The End Of Time

Posted August 4, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags: , ,

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Shel’s watch stopped today. After keeping faithful time for the 854 days, 20,496 hours, and 1,229, 760 minutes since his death, elle a rendu l’âme, it gave up the ghost.

It’s not like it’s a pretty watch, or a valuable one. I can’t even wear it, the band was painfully reduced in size to fit Shel’s shrinking wrist, that last year. But I’ve kept it, because he wore it every day for 17 years, and I got used to seeing it. When he died I can’t say that I looked at it every day, or even with any particular regularity. Sometimes I would just need to see it, and would pick it up to find that time was still scrolling along, Shel-style.

But today I picked it up and it was running, then in the barest flicker of a moment, it went blank. Stopped for good, right while I was watching. Just like Shel did.

And now I don’t know what to do with it. It’s different from keeping and wearing one of his sweaters. The watch is a thing that was alive and moving and is now dead. It outlived him. It has no utility. What is a memory worth, anyway? It had only one function, one that it can no longer perform. Should I take it as some sort of sign? Is it one further piece of proof of the randomness of the Universe?

I’m thinking about whether to keep it. And about how no one else would want it, and about whether I would dare to throw it away. I wonder whether to maybe put a new battery in it, and let it remind me of him. Or would it always remind me, more truthfully, of stopping, of flickering out, of the life being sucked right out of you?

Of course every moment in time becomes just a memory, only an instant after its birth. I could let this memory go, but I don’t know what I would be losing.

 

 

The Courage To Cook

Posted July 16, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags: , ,

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Widows often say that they’ve stopped cooking. They don’t have the heart, they say. They no longer care what they eat, they say. They can’t bear to eat alone, can’t bring themselves to shop and cook just for one.

I admit that I don’t cook the way I used to, but I have kind of prided myself on the fact that I do cook for myself, do make an effort to eat well, go to the farmer’s market, frequent the good butcher shop, take care of myself as best I can.

And I’ve made sure that I always have something to read when I sit at the table alone, and I’ve mostly tried to taste the food and not just lose myself in a novel, as you might in a good conversation. Eating alone is one of the hardest things, it seems like an act against nature. But for two years and three months I have sat alone with a plate of something or other, and I have managed, as my grandmother used to say, to keep body and soul together.

Then tonight, don’t ask me why, I decided to roast a chicken. I’ve cooked and eaten a lot of chicken over those twenty seven months, but for some reason I’ve never actually roasted a whole chicken. I’ve just made pieces and parts for myself, as if I didn’t merit a whole bird. And as I was stuffing that chicken with garlic cloves and lemon slices, and showering it with salt, I found myself wondering whether I should make gravy with the drippings.

One minute I was contemplating stirring some good cream into the fragrant juices and reducing them, and the next minute I was doubled over the sink, wailing, tears slicking down, out of nowhere. Because, of course, a roast chicken with lemon and garlic and cream gravy was Shel’s favorite dish, and I’d forgotten all about that. If I’d remembered, in the butcher shop, I would have bought more bits and pieces and fed them to myself, never thinking about missing the whole. But now, it’s too late. The chicken is in the oven, roasting away as if he were here to eat it. I’ve avoided this pain so far -since his death I haven’t baked chocolate chip cookies or pound cake or biscuits, the things that remind me unbearably of my former life in the kitchen. But the chicken sneaked up on me, ambushed me after a hard afternoon of muddling through winery math problems. Cooking was meant to be a respite from that work, but instead tumbled me headlong into a sinkhole of grief.

I can smell it now as it roasts, the lemon note floating above the garlic, the golden skin crisping. It’s the thought of the gravy that undoes me. Yes, I know I can sauté those tiny eggplants with my friend’s zucchini, I know I can pour wine, because I can always pour wine. But do I have the courage to make that gravy, and serve it to only me, myself, and I? There’s still twenty-five minutes on the timer. Twenty-five minutes to face the fact that he will never again carve the chicken, serving himself the breast and me, the leg and wing. Twenty-five minutes to stare into the face of loss. What would you do?

 

And The Livin’ Is Easy

Posted June 26, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America, Posts Containing Recipes

Tags: ,

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Oh summertime. Those sweet early summer days when it’s hot but not suffocating, when all I want to do it be in the garden and the vineyard. And put things up.

I’ve been having a sweetly old-fashioned weekend, making vin de noix, then raspberry jam from my garden raspberries, then French-style apricot jam with fruit that was a gift from a friend. Americans like their jam set up, firm, jam that behaves itself on a piece of toast. Hence my raspberry version, seeds and all, cooked to 220° to ensure a firm set. The French like their jam runny, oozing off a buttered baguette or spooned over yogurt, with big chunks of fruit, and so my apricot jam macerates overnight, cooks to only 210°, and has mouthfuls of succulent apricot flesh. Chacun à son gout, to each her own, and I’m pretty sure that both are delicious, containing, as they do, noting but fruit and sugar. My friends and family will have to tell me, since I won’t be tasting either of them.

Nor will I drink the vin de noix, since it too contains plenty of sugar. It’s funny, this compulsion I feel, to make things with beautiful summer produce that I’ll never taste. I do it for the pure joy of working with the ingredients, all jewel-like and filled with sunshine, and for the pleasure of giving and serving my creations to others. Weird, huh?

But I’ve also been harvesting kale and chard by the armload, as well as what I fear will be the last of the broccoli, lettuces and arugula for the season, and those I do devour happily. My tomatillo plant is covered with baby fruit, the cucumbers are scrambling up the trellis and flowering like mad, the beans are twining, and the tomatoes are just beginning to flower.

That’s life in the garden, one luscious things appears just as you’re mourning the passing of what came before. If you’re lucky, that’s life on Earth.

 

This Is My (New) Country

Posted June 14, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags:

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I needed to get away. The news of the Orlando massacre was more than I could bear, and I was bone-weary after finishing my first year of school. I planned a little overnight getaway for myself, just me, up in Joseph, Oregon. Everyone said it was so beautiful, and that the journey was almost better than the destination.

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I headed out of town and up into the Blue Mountains, Very low mountains, but still.

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Normally it’s about two hours from Walla Walla to Joseph, but I dawdled along, stopping to take pictures. For example, the Blue Mountains are sometimes red,

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sometimes green.

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This was my first glimpse of the Wallowa River far below,

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and as soon as I could get right down to it I did.

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It’s no wonder that it was way past lunchtime when I pulled into the town of Enterprise, Oregon, and up to the Red Rooster Cafe. Which, if you’re ever in Enterprise, is a great place to stop, with food that really exceeded my expectations for freshness and imagination. And there’s also a Napa Auto Parts store, which saved my butt on my return trip by providing me with the new windshield wipers I’d been procrastinating about for the past few months.

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Pulling in to Joseph, with its lovely backdrop of the Wallowa Mountains, I discovered that every street corner displays bronzes from local foundries, to very good effect.

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This is Nez Perce country, and Chief Joseph presides over his former dominion.

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But I was staying at the Wallowa Lake Lodge, so after a thorough walkabout on the main street of Joseph, I went just a few miles out of town to the lake. The lobby is everything you would want in a lodge.

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And even the hallway was picturesque. It’s old-fangled, no TVs, no phones in the rooms, but, surprisingly, reliable wi-fi.

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The lodge isn’t actually on the lake; instead it borders the Wallowa River which flows to the lake in the very near distance.

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And here’s where the magic and the surprise entered the picture. My friends and classmates Kelly and JJ, by the purest coincidence, happened to be camping in the state park just next to the lodge. So they were able to walk over and sit on the lawn overlooking the river with me, and a really nice bottle of wine,

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before we had a pretty decent dinner in the lodge’s dining room. That was followed by a sleep with all the windows open to hear the tree frogs singing. Little did I know that what they were singing about was the fact that it was about to rain for the next five days. So in the morning all was sodden, but what is a lodge lobby for, if not sitting cozily and reading?

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I had planned a morning trip to the town’s foundry, which gives one guided tour each day, and then the rain convinced Kelly and JJ to delay at least some of their hiking plans and join me on the foundry visit, so what I had envisioned as a solitary trip was something entirely better.

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They make a lot of amazing things in that foundry, but we weren’t allowed to take pictures until the very end, in the Life Size room. This is a firefighter in progress, I think for a memorial. And indeed, he looks deathly.

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And remember that stunning eagle up top? Here he’s posing with Kelly and JJ, showing off his mighty size.

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Since it was raining, and Minou was home alone, I decided to call it a trip. But wait, I forgot to mention the distillery, right near the foundry. They give tastes, and those tastes are very convincing. So’s their story, since the distiller is a grain farmer who decided to turn his rye, corn, and barley into some really nice spirits.

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On the way home, just outside the little town of Lostine, was this perfect time capsule.

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The weather was still unsettled when I dropped into the valley, which was looking absolutely at its best. And then I was home, heart full of beauty and camaraderie, completely transported into another mind-scape after being away only 30 hours.

And I can report that Minou didn’t approve of being left home alone one little bit, and is still talking to me about it.

 

The Sweetness Of May

Posted May 1, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Customs

Tags: ,

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A lovely French custom is to offer people sprigs of lily of the valley on this day, the 1st of May. It’s a custom that is said to go all the way back to the Renaissance, falling in and out of favor over the centuries, but always signifying good luck and good fortune.

Normally France has at least as many bureaucratic restrictions as any other country on earth, but on this day anyone may sell muguets on the street, not needing a permit, which I think contributes greatly to the public good and general happiness quotient. I remember that my first year in France I bought a handful and handed them out to the butcher, the baker, and pretty much everyone who made my life there more pleasant. It was only later that I learned that you usually only give them to friends, but by that time, those people had become my friends, so I chalked it up to the power of the sweet little flower.

This year, my new garden is full of them, and the corner where they grow smells intoxicatingly sweet. I bring them into the house, admiring their creamy white and oh-so-delicate bells, and think of France, about how I’d love to wander my old neighborhood, handing out little sprigs of happiness.

But this year it will have to be virtual, des muguets virtuels, and I offer some to you. From a cool, fragrant little corner of my life, a symbol of friendship and good luck, please accept them with my hopes that you have a lovely May Day, with just a soupçon of la vie française.

Spring Has Sprung

Posted April 16, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags: ,

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I know that some of you are still suffering through the last dreary days of the year, so I thought I’d cheer you up with the things that really cheer me up – my garden, and Minou. Both are in fine fettle these days. Here’s a little peek at my garden.

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The entire foreground  used to be lawn, but I had it taken out last fall and replaced with drought-tolerant plantings. It’s just starting to come to life. The gorgeous dogwood tree was already there

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and I love its extravagant showiness. At first I thought it was a rare treasure, but now I see that the whole neighborhood is full of them, the exact same variety – there must have been a big sale on them about 20 years ago.

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Tulips have such a short life, but such a radiant one.

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I planted a cool little tree, a Forest Pansy, which is a kind of redbud. This is its first season to flower.

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Every day I inspect the garden for new flowers, and Minou almost always accompanies me on my rounds.

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At the end of the day this is a sweet spot to sit with a glass of wine, reading the paper, or grilling something for supper, maybe doing a little homework. You can think of me there in just a couple of hours, wine in hand and something on the grill, although definitely minus the homework today. The forecast for today and tomorrow is “sunny and delightful” and I’m taking full advantage of that gift.

From Darkness, Light

Posted April 6, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags: , ,

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I awoke expecting to feel gutted, on this, the second anniversary of the day Shel died, which was the worst day of my life. I had long envisioned misery, had prepared for it as for an arduous journey. As part of that, I decided to take the advice of hospice, which I had previously scorned, that alcohol and drugs make grief worse, and hadn’t altered my consciousness with anything but the scent of my plum tree in bloom for the past three days.

In anticipation of sorrow, and also because my back was sore from raking in the vineyard, I had slept in my recliner, which always feels like sleeping enveloped in a giant hug. Minou slept in my lap, on the fuzzy blue blanket that Shel used to wrap himself in, and instead of waking me up by knocking random things off my desk as he normally might, he snuggled and purred gently until I felt ready to face the day.

I got up slowly, waiting to feel fragile. I had thought about not going to school, lest I burst into tears in the middle of answering a question about soil micronutrients. I solemnly made myself a comforting breakfast.

And then, I found myself washing dishes, making phone calls I’d been neglecting, doing a little homework, dressing for a warm day, zipping up my backpack, and letting my car follow the well-worn path between my house and school, where I spent an absolutely normal day.

Coming home to a lovely warm afternoon on the patio, I was so tempted by a bottle of rosé in the fridge. And I thought two things about that. One was that maybe they were right, maybe I felt better because I hadn’t been drinking at all. And the other was that I should be feeling worse, that it was unfaithful of me to be spending this day without dissolving into a puddle of sadness. And so I tried, I really did. I thought about all the things that usually tear me apart, about everything I lost on the day Shel died, about how profoundly shattering it was to watch his beautiful light go out. For the first time in two years tears didn’t come to my eyes at the thought of it all. I’m staying away from that rosé though, just in case.

Perhaps later, as darkness falls upon me, grief will accompany it, although I don’t feel it lying in ambush. I wish Shel were here to see the new life I’m slowly making for myself, how I’ve navigated living alone for two years with only Minou for constant comfort, and even to see my tearless eyes on this momentous day. I think he’d be really proud of me.


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