Monthly Archives: January 2013

Different Stories Beyond Grief

NYCcatsNo, this is not what was in the kitchen trash on either of the last two Wednesday nights. The nights Suki raided the garbage while I was in the local movie theater watching the Metropolitan Opera HD-filmed performances of Aida and Les Troyens. But the radicchio up close has a similar oozy-gooziness that reminds me of what lay all over the floor when I returned home hoping to collapse into bed after an exhausting five hour immersion into warring Greeks, storm-tossed Trojans and twirling Carthaginians.

It bothers me that I did not reach for the camera to capture the stunning mess or the expression of shame on Suki’s face. What kind of photographer misses an opportunity like that? Instead, I went Photo-shopping three days later when I’d calmed down and Suki no longer smelled of onion and spoiled meat.

You’re questioning why I don’t put baby-lock devices on the trash cabinet but I’m wondering why I don’t automatically reach for the camera when something exceptional lies in front of me. And why I feel compelled to Photo-shop everything. Why do I always have to change things? I can’t seem to shoot something and print it out straight, regular, as in reality. What is this all about? Still part of the grievSuki, a Havanese with a hardy appetite peering out from bunches of radicchioing process?

Another example: I told my friend who I visited in New York City last week that I’d send her the photos I took of her cats. Beautiful soft sweet cats that have been transplanted to NYC Suki-top-of-saladalong with my friend for six months. They watched me as I slept in the small living room on an inflated aero bed wedged between their beds and food dishes. They didn’t budge until I got up and opened the refrigerator to get myself a glass of water. One of them escaped from the apartment twice during my visit. Maybe he thought he could find his way back home to Ithaca. Or to the vast lawns at Central Park. I couldn’t capture that in the photo. I couldn’t just send the photo of the cats perched on the bathroom sink. No, I had to put them in Times Square at night.

When I write, I work hard to find the exact words to describe reality, the truth. The way something looks, feels, sounds or tastes. I could never write fiction. It just isn’t in me. But when I Photo-shop, I can make up anything. I can tell a different story.

Either way, telling the truth in words or stretching it in photos, I feel like I’m doing something good for myself. I’m inching out beyond my grief.

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Feasting with Friends

There was the promise of great food in Zagat-rated, Michelin-starred restaurants. And a Global Kitchen exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. There was the opportunity to travel with my friend Celia, and to stay with our friend Paula, who is now transplanted in New York City for six months. It was to be a brilliant foodie-fest, not to be missed. Still, Celia had to drag me out of my house as I kicked and bucked back and forth about whether or not to go.

Part of my leaving-town ritual is to eat down to the very last crumb in the refrigerator. So I knew for sure I was really going to NYC on that last morning when I breakfasted on leftover pierogis, an over-ripe pear and a last piece of turkey ham from last week’s birthday lunch. Faced with the particular pain and depression that comes from a barren fridge, I can be coaxed to almost anywhere.

NYCNIGHT            So shortly after we arrived and shook ourselves out at Paula’s miniscule temporary quarters in the Big Apple, we jogged over to Eataly, a huge and amazing conglomeration of Italian marketplace and restaurants. There, amid a cacophony of textures and tastes, smells and sounds of masses of people celebrating food, we picked out prosciutto, bread, cheeses and pasta for a breakaway brunch at the end of our two day trip. And that evening we began our restaurant romp that had been planned, reserved and rescheduled several times over the last two months.

We wanted to taste and savor everything. So early on we worked out a system where we ordered three different dishes of appetizers, mains and desserts and divided each three ways. This was a mind-boggling feat of coordination and self-control as each dish was a highly crafted work of art with many minute scrumptious components. In addition, there was sometimes an extra pasta course and often an amuse bouche and parting sweets that came “compliments of the house.”

Among the most memorable plates, we had seared Hudson Valley foie gras with pear, vanilla, Marcona almonds and brioche followed by venison with sweet potatoes, sour cherries, salsify and black trumpet mushrooms at Aureole. We merrily brunched on buttermilk-masa pancakes with chipotle butter and smoked maple syrup and then a melted cheese – lobster – fried tomato tortilla and a “tasting” of seven exciting salsas at Empellon Cocina. We swooned over sea urchin crostinis, squid-ink pasta with shrimp, scallops and butternut squash, followed by a dessert of dark chocolate cream, salted caramel mousse, coffee crumble and milk-flower Robin Botie in New York City with friends. Times Square lit up at night.gelato at Marea.

Paula’s tiny apartment was in the East Village so in between meals we waddled through the nearby Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s. We lumbered over to the Global Kitchen: Food, Nature and Culture exhibit to whet our appetites for the next meal. The mild sunny streets of the city, a far cry from icy snow-blown Ithaca, greeted us warmly during the day. After dinners, we stood mesmerized by the nightlights of Times Square.
Feasting with friends feeds my soul. I love to conspire, cook, shop and travel with foodies. I am not the only one who can be moved beyond pain to share good food with good friends. On the first morning of our NYC adventure, Celia and I watched in helpless horror as Paula fell down a flight of stairs. She’d bruised her ankle badly but stood up ready to sally on despite the pain and promise of swelling. She still romped the streets and subways with us, only sometimes slowing to a limp. She reveled with us in the middle of Broadway as her ankle swelled and her plans to start her Tuesday Flamenco Dance class disappeared like the delectable delicacies on our plates had. And this morning our dear friend Paula cooked up an exquisite brunch with all the gatherings from Eataly. A brunch that hugs and holds us as Celia and I ride in the bus back to Ithaca, past crammed highways, grey woods and blinding snowfall.

I’m full. I’m happy and I’m going home. Home, where I left the fridge almost empty. Home, where I probably won’t have to eat for the next week anyway.

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A Birthday Party

It was the first time I’d made a party in years. At first, I was not going to be the one to put on a birthday party for Stephen, the leader of the Sunday morning hiking group. But I’d let everyone else do all the entertaining since the time my daughter got sick and died. I’d gone to so many dinners and lunches at others’ houses. Now they wanted to do a surprise birthday lunch after Sunday’s hike.

“Let’s do it at my place.” It just fell out of my mouth. Did I say that? It was long overdue anyway. Twelve people are coming over for a party. Whoa! For days I could think of little else. No work got done as I planned and prepared for the party.

“Barb, will you email Ed and Pat?” Twelve people are coming. “Dennis, do you have an extra bridge table?” I ran around to get extra furniture and enough cheery plates. I found my big bright yellow and blue tablecloth. Considering various food issues, I planned a menu. At Wegmans, I hunted and gathered too much food and then picked out the richest most scrumptious Chocolate Elegance Cake. I located candles and matches and put out the wine and the water. The fridge was stuffed.

The day before, I counted out the silverware and put the tables together and went back to Wegmans for the meats and the cake. Is six pounds of cold-cuts enough for thirteen people?

By Sunday I was totally overwhelmed. I didn’t even realize it until the hike. The plan was to go for only half the hike with Suki and then head back to the house, before the others, to take care of the last minute preparations.

“Susan, I lost the trail, I can’t find my way back to the cars,” I phoned frantically shortly after separating from the group. “Liz, I’m lost. Can you get to my house early? I might be late,” I called another. “Suki, where did the trail go?”

Finally at home, I saw that Suki was a muddy mess and a tick was crawling up her face. So I bathed and brushed her because I couldn’t focus on anything else. By the time Liz arrived my brain was like a stir-fry of scattered wilted spinach. Ohmygosh twelve people are coming here for a party in half an hour. And I can’t see straight.birthday party for Stephen Hess of the Sunday morning hiking group in Ithaca, New York

birthdayparty

It was going to be a simple meal. Sandwiches. Chicken, turkey, turkey ham. Swiss cheese. Sauerkraut and relishes, salad and avocado. Lots of condiments. By noon, when the hikers parked their boots in the mudroom, there was little room left on the table for the salad that came in with one of the guests. But all thirteen of us squeezed around the table and settled down to feast.

After the meal, the daughters of my two closest hiking friends cleared the table and lit the candles on the cake. They’d already started to sing the birthday song when they handed the cake to me to place before Stephen. And as I carried the flickering candlelit cake the ten steps, slow down so the flames don’t go out, suddenly my head reeled and my heart bucked. There was a jarring explosion of memories presenting birthday cakes to my daughter. Twenty birthday cakes, each year one more candle, an extra candle added for good luck, Happy Birthday Dear Marika …

“No. I can’t. Don’t go there now. This is now. It’s Stephen’s birthday and there are twelve people here,” I told myself, fighting back tears. I don’t know if I set the cake down carefully in front of Stephen or if I threw it at him like a hot potato.

By the time the birthday song ended I collected myself and clapped cheerfully. The surprised shock of the flashbacks got lost in the commotion to serve coffee.

The party ended with compliments, smiles and hugs. Other than my fast unforeseen flight back to grief, it was successful and smooth. I’m happy and proud. And tomorrow, Liz and Barb and their daughters will come back to help me eat all the leftover food.

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Family Reunion

Leaving home is always hard. Mostly because I fear how things will have changed by the time I return. Still, I sallied out last Thursday for a four-day weekend with my father’s family on Sanibel Island in Florida.

Our family reunions have a photoshopped quality about them: people from Tucson, Boston, Chicago, New Jersey, New York and Florida, that are not usually found together, flock together each year on the second weekend of December, on the same sandy beachfront on the Gulf of Mexico. It is too perfectly unreal. Sisters, favorite aunts and uncles, cousins with their partners and children, their children’s children and various other members of the extended family gather to celebrate Chanukah, to feast together, give gifts to the youngest and appreciate the oldest. We bond over the barbeque pit, cavort in the pool, roam along the beach and stake out quiet corners for confidential conversation. We divide to play golf or go shopping. We converge to light candles and share the year’s news. 27 to 37 of us revel like this once a year, escaping from winter weather and work, to bask gratefully among our tribe in the warm, welcoming sun. sandcastle on beach at Sanibel Island, Forida. Annual family reunion

On the beach, where the foam-laced water’s edge creeps close and teases the shoreline, I find a carefully crafted sandcastle. It captures my imagination and the fleeting magic of our event. As I admire it, my son phones me from over a thousand miles away. He could not be here this year but he’s kept in touch with his cousins. Next year, maybe.

“The old folks’ table gets smaller and smaller,” someone remarks at the dinner party on the last night. And I remember white-haired grandparents and my father.

“Yeah, and look at the kids’ table,” I say, as I think back to when my baby children were plucked from my arms to be seated with their cousins, where they ate more and laughed more, without me hovering over them. The cousins that fed them then, feed and keep watch over their own young ones now.

Sandcastleplus

Suddenly the absence of my daughter slams me like a rogue wave. Tears collect in my eyes. But I’m okay because I know that her memory is held dear by all of us here.

When dinner is over, we fuss and mull around with our goodbyes like agitated sea gulls about to take flight. I move from one to another, hugging and holding. Leaving is so hard. Mostly because I do not know how things will have changed by the time we return.

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First Splashdown of the New Year

FLYINGDOGSThere is a low crack. I drop down with a crash as my right foot falls through the iced-over edge of the small stream I am crossing. Then I blast into the surrounding sheet of ice with my left knee. And suddenly I am swimming in a cold grey stew of ice chunks. I try to stand but the water is almost up to my waist; too deep to scramble up out of. Suki, always five feet ahead of me on her leash, had already reached the other side safely. She looks back at me worried as two of the three long-legged men ahead of us reach down to grab my arms and drag me out.

Twenty-nine hikers and six dogs on the New Year’s Day hike at the Six Mile Creek Gorge Trail stare at me as I flounder about in an effort to stand up and show I’m okay.

“Do you want to swap pants with me? I’ve got on other layers so I can give you my dry pants,” my friend Liz’s daughter calls to me in front of everyone still waiting on the side of the stream I left.

“Thanks but I’ve got nothing on underneath mine so I think I’ll keep them on for now,” I say. A hoot sounds behind me but I ignore it. “It’s okay. My pants are practically all plastic so they won’t hold the wet anyway.”

“You’ve got an hour’s hike back to the cars,” someone reminds me. And then I notice the puddles in my hiking boots. But the water in my shoes seems warm enough from my sweaty feet. So I test my left knee cautiously and decide I can walk back. Suki does not take her eyes off me as someone lifts her back over the stream at a narrow unbroken spot. I follow behind, thinking poor Suki, after losing Marika, she hates to leave my side for fear of losing me; thinking, since losing my daughter I’ve become very accident-prone and clumsy; thinking, “Why always me? It’s time for someone else to fall and get all the attention. And finally, this is not a good sign, starting off the New Year with a splashdown.

Two days later, with frazzled nerves, a neoprene sleeve around my knee, and wire-pronged YakTrax on the bottoms of my hiking boots, I leave Suki at home and show up for a hike with the same group at the Ellis Hollow Nature Preserve. I’m hardly recognizable to them without my little white fluffy dog attached and pulling at me. It’s the first hike in over two years that I do not follow Suki. And two days after that, I go out again, without the neoprene sleeve and without Suki. I am dog-sitting for my friend Liz’s dog, and a hike with two dogs on leashes in the ice and snow is more than I am ready for. So I hug Suki and Hobbs and leave them with rawhide chews on blankets by the door. I head out alone to the South Rim Trail of Taughannock Park.

The falls there are stunning with long dripping icicles, bright patches of snow and steamy rushing waters below. It feels good to have two free hands so I take photographs. But I keep looking up and thinking of small dogs flying off the cliffs of the gorge.

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