What do you wear to bear witness to the end of things for someone who is part of your family and you love has been the all-consuming question this week. I mean, it wasn’t really, but then again it was.
It’s a thing you can control. In a time where no one is very hungry or sleeping well, and there’s more sorrow than anyone, especially my sister, should have to bear, at least you can pick an outfit.
What is lovely to me is that the world rises.
So we put on our black, our mourning clothes, and we went to lend our bodies to the grieving at the wake. To watch my sister stand next to the body of her beloved, him but also no longer him, nearly drove me to my knees. She, and her children did what was necessary.
And then she walked out alone.
I’m not a fan of platitudes at death. It’s crap to lose people, and it’s more crap when they go too young. Sure, there are always upsides – death can be an end to suffering, or a quick death can mean minimal suffering. And there should always be a celebration that the person happened to those who love and care for them. “I’m sorry for your loss” is wonderful. “They are in a better place” is a pile of poo even if you really believe that. Keep it to yourself. Try “This is such crap. It’s garbage. I’m sorry.”
It is now our job to follow her into the long twilight ahead, to be there for as long as it takes, to sit quietly in the darkness. It’s not our job to rush this, only to be present with a hug, support, help.
We cannot go where she and her children are going, we can only stand watch to ensure that their journey is smoothed as much as possible. So stand we will, even as the waves of sorrow try to bring us down.
Having a stomach bug followed by immense tragedy kind of sticks a fork, as it were, in food preparation. Other than the occasional piece of toast I didn’t really eat for several days again after our loss, but when I did get hungry again I just wanted soup.
Meanwhile, the food here was piling up. More than 20 spaghetti squashes, and several pumpkins, not to mention tomatillos were still ripening in the garden. My husband, daughter and niece came home from our last week of CSA with tons of veggies, followed immediately by an order from Azure Standard, placed long before we knew that we would not be hungry. And my lovely friend brought a half bushel of apples over. Add to that the food already here that had been uneaten for almost a week, plus the overflow of generosity that was emanating from my sister’s, and there was no way I could justify anything like take out.
I was in the process of turning roaster chicken into chicken broth in my crock pot that will become Chicken Soup with Rice for Sunday dinner. The kids were with their Dad, and chicken rice soup is something we would only eat with them, so instead I turned to the the piles of butternut squash and sweet potatoes and onions we had brought home from New York, and started googling. And there wasn’t quite the thing. But a few ideas from other recipes and some of me just tossing things into a pot later, and what came out was all the right parts of dense, spicy, tangy, creamy, slightly sweet and warm in one. Cheap, healthy and filling too. But importantly it was comforting. There’s just something about soup that fills in not just on cold days but also in moments where you need to feel warm in your soul.
I roasted a butternut squash in the oven and then began to cut up onions and garlic, sauteeing them in olive oil. I then added a largeish sweet potato in chunks and a quart of chicken broth. Once that had cooked for a while, and the potatoes were tender, I scooped in the roasted squash, added 2 tablespoons of red curry, salt, a can of coconut milk, cilantro and a generous teaspoon of lime juice. I had no idea how this was all going to come out.
I cooked it all together for a few more minutes and spooned it into my bowl. I suppose I could have pureed the whole thing, but I liked the chunks of sweet potatoes swirling in the orange soup. I topped it with more lime juice, which added brightness and depth, some chives and then proceeded to eat more than my fair share. This is a meal you could serve to company or just eat in bed with a book and a cup of tea on the side, very carefully, as I did.
And then…I felt better. For the first time in days, almost myself. And then the sun came out, and Eli brought me tea.
Saturday Comfort Soup 1 medium butternut squash, halved and seeded 1 large sweet potato, chopped into spoon-sized chunks 3 onions, diced 2-4 cloves garlic, depending on the size 2-3 teaspoons red curry paste 1 can full-fat coconut milk 1 quart of chicken or vegetable broth 2 teaspoons fish sauce 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon cilantro Lime juice, to taste and more for topping each bowl
Oil a baking sheet and roast the butternut squash, face down until fork tender, about 25 minutes at 350 degrees F.
Meanwhile, saute the onion and garlic until soft. Add the broth and sweet potato and cook until tender. Add the fish sauce, salt, coconut milk, cilantro, curry paste and lime juice and let cook another 5 minutes or so.
Serve with a sprinkle of chives and a little lime juice for extra flavor. The good feeling that will spread through your belly comes free with the food.
Sometimes everything just goes along as it does. Seasons change, harvests get harvested, days pass in rapid succession in our full life. And then, every now and again, the world spins off its axis.
Which is what happened on the night of October 20th. The phone rang at 10:24 pm, long after sleep has usually come for me.
The phone never rings that late.
Grief, to me, is like the ocean. Vast, inexorable, with waves that can pull you off of your feet and riptides that can pull you under as you try to hold yourself upright carrying heavy loads in each arm that you cannot put down no matter how badly you want to. Rapid fire, one after another the waves take you down until you are too exhausted keep standing, but stand you must.
Eventually it is more like a gentle tide on the beach. There, but peaceful most of the time, except when the occasional giant wave soaks you and takes you off your footing. They become less and less, but the surprise waves still arrive unbidden, at a smell, a memory, a moment. The heavy loads are lighter, smaller, then eventually they have begun to wash away.
That second part takes a long time. For some it never comes. And for us now, the grief is too fresh. My beloved brother in law, gone too fast and too soon, leaving my sister and her daughters alone against the buffeting water and falling horizon, too young to be a widow, too young to be fatherless. My sister was fortunate to have found a real love story in her other half, and that story should not have ended the way it did.
Too soon, brother mine. Too soon.
So we grieve. People send food, far too much food. More food than anyone could possibly eat in 2 lifetimes, food that tells us they care even if we have no appetite whatsoever.
There are calls and texts and questions “How are you?”. The real answer is “Terrible” and that’s just my grief. How do you watch your sister realize, over and over that their person is gone and never coming back? The realities are agonizing, too much to bear. The rest of your life is too long to love someone and lose them and face it alone.
All the things that are left, no longer needed where he is. Phone, car keys, shoes. Reminders of what he left behind. A world of 5 is now 4, wondering how they will ever do without him, looking at the the things that are left and wishing for just one more moment of their use.
So we do what we can. We thank the folks who brought food, we tidy up, we offer support, we field the calls. The world has wrapped us all up in a loving embrace to grieve with us. We hug, and we cry, and for the moment decide that worrying about Covid-19 has to move to the background.
We cry some more. The crying passes, but then another wave, and more arrive.
We prepare for the inevitable – a funeral, a final goodbye, the return to daily life that will be emptier, one less. The world is not a better place without him. It is far worse.
Sometimes life goes along as it does. And then every now and again, the sky ruptures and falls down upon us and the waves wash over us and the pain is too much to bear but bear it we must.
Just as all the October busyness came to an end, our son caught a cold (thankfully, just a cold) that lingered and we got it too, but in the adults it was a weird cold/stomach bug thing that apparently is floating around. For the first time since I had the Norovirus in my 20s, food was not only the last thing on my mind, but the worst thing I could possibly think about. Thankfully Eli and I tracked about 36 hours behind one another, so while I was down for the count other than work meetings he was taking care of kids and animals, and when he needed to be let off the hook, I could take over, even for a little while.
I returned to life after days with little energy and no appetite for the bounty of fruits and vegetables that fills our home, other than the apples. When I could eat though, I recognized that we needed something simple, filling and with nutritional density, so I pulled up the recipe I’d seen pre-illness of Homemade Hamburger Helper. Sure enough, I still had some shredded zucchini in the fridge from last year, and I dumped the whole frozen block of it in the pot to cook, and got at least some nutrition into everyone. Casserole-type dishes aren’t my usual, but the do have their place. I would modify this one next time, making it a bit thicker, maybe cooking the noodles separately, but as comfort food goes, this one hit the spot. It also used up some things in the fridge and freezer, so it will get some tweaks and be moved into the ‘save for cold winter night‘ column.
The weather is scheduled to finally cool in the next several days, but has been unseasonably warm for weeks. A few more tomatoes, and lots of squash are still ripening, and the weather has allowed me to leave the tropical plants outside longer than usual, but it’s now time for them to make their trek inward.
Around all of this democracy in the US continues to undergo earthquakes, the earth is on the climate brink, and the pandemic, while abating for now, is raging it’s way across the earth. Illness dogs one of my dear uncles. All of it has an effect of destabilization, giving the sense that there’s nothing to hold onto. My missives of apples and flowers and weather and dinner seem small in comparison. We live in stormy times, but what else is there to anchor to if we don’t hold to the firmament of home?
When your stomach wobbles, the world shrinks – you can’t make a meal plan when food is anathema, you can’t plan your day or even know whether a cup of ginger tea is going to help or create more unpleasantness, and you muddle through responsibilities, doing only what needs to be done, skipping everything else. So too when the world wobbles it distracts, throws us off, creates anxiety and an inability to make solid plans as well. We’ve all had a lot of stress in the last few years, and a little grace is important.
Oddly, one of the things that makes me most hopeful is articles about the tiny intricacies of home life. The Washington Post has a home maintenance series that talks about how to clean your gutters or preserve kale and potatoes. The reality is we all want our food to last longer and need the gutters cleaned. Food Network is explaining what certain food items are and how they are used, like evaporated milk. Everyone has recipes, but these are useful bits of information that actually help people, instead of wondering what some politician or celebrity is doing. They center their writing on us, not them, and are something we all can use.
The next thing we need is how to play certain card games and start local clubs. Mass media would do a lot worse if they talked about how to bring a supper club back into vogue (and of course everyone who can should be vaccinated, because that’s how you also invest in your community, by not spreading disease by accident). We need to start borrowing one another’s tools, bringing a casserole by, and hosting Supper Clubs and maybe we should all learn Whist. This is not a lyrical wax of the poetic to olden days when women wore high heels to breakfast and half of people were shut out of things on the basis of color or sexual orientation or all sorts of other things. It’s a hearkening to what’s been lost and what we all need – community. I don’t really want to learn Whist, but we do need to get back to talking to one another and the only way to do that is at ground level.
Remember the pop song Breakfast at Tiffany’s ? It’s about a couple about to break up because they have nothing in common, except they both liked the Audrey Hepburn film. It’s also a seemingly good articulation of where we are as a society. I don’t know that big sweeping things – these are important, of course – are the only thing that can save us. We need to talk to one another too, even if the only thing we can agree on is that the food needs more salt.
The size of our worlds may get smaller, but the horizons may grow much larger than we think.
It’s almost impossible to imagine that it’s already mid-October. Time seems to keep jumping forward at impossible speeds. We watched our local Fair open and close, and even braved it a couple times ourselves at not-so-busy times, rang in the number 9 for our son and went to visit my sister and her family in upstate NY, all within the month.
The garden is still producing spottily so I’m letting it run it’s course for a few more weeks. I have this weird aversion to ripping it out if even there’s a tiny chance of something ripening. And there are still – mystery squash, made mysterious by me forgetting what variety I planted and then proceeding to forget to go look in my seeds for the all-too-findable answer, are readying themselves in abundance, which is just fine with me, and a few lingering tomatoes and peppers still appear. With another week of 70-degree days ahead I expect a little more summer food out of it yet.
A trip to my sister’s invariably means a trip to the Carrot Barn and bulk fall foods to store and preserve. This time we came home not just with squashes and onions and sweet potatoes but also with half a bushel of tomatoes to can and slice. Not feeling like steaming the skins off and pureeing them, I instead decided to oven roast them before freezing.
Oven roasted is simple. Slice the tops off, slice them in half, and place on an oiled baking sheet. Roast them at 450 for 30 minutes and set aside to cool.
Peel the skins off and remove as much of the seed pulp as possible – squish them in your hand a little, then place in bags to freeze. When you defrost them they turn into sauce quickly (recipe to come). The key is to deal with them quickly, because hyper-ripe tomatoes go south fast. You can slice off any localized soft or black spots in tomatoes safely and still slice or roast them (really, you can) but typically you have about a day to use them.
I ended up with about 8 tomatoes left to use as slicers this week, so we’ll be eating a lot of tomatoes. Which is just fine with me, as everything I want these days is flavored with autumn.
Despite the warmth, it was time for roasted vegetables and a bit of creative, October-ish use of veggies, what I call the no-recipe recipes. Things that you just throw in the oven or in a pan, using what you have. Doing this is frugal, creative, and seasonal, plus healthy – all the things. One sweet potato I cut was the size of my forearm, and half of it remains in the fridge
We had 2 cabbages, so I sliced up one in an oiled pan with 4 onions and 2 Gala apples, and topped it with a bunch of sausage sliced in half. I added a few pats of butter and 1/4 cup of apple cider and roasted it for about 2 hours. I covered the pan with foil for all but the last 20 minutes or so. When you cook cabbage like this, it ‘melts’ into an ever-so-sweet and savory bed for the sausage, onion and apples.
Add to that a pan of beets, turnips, sweet potatoes, onions, leeks and carrots drizzled with olive oil and about 1/3 cup of balsamic vinegar and a sprinkle of rosemary, then roasted at 375 degrees F for about 4.5 hours and you have a tray of deliciously caramelized veggies that can be eaten with just about anything. Roasted veggies are remarkably filling and flexible and you don’t need to have a mix – try baking whole onions that way, or just a tray of whatever you have.
With a lightly salted plate of sliced tomatoes and a bit of leftover naan, Monday’s dinner dinner was simple, filling and we ate no less than 8 kinds of vegetables. Not to mention the turnips really needed to get eaten, so it was helpful in more than one ways. To eat seasonally and not waste much food takes work, but the work is so satisfying.
We bought fresh yellow and orange peppers in NY, so tonight Eli is making stuffed peppers with our Walden Local ground beef, and that too is an amalgamation of ideas – meat, sauce, cheese, cauliflower rice, put in the air fryer, which is a handy little tool we acquired for free from someone who didn’t want theirs.
Our food abundance is also a race against time to use up the things that need to get used, and that drives all our meals for a while. We’ll get back to intricate recipes in winter, but fall produce, commingled with the last few tastes of summer calls for use-what-you-have eating in it’s simplest form.