and, around the middle of August, you need to face the inevitable nagging thing that was so easy to blow off while the stretch of so many long and hot summer days lured you away. Summer always ends like a slowly burning candle that melts shorter and shorter still, with a dark wick which finally curls up in a puddle of wax and extinguishes itself in a long rising wisp of grey smoke.

Memories of Summer
Marika Warden, October 18, 2009

I close my eyes to see your face
Your image prompts my heart to race
As I relapse, I retrace
My memories of summer.

A night so clear we couldn’t miss
A single star.  Complete bliss!
And then we shared our first real kiss
At the eve of summer.

Another night, dark and warm
We didn’t put our swimsuits on.
I just floated in your arms
Shivering in summer.

Lying on a hill out West,
I found myself quite underdressed.
You held me close beneath your vest
Stargazing in summer.

That last night I knew was due
I just could not face the truth.
I really did want to tell you
That I was sick that summer.

My mind’s snapshot of this summer is of floating in a friend’s pond at the Sunday Morning Hikers’ annual party. Overhead is the big  inverted bowl of blue sky laced with the tops of tall dark trees. All around, friends float, dogs paddle, and the coolest but warmest welcoming water surrounds and hugs and holds every grateful inch of me.

What memories will you hold of this summer?

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Healing from Loss: Doing Something Different

Have you ever said yes when you really meant to say no, and then found yourself in the middle of some of the most fun you could imagine?

During June and July, I’d done little other than sit and write for hours, for days. It was hard work always rewriting, dredging up more memories, writing and rewriting again. Then, one evening at my friend Celia’s dinner table, which was topped with what Abby Nash often refers to as “the best food and wine to be found in Ithaca tonight,” Abby, our god of wine and dining, asked me if I’d like to be a teaching assistant for his upcoming week long cooking class at Cornell’s Adult University. Avoiding commitment, I said I’d check my calendar. I did not get excited or jump at the opportunity. In fact, I tried to forget about it. But I couldn’t ignore the little voice inside me that whispered, “Are you planning to just sit on your butt for the whole summer?” and “This is the first job you’ve been offered in years, Miss Unemployed” and “Where’s your spirit of adventure?”

So the next week, there I was, alongside Maria, a veteran teaching assistant, with my hair banded and tied up, wearing my Converse sneakers and a long, fresh white lab coat, ready to rock ‘n’ roll in Cornell’s food labs. Twelve eager foodies, mostly Cornell Alums, showed up ready to spend one of the hottest weeks of the summer cooking away the days. They divided into six teams in six adjacent kitchens. Every morning they assembled at 9AM with a goal to have a royal lunch ready, with a white wine and a red, by 1:30 each day. After lunch, they’d prepare and cook some more until 3:30PM, when they’d file out and Abby, Maria and I would begin our scrub-down frenzy. It became apparent from day one that my job, after helping Maria with the morning preparations, was mostly to be fetching, washing and returning all the pots and pans and dishes and utensils. And cutting boards. And the thirty-six wine glasses we used daily. And various pieces to ice cream makers, food processors and blenders. Each day, the complexity and the number of dishes they cooked increased. And each dish was made twice, by two different kitchens. Towards the end of the week I had grooved in a routine, which sped up automatically with the increased workload, and I no longer collapsed in exhaustion or nursed sore feet at the day’s end.

Then, on Thursday, the teams made doubles of Chilled Curried Zucchini Soup, Caesar Salad, Salad with Duck Confit, Duck Confit with Pommes Sarladaise and Cranberry Golden Relish, Shrimp with White Beans, Roasted Tomatoes and Pistou, Leek Gruyere Quiche, Pear Frangipane Tarte, Crepes Suzettes and Fresh Mango Sorbet. Plus the chocolate ganache and pound cake needed for the next day’s Italian desserts, Il Diplomatico and Cassata Siciliana.

Imagine, if you love to cook, how your cooking behaviors would change if you had someone constantly squirreling away the dirty dishes as fast as you could use them. So the sinks fill up and I frantically run back and forth squeezing around the cooks who stir and ponder their custards, as I collect, clean and redistribute the dishes to the six kitchens. Maria measures and distributes food items and I deal mostly with The Dishwasher, dubbed “better than a husband” by one of the class cooks. I feed it large loaded trays and it huffs and clunks, churns and hisses for five minutes, at which point I bend over, already dripping in sweat, into a hot steamy cloud, remove the tray of cleaned dishes and feed it another loaded tray of soiled ones. I sneak tastes of leftover sauces and sorbets before flinging the residue down the drain. I scrape cast iron pans, I squeegee the long stainless steel sink, I heave heavy high-density plastic cutting boards and dripping containers of all sorts. The sinks are stuffed and I tumble through the kitchens carrying as much as I dare, mindful of the disastrous potential of drips. I am singing “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” from the scene in the musical Annie, where the orphans are mopping floors, when the spray nozzle I am squirting, full force into a clotted pot, shoots and splatters clumps of chocolate all over my face and tied-up hair. The white lab coat, now stained with chocolate dregs, hangs heavy and warm on me like someone else’s used wet bath towel. Damp and disheveled, I sit down for lunch with the class, with my two glasses of wine and two plates of mostly magnificent food and suddenly I am content and fortified for the afternoon’s assignment.

And Friday, after the last class, cranky and dragging and dead-tired, Abby, Maria and I clean up and do a complete inventory of sixteen lab kitchens. We clear and carry off the leftovers, the recyclables, the compost and the garbage, until 7PM. I was exhausted but well fed, sad it was over but proud of myself. I was reminded of a day long ago when I had my Silk Oak design and hand silkscreen printing business, when my father came by to see what my business was about. It was at a craft show on a beach near his home on Long Island. I had set up and stocked my booth beautifully with my wares. He arrived to see people crowded three deep around my table, tearing at the folded piles of tee shirts and throwing twenty dollar bills at me as I bagged shirts and returned change. A storm was brewing and my shirts, strung up on poles and racks around the booth, were flapping wildly with the wind when a strong gust nearly threw over the whole booth. My father grabbed the poles and shirts nearest him just before they could set sail, just as the rain started pouring down in buckets, scattering customers and creating chaos. He held onto the poles, which still held dripping runny tee shirts, as I ran to get my car. We were both completely soaked as we crammed the poles and racks and saturated shirts into the car, and he turned to me and shouted above the din of the storm, “This is One Hell of a way to make a living!”

I wonder what he’d say if he saw me madly dashing about in my Converse sneakers, washing away all those dishes and contending with chaos this week. I wonder what he’d think about my own work these days, sitting and writing and rewriting my book, day after day, after day, after day without the promise of a paycheck.

If Abby asks me to be his teaching assistant, I will happily do it again next year. What different thing will you try?

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