Special wishes for healing to Lulu, whose wonderful blog is at http://luluopolis.com/2015/06/06/a-surprise-part-6-good-news-good-pathology/
Beautiful glossy green leaves of spinach; buttery baby romaine; white and red onions, the mud from their earthy erstwhile home still clinging to their hair-like roots. I gentle them out of their bags and put them on the counter next to rugged, curly-leafed kale, some broccoli, and a burgeoning bunch of red, red radishes.
They make a beautiful still life, the veggies I brought home from the CSA I signed up for this year. And they challenge me: what will I do with this bounty?
I am pulling my copy of Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food off the bookshelf when I get a strong sense of deja vu. This reminds me, I think, of the time Loolie got herself roped into cooking for Thom.
We were staying at the lake for a couple of weeks that year; some friends back home had called and offered us their cottage if we were free when it was vacant. It was the summer after Mark finished law school; we were both exhilarated by his accomplishment and exhausted by the marathon that had led to it. We were happy to say yes.
The cottage was a charming rickety place on a dirt lane that led to a gravel lane that led to the beach. The three bedrooms were separated by partitions; the walls didn’t even reach the ceilings. The wood floors were smooth and blond from years of bare feet and flip flops scrubbing sand into them. The living room had old saggy furniture with canvas slip covers. There was an oval 1950’s table, metal with a formica top, in the kitchen, and four chairs with cracking vinyl seats. There was a turquoise apartment-style electric range, an old round-topped refrigerator, a big old sink with runners built into the porcelain. There was no dishwasher and no air conditioning.
But there was an indoor shower and an outdoor shower. The window screens let beautiful lake breezes flow through the house, and at night the shooshing of the waves lulled everyone off to sleep. The first full day there, a Saturday, it poured, and I discovered just how pleasant reading on a screened-in porch, rain lashing all around me, could be.
On Sunday morning, at just about ten o’clock, Loolie and Kerri pulled up in their van. We were lounging at the picnic table; I had been down to the beach for a walk, and the boyos were grilling steak and scrambling a cast-iron panful of eggs on the charcoal-fired barbecue. The day was fresh-washed after the rain; the sun shone, and the air was cool and sweet.
Loolie hopped out and carefully lifted a brown paper bag from the passenger seat. The back door slid open, and Kerri lowered herself down on the lift. She deftly wheeled her chair across the bumpy lawn to where we were gathered, and Loolie followed more slowly.
“What’s in the bag?” asked Mark, and Loolie grinned.
“What’s on the grill?” she countered.
I went inside to grab a couple more settings.
We divvied up the steak and eggs and ate every morsel, and then Loolie pulled her offering out of the bag. It was a strawberry rhubarb pie, and the rich, fruity smell wafted.
“Oh, my,” I said. “That’s still warm from the oven.”
Mark was already in the cottage, rummaging for dessert plates and a serving spoon. He came out with those and a half gallon of vanilla ice cream, a little soft from the ancient freezer. We cut the pie; the juices oozed, the crust exploded flakily, and the ice cream, dolloped on each serving, melted into puddles. It’s amazing what fresh air can do for one’s appetite–and one’s capacity. We ate, the five of us, the whole darned pie and all the ice cream.
I brought out an old plastic dish rack and piled all the dishes in it, and Jim took them over to the side of the house and hosed the whole lot down. Loolie looked at me in surprise.
“I’ll wash them later,” I said, “but this way, they’re not so sticky.”
“Were those fresh berries?” Mark asked, and Kerri said they were. She and her mom, she told him, had signed a Community-Supported Agriculture agreement with a family at the farmers’ market. It was like buying a share in the farm. Every week, the family brought them a basket with a portion of whatever was ripe. They had, Kerri said, been trying a lot of new things.
Jim, never one to indulge in veggie talk, slipped inside to find his laptop, and Loolie launched into a paean about the joys of her CSA and the creative challenge the interesting offerings presented. And just at that moment, another car pulled up, a sparkling black SUV; the door opened and a fashionably shod leg appeared.
“Oh, lord,” muttered Loolie.
It was Weedy,–elegant, tailored Weedy.
She hadn’t always been so put together, our Weedy. In fact, the etymology of her nickname came from her propensity for a certain substance, slightly illegal, during the aptly shrouded days of our high school careers. But then she and her sweetheart, Tommie, had gone off to college together, and when they came back, the scruff was gone. It was replaced by the gleam of ambition.
Tommie became Thom, and Weedy, who could not shed her nickname, began to insist it was derived from a younger sibling’s cute mispronunciation of her given name, Louisa. Thom was a CPA with political aspirations; he was a city council member, and it was no secret he was biding his time for a mayoral run. Weedy ran a local foundation and rode herd on their two children. Nobody ever suggested Thom and Weedy’s son or daughter strayed over the line of legality; they were beautiful young teens, held rigidly in line.
That Sunday morning, Weedy emerged from her sleek machine with a bulging grocery sack and a woeful face.
“I am SO glad to see you girls!” she wailed. “I need help!”
She came over and air-kissed everyone; after his obligatory buss, Mark decamped, muttering about dishes and a walk on the beach. He grabbed the dish rack and scarpered, chinking and clunking.
Weedy sighed and heaved her shoulders, and then she heaved her paper sack onto the picnic table.
“Look at THIS,” she said.
Out tumbled beautiful veggies, onions and spinach, broccoli and kale, tender leaves of lettuce. The greens and reds and pearly whites gleamed in the morning sun. It was beautiful.
We looked at the veggies, then we all turned to Weedy, not seeing the problem.
“My sister’s on vacation,” said Weedy, “and she had me pick up her weekly farm goods; she’s got one of those CSA things. And not only do I not know what to DO with this stuff, but I know Thom won’t eat a bite of it.” She put her hands on her hips; a bracelet jangled. Her expensive linen shorts suit–what the well dressed matron wears to visit friends at the beach–was charmingly rumpled.
“I guess,” said Weedy, “I’ll just throw it all away.
Loolie choked. “Throw it OUT!” she said. “Those beautiful things! Why, you can make wonderful meals with this.”
“Oh, I don’t think so, Lools,” said Weedy, sadly. “I don’t have the culinary imagination that you have. And Thom calls all this field greens. He says he’ll eat the cow but not the cow’s food.”
“I’ll tell you WHAT,” said Loolie, hotly. “I could make a meal out of this that THom would be glad to eat. He’d eat it and ask for more, Weedy!”
Loolie started pronouncing the ‘h’ in Tommie’s name about the time he, as a young, eager school board member, opposed Loolie’s request for adaptive equipment on the school playground. He’d made, Loolie’d told me, a pompous speech about understanding her request but having to be a wise steward on behalf of ALL the children. Before things got too ugly, Weedy stepped in with a foundation grant, and the playground equipment was purchased. But Loolie had never forgiven Thom.
Weedy looked at her now, woebegone. “I just don’t think you could, Loolie. There is no way Thom would ever eat a meal with these ingredients.”
“MOM,” said Kerri, warningly. But it didn’t help. Within moments, Weedy had left, the veggies had stayed, and Loolie had a commitment to cook a meal for Weedy, Thom, and their kids the next night–a meal, I should add, that would take place in the carport of our borrowed cottage.
It had all happened so fast. Kerri and I looked at each other, and then at the seductive veggies on the table; we avoided looking at Loolie.
A moment passed, and then there was a heavy sigh.
“Played me!” snorted Loolie. “She played me like a cheap plywood violin!”
I studied my winter white toes, which peeped forlornly from my summer sandals.
“Oh, well,” said Loolie, finally. “I can still make my point.”
Kerri and I looked up at the same time, met eyes, and grinned.
“I’ll be in charge of decorations, Mom,” said Kerri. “We’ll wow ’em with food AND ambiance.”
Loolie made me get a pad and pen from the house, and we started making our plan.
The challenge of the project kicked in; by Monday evening, we were ready. Loolie had organized us, organized the menu, organized the work. We had shopped and prepped; we had scrubbed and swept; and we had floated like hungry cartoons on the amazing smells emanating from pot and pan and casserole.
At 6:30 precisely, the black SUV smoothed to a stop in the cottage’s driveway, and Weedy and Thom and their children, Lisa and Todd, emerged. Kerri ushered everyone into the carport. Its walls were draped artistically with drop cloths; an old, dumpster-dove chandelier was wrapped with fairy lights and suspended from the ceiling. Two banquet tables were draped with old white sheets, and mason jars full of wild flowers served as centerpieces.
“Oh, it’s beautiful,” whispered Lisa, and I saw Loolie rigid jaw soften.
“THIS,” she said, “is all Kerri.”
Her daughter bowed her head, graciously.
Then Jim and Mark emerged with trays of appetizers, spinach and cheese in puff pastry triangles, a tray of raw veggies and a hot spinach dip, some cheese and crackers. People grabbed drinks from the old tin wash tub we’d found in the tall grass; it was scrubbed within an inch of its metallic life and filled with ice. The sounds of chooching screw tops and fwapping tabs was heard, and people organized themselves into seats.
And the dinner began. Loolie started us with a salad beautifully presented in her gleaming wooden salad bowl; spinach and kale and tender young lettuce, drenched in a sweet and sour sauce, augmented with bacon and slices of hard-boiled egg. Thom cleared his plate, scrapingly, and asked for seconds. Weedy raised an eyebrow at Loolie.
Round two was a savory French onion soup, bubbling cheese covering crusty chunks of baguette from the local bakery. The fresh, sweet onions all but melted into the homemade broth. Thom scraped the last of the cheese with his spoon, and picked up the bowl to down every last bit of broth.
And then came the lasagna, layers of kale and spinach sandwiched with mozzarella, ricotta, and fresh Italian sausage and tender pasta, the red sauce made with tomatoes Loolie had canned herself. Silence descended as people ate. And ate. And ate. The huge casserole emptied in stop-watch motion, and everyone sat back and groaned.
The silence lengthened just a little, and then Thom said, “Loolie. All of you. THAT was amazing.”
As if at a signal, people started moving and talking. Weedy grabbed Loolie and asked about recipes. Todd and Lisa went inside with Jim to play video games. Thom pulled up a chair next to Kerri’s and soon they were deep in conversation, heads bent close together. Mark and I looked at each other, sighed, and began to gather up the dishes. We needed to move.
We filled a couple of basins with the dirty dishes, gave them the hose routine, and lugged them in the house, filling and refilling the old sink with soapy water. He washed; I dried. We listened to the kids, who were having a good time; their voices rose and eddied into a kind of happy melody.
We watched the four outside, nervously.
“Everyone seems to be being very civil,” said Mark hopefully.
We stacked the last cleaned dish on the drainer and loaded up the tray with dessert plates. There was a basket of flaky homemade biscuits, a big bowl of fresh strawberries swimming in their own sugary syrup, and a dish of snowy whipped cream sitting on ice. We called the kids. They groaned a little, but they saved their game and gamely followed us out.
Loolie and Weedy had joined Thom and Kerri at the table. They looked up as we emerged.
“THom,” said Loolie, “has just invited Kerri to be part of the city’s playground planning committee. He wants to be sure the plans work for kids in wheelchairs.”
“Do you think,” Thom said, quietly, “we could go back to Tommie, Lools? And you could maybe forget that I was a horse’s ass all those years ago?”
There was a tiny moment where sentiment threatened; I could hear the music begin to swell. Then Mark said, “STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE!” and slammed his tray down on the table, and serving spoons appeared, and people who claimed they couldn’t eat one more bite not thirty minutes ago were heaping their plates.
The men built a fire; the kids headed down to the beach, Kerri’s wheels crunching on the gravel. Weedy and Thom insisted on taking care of dessert dishes. And then we sat around the fire, completely replete, and we talked and laughed without any stiffness or reservation. It was lovely, and Tommie and Weedy stayed until after midnight, when they dragged their sleepy kids home.
Jim excused himself to head to bed, and Mark and Loolie and Kerri and I sat around the fire, sweatshirts on against the cool lake breezes, watching the embers sigh and open, neon against the smoky ash. Oh, it was quiet. I thought about friendship and rifts and what it takes for healing to take place.
“That was something, wasn’t it?” I said thoughtfully.
“Yeah,” said Loolie. “It really was, wasn’t it?” I saw her grin in the glow of the dying fire.
“Yep,” she said. “He ate every bit of the cow food I served him. I told Weedy. I told her.”
Kerri grinned and started humming, channeling Marvin Gaye. Then her sweet voice soared into the night:
When I get that FEELing I need VEGETABLE healing. Vegetable: whooaah Oh! It’s been GOOD for ME!
Loolie picked it up, and I joined in, too. We three women harmonized, Mark beating rhythm on the washtub, until we heard a nearby window scrape open and a neighbor’s irritated cough.
Healing powers, indeed, I think now. The memories make me grin. And they send me to my recipe notebook, to pull out the ‘Farmer’s Lasagna’ recipe written in Loolie’s bold scrawl. I’m humming as I work, and I bet you can guess the tune.
We will eat well tonight.