My French Brain

Posted March 13, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America, Wish I Were There

Tags: , ,


This was the “TV room” in the house we lived in in France. Here’s the sofa where we snuggled together and watched French talk shows, improving both our language skills and our understanding of the culture. I didn’t realize how much I’ve been missing that.

Last night I decided to listen to my favorite French album, one by Gérard Darmon. I’ve probably listened to it 100 times, maybe many more. The whole year before Shel died I played it regularly, and the year after I still wanted to hear it a lot. But since I’ve moved here, I’ve been too busy for music a lot of the time, and not thinking much about France because school has overtaken my life.

Last night, though, as soon as French entered my ears, my brain said a long, relieved aaahh. All of a sudden my head felt clear and freshly washed, clean clothes snapping in the breeze on the laundry line. The words of the songs seemed to go directly to my heart, and because it’s an album of love songs, my tears slicked down like the afternoon’s rain. It felt indescribably good, like coming home after a long absence, but it hurt so sharply that I gasped out loud. And I’m no masochist.

I remember how the French prize emotion, and I miss that so much. The sensibility that lead four or five grown men to break into tears when they spoke at the memorial I had for Shel, in the town where we lived, elle me manque. I’ve always felt like a different person when French is my daily language, and I want to be that person again. How could I have forgotten how much I love that?

I’m working up to saying goodbye to a lot of things on April 6, which will be the second anniversary of Shel’s death. Before you ask, I don’t know why I’ve set myself that goal, to say goodbye, on that day. I’m trying to figure that out now, and I’ll probably be thinking out loud right here.

But last night I saw that it’s linked to France, somehow. I saw someone carrying a white pizza box today, and immediately I thought of how Shel and I used to go to the Serrebonnet, and I’d always get pizza with Corsican figatelle. Friends came over unexpectedly for a drink yesterday  and I realized that my cupboards were embarrassingly bare of treats, a state I’d never have let myself get into in France. I think about friends in France and I want to feel their kisses on my salty, wet cheeks.

Spring Too Soon?

Posted March 6, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Becoming A Winemaker



Can spring ever come too soon? I’ve been so busy worrying about it being way too warm for the grapevines under my care that I’ve semi-forgotten to pay attention to the lusciousness of my own garden. There are still several weeks of possible frost ahead, and I know that a bud break in the grapes before frost is ruled out for the year could be disastrous. In my own garden, I’m not as sure.

This is my first year with this garden, and my first time gardening in this climate zone, so almost everything here was planted by someone else, someone who knew what was normal here, and many years ago at that. Now, with a warming climate, all bets are off. These hellebores are happily blooming when they should, in early March, and so I’m not fretting over them.


Perhaps these filbert catkins, so ethereally lovely, can cope. This tree looks to have been planted about when the house was built, in 1955, so who knows how many early and late springs it’s seen. It’s ancient, though, and I feel protective toward it.


But this indomitable tulip is surely confused. Last fall I buried its home in rock, not knowing there were bulbs underneath. And now it, and several more like it, have banged their heads through the stones, getting to the surface and the warmth they’d normally have found next month.


And not only is the forsythia at the height of its golden gorgeousness, so too are the roses leafing out. They say that you should prune roses when the forsythia blooms, which is definitely now, but then, what if it freezes?


I’m not worried about these guys, because I don’t know what they are or what their habits should be. I’m just happy to see their true blue every time I pull into the driveway, where they’ve come out just as the snowdrops have faded.


Nor am I worried about my scruffy, scrappy lawn, which is full of violets. My Plants professor thinks of them as weeds that should be banished from the grass, but I love them. They look like little bright Easter eggs, peeking through the unruly grass. Last night’s high wind brought down a small branch of the weeping birch, but I’m not worried about the tree either. It’s another one that’s probably stood as long as the house has, and knows how to take care of itself.

But in truth it’s hard to know when to worry and when to just admire what the world has to offer. The consequences of a freeze here in my sweet little spot wouldn’t be dire, unlike the vineyard, where crop yields could suffer mightily if the climate doesn’t cooperate. And that’s another lesson that’s not in my official curriculum – life as a farmer is uncertain, fraught with perils and powers that you can’t control. All you can do is keep your eye on the sky and hope for the best, while doing what little you can to help nature along. Wait, am I talking about farming, or life?

Getting Out Of Dodge

Posted February 15, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America


Getting my nose out of my books, for once, it suddenly occurred to me that in the six months I’ve lived in Walla Walla, I’ve only left town once, to go to Portland. That seemed plain silly, considering that there’s lovely countryside all around, just calling for a little road trip. With that in mind I inadvertently skipped an afternoon class and headed up to nearby Dayton, less than 30 miles yet light years away.


My excuse for being in Dayton was going out to lunch, although really I was craving a drive through the gently rolling fields, to see whether there were any signs of spring, and to rest my eyes from the omnipresence of grape vines by gazing at wheat fields stretching as far as the hilly horizon.


Inside the Weinhard café the ambience was cozy and the food much better than I had hoped for. Everything there is made from scratch, and fresh garlic aïoli and house-made pickles elevated a burger with a salad to something special. My server seemed to know the names of all the customers, and I imagine that by my third visit she’d know mine too.


There’s not a huge amount to do in Dayton, but I was content to stroll around it and act touristical, part of which which meant wandering through their Americana-laden antique mall.


It’s definitely an agricultural town, with the grain growers’ association having an office front and center on the main street.


Alas, the main drag also has lots of empty storefronts, some quite poignant.


On the brighter side, I enjoyed having a look at the historic train depot


and the rather grand the county courthouse.


On the way home I tried to visit this place, which appears to be a collective kitchen/workspace, but it was locked up tight. It’s hard to tell whether this is actually a going concern, and I’m very curious about it.


I did peek in the window and saw that someone is installing a distillery there, so I’ll have to go back again and try to find them open.


Paying a last homage to country life on my way back into town, I realized that there’s something about the sight of grain elevators that fills me with nostalgia, perhaps for the years I spent living in Saskatchewan. They’re such an emblematic sight, even for a person who eats no grain.

And now, back to the vines. Tomorrow we begin pruning, and I definitely don’t want to miss a minute of that, inadvertently or otherwise.



Like A Squirrel In Winter

Posted December 7, 2015 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags: ,


I’m stocking up. Savoring every bit of sunshine against those days when I go slip-sliding across the ice field formerly-known-as parking lot, those evenings when I hear rain bucketing down from the corner of my roof, as if there were no down spout. Is there one? I need to go look. What do I know from downspouts? That was Shel’s job.

I’m squirreling away my fears and tears about another Christmas without Shel. Last year I was in France, and thus avoided the worst of it. Had a sweet time, even. But this year I’ll be here, and he won’t. I’m stockpiling the memories of our 20 Christmases together. Twenty sounds like a lot but it wasn’t nearly enough. My mailbox, like yours, is inundated with catalogs in this season. And I still think “Shel would like that for Christmas” or more likely “I would love to give that to Shel for Christmas, but really, he doesn’t care about presents, he just wants to live.”

I’m trying to be reasonably bright-eyed, or least least clear-eyed, if not actually bushy-tailed, in spite of it all. To do what I came here to do, and to love it. The fact that the world is more fucked up than it has been at any point in my lifetime notwithstanding, this part of my life demands optimism.

I have to believe those acorns will still be there, come Spring. I have to believe that I can find love again in this lifetime, that happiness will sneak around the corner of my grief on a regular basis, that chirping and blooming will return to my life as the year turns.

These are the dark, cold days, but as a very wise person once wrote, and I often remind myself: “The world is always turning toward the morning.” That’s my story: Shel would want me to stick to it.


Dirty Boots And All

Posted October 30, 2015 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Becoming A Winemaker

Tags: ,


Today Ricky and Noel came and put this beautiful lady in her proper place, finishing my living room. And with naught but a measuring tape, two nails, and a miniature spirit level, they did much more than that; in some strange way they brought to a close my stage of getting comfortable in this, my new life.

That lady, she’s me, sort of, and now she’s home. Gazing into the future, but not looking like she’s forgetting the past. Disheveled and gorgeous at the same time, she looks unconventional (is that a bird on her head?) and glamorous, all in one.

Of course, I’m discovering just how unglamorous I can be. I’ve never been much for making more of myself than I just naturally am. But now I’m discovering the pleasure of muddy boots, work gloves, vine leaves in my hair, pomace on my hands, not caring. In fact, feeling kick-ass about it. The power, the freedom, they’re intoxicating. Some days I feel invincible.

But I’m finding that I do cry a lot, still. Or rather, again. For a couple of months there I was too busy moving and navigating my life as a student (grades??? exams??? seriously???) to let myself remember. But now things are settling down, and with them, my heavier heart speaks more insistently. To be alone in this world demands all the courage I have, and no amount of muddy-boot-ass-kicking can change that.

But now I have the lady to remind me: to keep my eyes on the wide open days of my future, to be whoever I can be in the sometimes tear-drenched, sometimes exalted present. To have blue hair if I want to, and birds on my head, to have a clear gaze and lips that are ready for anything and to drip right off the bottom of the world when I need to.

Thanks, Ricky and Noel, for giving me all that.

Making Ourselves At Home

Posted August 30, 2015 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Becoming A Winemaker



It’s been two weeks since Toby and I landed in our new life, and one week since Minou became part of our family. We’ve all been getting used to each other, and to our little house, and small yard. It’s a big adjustment for Toby, whose home on the island was three times the size of our house here, and who roamed freely over a wide territory, within heart-stopping range of coyotes, eagles, owls, and cars. Here we have way more cars, but so far he hasn’t gone out of the tightly-fenced yard, and I’m hoping that he never does.


It’s been so hot, right up until today, that Minou had no compunction about putting his little tongue right into my ever-present  glass of ice water. There’s often a glass of rosé near that water, but neither cat shows any inclination to follow me in my wine-loving ways. It’s been over 90° most every day, so that we were all languid and ruffled, and inclined to lounge about. Me, though, I’ve been so busy with school that the kitties have been alone together for a good part of every day, while I kept my fingers crossed on their behalf.


But today it finally cooled off, and we even had a little rain, just enough to knock the smoke out of the sky, at least for now, and let us see some blue for the first time in two weeks. Toby, who has never lived with trees, being a beach cat, has begun to think about climbing.


And although strange cats have had the habit of running through our yard, and Toby is a gentle cat who never fights, he’s beginning to take ownership of the place. Since it was even cool enough today to have some doors and windows open, I decided to let Minou go outside for the first time, which he did without fear. I’m not teaching him about the cat door yet, but he’s quite smart, and will soon see how Toby uses it. But for now, I want to be sure I’m here when he goes out. So he did go out and come in several times between lunch and dinner, and later, when I heard a suspicious post-prandial  silence, I wondered whether I’d accidentally left the door open for him.


But no, the two of them had decided to snuggle up on the sofa together for an after-dinner nap. I can’t tell you how happy this makes me, to think that they’ve become friends already. The sort of friends who curl up together after dinner, in their new home, content to not even be in the same room with me, just to be together. Because I’m heading into a fantastically busy week, in which I either will or will not pass my forklift operator test (not at all a sure thing) and there are tons of grapes coming in so I’ll be on the crush pad whenever I’m not on the forklift, and maybe on the bottling line as well, and then in the tasting room. At home in my new life, but away from home many hours a day. I’m so glad that Toby and Minou have found a home in each other, and I plan to share their coziness whenever I can.

But in the meantime, I have got to master that damned forklift!

A Gentle Soul

Posted August 23, 2015 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Becoming A Winemaker

Tags: , ,


Last night, for the first time in 16 months, I dreamed of Shel’s death. It wasn’t his actual death, in that inscrutable way of dreams, but another death. What I dreamed was that moment of leaving, that stark knowing that I’d never see him again. Perhaps I whimpered in my sleep, I don’t know.

What I do know is that this sweet three pounds of feathery fluff, who’s only lived with us for two days and hasn’t yet revealed his name, came to me at that moment, climbed onto my chest, just over my heart, and settled in to purr. And when I opened my eyes to look at him, tears that I hadn’t know were there slid slowly down my cheeks, and he patted my face very gently.

It’s a week now since I left my old life, my Shel life. I’ve worked on the crush pad, driven two forklifts, worked in the tasting room. Today I’m going to meet some new people and play boules. I’m well and truly gone from the world Shel and I shared, which in a way is like having him die all over again. I hadn’t expected this grief, because this is the new life I spun for myself out of the merest wisps of hope, the life I chose, the life that seems to be the very best life I can live at this moment. But still, in starting over I left him behind, in a profound way that still fills my eyes to overflowing.

And now I have a kitten who might read my heart. I love Toby, but he’s not an empathetic cat, doesn’t notice how I’m feeling. It’s one of the hardest things, to lose the one who always knows how you feel. Of course, a kitten and a husband are not the same thing, but maybe, just maybe, now I have someone to pat my cheek if I whimper in the night.


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