Night Flowers

Posted September 19, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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Two minutes into sleeping, not more than three, Toby woke me up by flying through the cat door noisily and alarmingly. It’s a quirk of mine: if awakened just after falling asleep, I’m up. It takes me what would have been a full REM cycle, about 90 minutes, before I can hope to recapture slumber.

“Drat that cat” I think, and then, suddenly and without warning, I’m in tears. Just a year ago I had Shel, and Beppo, and Zazou. I never dratted them. My little family, we’d been together through a lot. We took Beppo to France with us, one of the best cats ever. In France we got Zazou to keep him company, one of the prettiest cats ever. Together they lived a bi-national life with us and were part of our everything. And there was Shel, one of the best husbands ever, who really was my everything.

I had all that I wanted, except Shel’s health. Then a fast and careless driver killed Beppo, and Shel and I mourned as if he’d been our child. Next a slow and lethal cancer took Shel, and some days I mourn like there’s no tomorrow. And then Zazou walked out into the evening and never came back. My everything has disappeared, my life as I knew it is shattered.

Thus it is that half an hour ago I was peacefully asleep, and now, I’m here. I’m here to say that I’m going back to France in November, and in some ways I’m so sad about it. In our little town in France are some of the people I love most in the world, and they loved Shel too, and we haven’t yet had a chance to grieve his loss together. So what might sound like a glamorous “going to spend the winter in the south of France” is in reality going to mourn it all again, in the company of dear friends.


Less than a year ago we were there together. Now I’ll be alone.

I’ve got Leonard Cohen’s beautiful song Dance Me to the End of Love running through my head, and I’m thinking that yes, that’s what I did for Shel, danced our dance with him to the very end, the end of our love. And I wonder who, if anyone will do that for me. It’s hard not to feel stranded on the face of an indifferent planet, especially in the middle of the night, when even the flowers have closed their eyes.



Food For Thought

Posted September 14, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America, Posts Containing Recipes

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DSC_9056Today I haven’t seen, nor spoken to, another person. Toby and I have had a couple of heartfelt conversations, but although talking to a cat can be sweet and comforting, it’s not a very intellectual experience. So I’ve had a lot of time to think.

The day was hot and sunny, with just the slightest dash of autumn in the air. The water has been shushing and lapping all day, as it does, but with a poignant little song that says “you won’t be sitting out on that deck too much longer, missy, so you’d better drink it all in now.”


There are still bees in the garden, stocking up for the coming winter, and the dahlias are out in full glory. It was a perfect day for a summer-preserving project, and here’s one of my favorite things to put up as the sun begins to go down earlier and earlier. I can’t eat them, of course, but I still love to make them, and they’ll make lovely holiday gifts. Make them right now, while the Italian prune plums are still in the market. Make them, but don’t eat them, yet. The longer these plums soak in their sweet brandy syrup the headier and more fragrant they’ll become.

This is a recipe that someone gave me many years ago, and they’ve sustained me many a time through the fading of the summer, the contemplation of the dark days to come. Because no matter how cold, wet, light-starved, or miserable you might be in the coming months, these plums will always bring you back to the warm, juice-dripping days of summer, whether or not you have someone with whom to share them.

Madison Valley Brandied Plums

3 lbs Italian prune plums
1 2″ long cinnamon stick
2 cups sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups brandy

Boil a pot of water as deep as the shoulder of your canning jar. This amount will make about a 2 quart jar full, and it’s easier to make it all in one large jar, although I sometimes, like today, make some in smaller jars (just beware of burning yourself with smaller jars!).

Wash the plums, remove their stems, and with a needle, pierce each one 6-7 times around the stem end. Pack them in to the jar, adding some plums cut in half to fill in the empty spaces. Tuck the cinnamon stick in there somewhere as you fill the jar.

In a medium pan bring the sugar, salt, and 1 cup water to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Let this syrup cool for 10 minutes, then add the brandy. (And don’t go using expensive cognac here, just a reasonably-priced brandy will do just fine). Immediately pour this syrup into the jar, covering the plums.

Partially cover the jar and place it in the boiling water. Let it cook for 6-7 minutes, until you see the syrup at the top of the jar bubbling. Very carefully remove the jar from the water (here’s where burning yourself with those small jars comes in), tighten the lid, and set it to cool. When cool, store in the refrigerator for at least 2 weeks and up to several months before serving. In addition to the delight of eating these plums all by themselves, the syrup is delicious over ice cream, yogurt, or pound cake, and you could probably make a dynamite cocktail with it too.

What He’ll Never Know

Posted August 25, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags: , ,


Shel’s been gone from this world for four and three-quarters months now, and I’m having a hard time of it. I’ll think I’m doing better, and then suddenly, the no-Shel reality slaps me in the face once again.

I woke up in the middle of one night so sick I almost called 911. What stopped me was the realization that I couldn’t even get upstairs to open the door for them and I’d hate to see it broken into. Shel wasn’t here. I’ve been CT-scanned, ultra-sounded, and now antibiotic-ed, physical therapy-ed, and am feeling somewhat better. Shel never knew about any of it, and he wasn’t here to help me get through it.


He also doesn’t know that Zazou has been gone for the same three weeks that I’ve been sick. I’m so glad that he doesn’t know, because she loved him the most, and he’d have been so sad to lose her.


He doesn’t know that I had an 80th birthday party for our friend Sheila, and that I baked her this gorgeous cake. The last time I made this treat was for Shel’s own birthday, his very last birthday cake. I don’t even want to think about what jokes he told at his very last Thanksgiving, what I gave him for his very last Christmas. I still haven’t emptied his closet – those things he wore are so dear to me now, they touched him, still look like him.

I’ve written three articles for publication this month, so it hasn’t been all fainting couches and Kleenex, but I’m feeling it so deeply these days. He’s gone, he’s not coming back, just like Beppo and Zazou. It’s the end of an era, an era I loved above all my other time on Earth.  He’ll never know what I do next, how I feel, what I’ll become. He’ll never know how I die, and I guess that’s a good thing. He’ll never see how our sons turn out, won’t see Eric marry, won’t see my hair go grey, if it ever does.


His life is actually over. That’s so hard to fathom. I’m not a wife. That’s even harder to grasp. Alone on the day-to-day sea, trying to stay afloat.

Save The Bees Knees

Posted August 1, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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Bees are in the news almost every day, all up in your face when it’s a slow news day in the Middle East or Ukraine, and today I even saw Toby get stung right in the kisser. There’s colony collapse disorder, arguments about whether or not neonicotinoid insecticides are involved, talk of mass starvation when pollinators disappear into the beepocalypse, and worse.

Yet my garden has hundreds of bees in it at any given moment. They love lavender, and salvia, and my garden is overflowing with both of them. I sometimes sit for an hour, watching the bees, who pay absolutely no attention to me, and thinking about how they might disappear from the Earth, and how we all do disappear, and similarly non-summery thoughts.

But one good thing I realize is that the bees love my garden, and they’re not dying here. And it’s something we all can do, plant a garden full of flowers that bees love, and do everything possible to provide their favorite habitat. It’s not the long-term solution, but for once in the scheme of impending world disasters there’s actually something we can do to help.

Plus, watching bees and smelling the lavender gives you something to do when you forgot to charge your phone.

A Town So Nice

Posted July 23, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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Do you know Walla Walla, sometimes referred to as “the town so nice they named it twice?” Fortunately I know it, I love it, and thanks to a very generous invitation I was able to spend this past weekend there,


attending the first annual Friends of James Beard weekend.*


The festivities began at the lovely old schoolhouse that is now home to L’Ecole winery, where at least 15 different bottles of wine were placed on each table “family style,” if you grew up in a wine-obsessed family. I took my friend Laura with me, and this is where she learned about dump buckets, as it was impossible to actually drink all of those wines, but imperative to at least taste them all.

DSC_8724L’Ecole alone could have supplied that many wines, but happily there were many wineries represented, and many winemakers on hand to be quizzed about and complimented on their wines.


Of course there was glorious food to go with all that wine,



prepared by, from right to left, Executive Chef of the Marc restaurant Antonio Campolio, his Executive Sous Chef Erik Johnson, and Chef Dan Thiessen, Director of the Wine Country Culinary Institute. Needless to say, we all left that first dinner in decidedly cheerful spirits.


We then spent three thoroughly enjoyable nights at the historic Marcus Whitman hotel. Here’s owner Kyle Mussman showing us a cool mural depicting not only the hotel but also other scenes from historic Walla Walla life.


The hotel is full of striking details, like the beautiful plaster-work on the ceiling here, made to look like carved wood.


I was lucky enough to spend a night in the cushy Eisenhower Suite. The interior has been completely restored, but President Eisenhower did sleep in this exact spot.


The next day we took a fascinating tour of the Institute for Enology and Viticulture, where director Tim Donahue showed us the ropes, and had us taste some student-made wine, which was surprisingly good.


Then Chef Dan Thiessen showed us around at the culinary program’s kitchen and dining room, where students were busy preparing our lunch.



They do nice work, those students. The wine and culinary programs are very interesting in that they aim to be entirely self-supporting by selling their products, through College Cellars, for the wine, and the culinary program actually runs a food truck from which it can do catering, as well as a student café.


Then Laura and I got a private tour of the stunning Corliss Estates facility,

DSC_8790where winemaker Andrew Trio showed us what winemaking looks like when a winery has all the money in the world, which I think Corliss pretty much does. In addition to the Corliss label, whose wines are indeed very good, they also produce another label, Tranche, with the idea of making an edgier product.


The Tranche bottling line was running while we were there. Tranche was my big surprise of the trip – I’d never heard of it before, and their wines turned out to be some of my favorites of the entire weekend.

DSC_8794Ending the weekend with a bang and a fizz, the chefs prepared a gin and plum sorbet for 120 guests, using liquid nitrogen. It had been scorching in Walla Walla the whole time we were there, averaging about 96°, and I can tell you that a huge vat of liquid nitrogen spilling and fuming onto the floor can really drop the surrounding temperature in a hurry. It made for a very cool finish to a hot weekend, in every sense. It’s a treat to be surrounded by so many dedicated professionals who are truly passionate about what they’re doing, and the delicious products of their efforts.

If you haven’t been to Walla Walla recently, and especially if you’ve never been at all, there couldn’t be a better time. Go, eat, drink, and be merry – it’s the Walla Walla way.

*Full disclosure: my trip was hosted by the charming Kyle Mussman at his beautiful Marcus Whitman hotel.

Moon Flies Free

Posted July 12, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags: , ,

DSC_8693The super moon has gotten herself caught in the branches of this garden of earthly delights. Me, I wish I could find my way back to the garden from this, my lost place. I see it, but I can’t yet get there from here.

DSC_8698She rises above all terrestrial entrapments. She’s more buoyant than I am, I who see shadows everywhere I look, flickers out of the corner of my eye, presence in absence, no Shel anywhere but still, Shel everywhere.

DSC_8703She flies free, on her own path. I’m still seeking mine.

DSC_8713-001This is the first day since Shel died 14 weeks ago that I haven’t seen a soul. I’ve spoken on the phone, three times, but aside from people passing on the water, I haven’t seen another person. This has been my day to be super-alone woman, on the day of the super moon.

Thar She Blows

Posted July 6, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America, Posts Containing Recipes

Tags: , ,

DSC_8607We’ve had a beautiful 4th of July weekend, our first without Shel. We kind of alternated between saying things like “Oh, Shel would have loved to see our new kayaks and see how Eric modified the boathouse to give them a snug home that I can get them in and out of” and “You know, if Shel were here, we’d never be eating lunch outside in the rain under the patio umbrella like the demented Northwesterners we are.”

DSC_8557-001The weekend started off with this procession of feathered friends, the baby goslings now almost indistinguishable from their parents, even though they’re just a few months old.

DSC_8589Then, early in the morning of the 4th, before Eric and Jessica and Jordan arrived, I thought I heard cries for help from out on the water. I went and looked, and saw a sailboat with several adults aboard, not going anywhere but not sinking, so I went back to my holiday baking. But then I heard it again, distinct cries of “Help! Help!” I went out with the binoculars and realized that the sailboat didn’t have any wind, and they also seemed unsure about how to set the sails, and their motor must have crapped out. Several motor boats passed them by, perhaps not hearing their calls, and then another sailboat, under motor, stopped to help them, and ended up towing them out of sight. First time I’ve seen something like that happen, and it really made me think about what I would have needed to do, besides call the Coast Guard, if they’d been in real trouble and no one else were around.

DSC_8598Once they were safely under tow I went back to my baking, and that baking resulted in this, an Internet baking meme if ever there was one. Possibly you yourself baked this patriotic cake too, whose recipe is here . I halved the recipe so that I could make it in a 9×13″ pan, since the recipe as written makes an enormous cake. Also I added a little almond extract to the batter, and the cake was pronounced to be delicious by those that devoured it.

But the most amazing thing that happened on the 4th occurred when I was too far from my camera to show it to you – the passage of two small gray whales right in front of the house. Jordan and I were on the beach watching Eric and Jessica give the new kayaks their maiden voyage, when WHOOSH, the spouts of two passing whales blew right in front of us. We were totally spellbound, and followed them down the beach for a while, until they swam out of sight. I’d heard that very occasionally whales come through here, but had never seen a single one. I’m so sorry that Shel didn’t get to see this – he would have been beside himself with joy, just as we were.

DSC_8631And then today, right after everyone had left, I was once again realizing that I live in the midst of incredible beauty, but I live alone with it. And I have to say that alone is probably my least favorite word in the English language right now. But suddenly I heard the unmistakable sound of a marching band, right outside my door. Astounded, I ran to look, and there, on the deck of a passing ferry, was in fact a band, playing a New Orleans kind of tune for what I assume were delighted passengers.

Thirteen weeks now since Shel died, the longest three months of my life. Time bends in the most peculiar way all around me, sometimes it seems that he was here with me just a minute ago, sometimes like he’s been gone for years. But right here and now there were whales, and a brass band, blowing me back into the present, which was a very great and much needed gift.


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