The Thousand Days

Posted January 14, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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This has been a rough week. Unrelenting snow and ice, temperatures well below freezing night and day, back in school after many months, and I have been off kilter the whole time. Bothered by everything, pleased by nothing. Too much so to be explained by mere weather, mere homework. Finally, though, just before falling asleep, it came to me. This has been the week of the thousand days, the thousand nights.

A thousand days since Shel died. A thousand days of making my way through life alone, hands outstretched, groping in the dark. A thousand days of picking myself up off the floor and telling myself to get back in the game. A thousand mornings of going out into the world trying to be a good, brave girl. A thousand afternoons of coming home to an ever-empty house.

A thousand days of putting air in my own tires, of trying to figure out how to put things together, and take things apart. A thousand days of talking to myself, singing to myself, cooking for myself. Trying to encourage myself, appreciate myself, dress for myself, tuck myself in and wish myself a good night. A thousand nights of sleeping alone.

A thousand days of wiping my own tears, celebrating my own triumphs. Going to the doctor by myself, going to the hardware store by myself, going to England, France, and Canada by myself, moving to a new town, watching our world spin and wobble, forgetting to mark the days as they come and go. Being hot by myself, cold by myself, happy and unhappy and everything else by myself. Getting older, by myself.

I never would have believed I’d get this far away from him. A thousand days. A thousand nights.



The Age Of Apathy

Posted November 11, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America



I don’t want to mince words, nor do I want to say things I’ll regret later. But above all I don’t want to leave this unsaid.

Probably like many of you, I have a friend who did not vote for Hillary Clinton, for the usual and tiresome list of reasons. He also claims that Trump “did not win on my account.” And he says, with a discouraging regularity, like so many of us, “whatever” and “it is what it is.”

Our language reveals the apathy that’s endemic to our society. We live in a world where, rather than stand up for what we believe we shrug it off with a whatever, vapidity masquerading as tolerance. A world where we don’t put in the energy and effort to make it what it should be, sighing that it is what it is to excuse our inaction.

In fact “it is what it is” because that’s what we do. We accept that “whatever” is good enough, is the best we can hope for, and then we justify our failure to make things right by saying that things are what they are, full stop. So almost half of us didn’t even bother to vote, chose not to vote against racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, threats of violence, abuse of the most vulnerable. Just stayed home, watched the election on TV, and when their abstention had allowed a despicable despot to get in line to run our country, I have no doubt that they absolved themselves of responsibility with one of those two odious phrases.

I can’t blame my friend for being who he is. I can only blame myself for thinking he was someone different. Same thing goes for my fellow citizens. I thought that decency still had the upper hand in our society. I was blind to a truth that I hoped never to see. The age of “whatever” is upon us, whatever is exactly what we’re going to get, and it’s arguably what we deserve. It is what it is until we change it.

Peel Me A Grape

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



I fully intended to go to the fair. I wanted to see the animals, the kids’ 4-H projects, the pies, the jams and jellies. I really didn’t give a hoot or a holler about the concert stages, the fair foods, the hordes of visitors. I just wanted a metaphorical taste of the country life.

But somehow, instead of going to the fair, I became the fair.

My Concord grapes were so ripe that I could smell them from the driveway. I happen to think that their perfume is deeply thrilling, and I would eat them if I could, even though most people don’t consider them fit to be table grapes. Last year I gave them all to the food pantry, because they came ripe just as I was moving in, and I didn’t have the time for them.

This year I decided to make jam, which is truly a labor of love. I de-stemmed and then peeled 13 pounds of grapes, which took me the better part of an afternoon and evening. I wished for an old-fashioned huge family, sitting around the table, popping the fruit from the skins amid merry chatter. Instead, I sat outside on a lovely afternoon happily free from yellow jackets, and with the encouragement of some very nice tequila popped until I feared I could pop no more. And then, inevitably, I popped even more, because 13 pounds is roughly a million grapes. Fortunately friends came to harvest the remaining 40-50 pounds, because really, I was popped out.

But while I was popping the clear, seedy pulp from the fragrant near-black skins I looked up and saw that my plum tree had lots of ripe fruit, most of it too high for me to reach. I snatched down what I could, and made a few jars of plum-cardamom preserves. The rest will have to wait until a friend with a ladder comes to pick them for me. Whoever planted that tree let it get way too tall for picking. I don’t know what I’ll do with the rest of the plums, but it definitely won’t involve peeling them.

Plus, I remembered the pumpkins that a friend gave me last weekend, just waiting to be roasted, puréed, and frozen until Thanksgiving. So that’s up next, as soon as I wash just about every large bowl and huge pan in my kitchen, all of which are currently coated in stickiness.

The peculiar part is that, low-carb person that I am, I won’t eat any of it. I made it all to give away, because I can’t stand letting beautiful produce go to waste, and I love that it grows effortlessly in my garden, and because I enjoy feeling like a long-ago country girl, if only for a day or two. All that by way of saying that I had a good excuse for not making it to the fair, although I really did want to go. Next year I’ll have to plan better and not wait until the last day of the fair to start peeling those grapes. Or maybe I’ll gather a jolly popping crew and we’ll go to the fair together. Because whatever the next year may bring, there’s sure to be fruit, and there’s sure to be a fair.

Parting The Sea

Posted August 27, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America



I have a new friend, I’ll call her Maricela, with whom I can barely speak. I’m technically her English tutor, a job for which I am really not qualified since she speaks only a few words of English and is, to put it gently, not gifted at language-learning. I, however, am.

She desperately needs to learn English, and she knows that. I think she desperately needs an American friend too, and so, 85% of the times, she speaks Spanish to me instead of working at her English. Even though she knows that I don’t speak Spanish, she bares her soul to me. She tells me, in Spanish, about her seven children, about her work cleaning hotel rooms, about her daughter who is pregnant and the baby’s father is in Mexico and can’t get a green card. She tells me about the house she and her husband are trying to buy and about how the American mortgage system is driving them crazy, and stressing them out beyond bearing.

She tells me all this in Spanish, and so Maricela is teaching me much more Spanish than I am teaching her English. I try. I prepare lesson plans, and I always put the vocabulary in both languages, so I’m learning a lot that way. But mostly I’m learning because when I can’t understand what she’s telling me she holds my hands across the table and looks into my eyes and tries to speak right through my incomprehension. And, amazingly, I am starting to understand quite a lot. I wish I could say the same for her English.

The other day, for some reason, she was talking to me about going to church. In Spanish, of course. And she told me that she’s Catholic, and devout, and then she wanted to know about my religion. She ran down a long list of religious affiliations, leaving out judia? (for Jewish) but asking adventista? (for the seventh day folks). And finally, after I said no to each and every one, she looked down and asked me very softly “crees en Dios?” And I had to say no, no creo. And you don’t need to know Spanish, or even anyone Mexican, to imagine how crestfallen she was to hear that.

But she rallied, and let me know that it didn’t matter, and that we were still friends, and invited me to her daughter’s baby shower. It’s strictly forbidden by the tutoring association that we ever go to each other’s homes. I tried to explain that it’s not allowed, that I had signed a contract. And she said that we just wouldn’t tell them, and that there would be lots of good Mexican food, and that the party would be fun even though I wouldn’t be able to understand more than a few words anyone was saying.

Somehow I understood all that. Fortunately she knows how to say “baby shower” in English, even though she has no concept of the verb to be. And there’s that pesky document I signed saying I wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t go to her home. But just as something is parting the sea of language that separates us, so too something is making that signature seem like such a little thing, so much easier to ignore than the way she holds my hands.

The End Of Time

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

Tags: , ,


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

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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

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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.