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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Into The Woods: No One Is Alone

Mother cannot guide you.
Now you're on your own.
Only me beside you.
Still, you're not alone.
No one is alone.
Sometimes people leave you.
Halfway through the wood.
Others may decieve you.
You decide whats good.
You decide alone.
But no one is alone.
             -Stephen Sondheim

I have spent a lot of time this week thinking about my father's homestead in the western part of Kentucky since our journey into the woods last weekend.  His place and land were very similar. Hardly the Bluegrass Hamptons, but similar. His home was  way out in the country, tucked beneath beautiful tall maple and oak trees.  Instead of a babbling creek, his land nestled by the side of a lake. He built the entire house from the ground up alone, detailing it so that  it would fit snuggly into the terraine.  Last weekend, I mentioned to Harriette and Sandy how familiar their wooded retreats  felt.  They reminded me of home.  It made me feel good.  Serene.  Happy.

10 years ago on July 4th, 2000, I shaved my head and moved home to take care of my father.  He had been diagnosed with lung cancer and needed a caretaker .  I didn't want to do it.  Who would really want to do that sort of thing.  I needed to, though.  I had to.  I did.

I shaved my head as a badge of honor.  A warrior.  I was starting a new life and wanted a new me.  Armed and ready, I  packed my cute Ford Ranger truck and moved home.  We were fortunate to find a lovely woman who agreed to help with his caretaking.  We pulled shifts.  I was there Wednesday through Sunday.  She would come Sunday through Wednesday.  Every week for 6 months.  We left notes and cooked-goods for each other as we tag-teamed his care.

While I was gone, Michael took care of our things.  Our lives. Our home. He manned the ship and kept it alfoat. I was the sailor.  He kept the house going and me strong. He was a rock with his kind and unselfish spirit.

There wasn't much to do in my father's land. I knew no one except my relatives. I spent most of the afternoons out in the sun. I would back my truck into a field, unfold a lawn chair onto the bed, drink bloody mary's,  read, and catch some rays. I planted 15 flats of impatients around the foundation of his house to let  people know that he was  living  there, not dying there. Dad and I hung out together, watched a lot of television, and talked about our lives. And  I cooked.

Cooking for my father was a challenge.  He was old school. Depression era old school with three freezers full of everything.  Nothing went to waste. Nothing. The freezers were storehouses for all kinds of wonderful things. Frozen vegetables from  previous gardens, Fort Knox commissary staples, and tons of Not For Sale beef.  The freezers were frozen markets at my disposal.

He required three meals a day. Breakfasts were always an adventure.  Over time he became fond of my gussied up breakfasts, provided they were accompianied by home fries and sliced tomatoes. Peeled sliced tomatoes.  Peeling a tomato is akin to wearing sack cloth to bale hay.  His had to be peeled.  I must have peeled thousands  that summer.  But, they helped him tolerate my brie and avocado omelettes, poached eggs on english muffins, western omelettes with salsa, soft boiled egg cups,  and scrambled eggs with chive cream.  God, he was nice about it.  27 years in the army, 3 wars under his belt, and he was eating fresh avocado for breakfast.  Trooper.

Every two weeks we would make the 65 mile drive to Vanderbilt Medical Center for his chemotherapy.  Patients and nurses would comment about how tanned I was.  It never ocurred to me how gauche it was to stroll into a cancer clinic looking like George Hamilton.  My new world.  I was the only person allowed to drive my father anywhere in his big 150 Ford Double cab truck.....after I learned his driving rules.  No flip flops, unsafe. No speeding. No getting too close to the car in front. Don't ride the breaks. On and on and on.  The trips to Vandy gave us a chance to chat without much distraction.  We would stop at Baskin and Robbins on the way home for his Pralines & Cream cup treat and I would stop at any given liquor store for my weekly wine stash.  Aside from the grueling effects of the chemo, the trips to Vandy served our purposes perfectly.

Lunches were the easiest meals to throw together. Sort of.   He loved his pickled pimento loaf sandwiches. But, not just any pickled pimento loaf.  It had to come from a certain gas station sandwich counter on the other side of the county.  He swore there was a difference.  Michael and I still joke about his hand sliced pickle pimento loaf  on white bread with mayonaise and peeled sliced tomatoes. He also like salt and peppered cantelope from the Amish market.  Sometimes sardines with saltines would be stand in for the sandwiches. Lunches were effortless.

Once a week I would venture into town to buy supplies. We had very different concepts about supplies.  He wanted sardines, whole milk, fresh orange juice, saltines, Kraft Robust Italian dressing, american cheese, and the wrong kind of peanut butter.  I would arrive home with fresh parsley, fingerling potatoes, clams, bibb lettuce, Ken's Raspberry Walnut Vinaigrette, and roquefort cheese.  We did agree on the proper toilet paper, aluminum foil,  and dishwashing detergent.  Middle ground.

Suppers were our favorite meals together.They were usually heavy on the Not For Sale beef.  His favorite steaks were pettie filets broiled 3 minutes on one side and 2 minutes on the other for a perfect  medium rare. I used the ground chuck to stuff  green peppers or cabbage before baking under tomato sauce and cheese. Potatoes were  always present along with peeled sliced tomatoes. While the corn was fresh from the Amish, we would have bacon fried corn every night, sometimes with peppers or tomatoes tossed in. Sweet, crunchy and salty. He loved Tomato Pudding because it reminded him of his mother. It was a sweet tomato casserole topped with bread and cheese.  The bread would sink into the tomatoes and become pudding-like. Poor people's food, he called it.  I still make that dish. Green beans, garlic and tomatoes roasted with italian dressing was his favorite side dish from Boston Market, so that went into the supper rotation.  Tart and sassy.  I had to call Boston Market and beg for the recipe so that I could get as close to it as possible. Slowly and eventually, I introduced compound butters and marinades for steak and chicken.  He became a huge fan of steak teriyaki, which let me replace the usual tomatoes with grilled pineapple slices from time to time.  Bread was a must.  I baked bread from scratch for a while before realizing it rated an equal standing with canned biscuits.  Pick your battles.

Eventually chemo became too much for him to endure. He stopped. We stopped our trips to Nashville and our Baskin & Robbins breaks. We all readied ourselves for the long haul.  Autumn settled in.  The trees turned their vibrant patchwork colors.  His land was beautiful in the fall. Crisp and colorful. Blue skies with long shadows cast from  trees. The fresh corn  and tomatoes were a thing of the past. The flowers out front wilted with the first frost. Everything was going away.  Lost in transition.

He requested Sole Almondine for his birthday.  Never made it before. Not for me or for him. Never even knew he knew what it was. I poached it in butter, covered it with toasted almonds, and served it with fried corn, sauteed french cut green beans, and home fries. My aunts joined us for the celebration. We even had balloons. He loved it.

The cancer metastasized into a tumor on his shoulder.  That resulted in weekly trips to Bowling Green for radiation.  Those journeys were quiet and sweet. We drove back roads on the way to his treatment to prolong the trip and his enjoyment of being outside. Out of the house.  He was serene on those drives.  There wasn't much else they could do when the radiation treatments ended.  We went into a pain management mode.  Medication replaced eating and Ensure replaced my cooking.  Chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla.

He insisted we should have the entire family to his house for Thanksgiving that fall.  He said it was thier only home.  Their place to be. Uh, ok, I thought.  We'll do our best.  Thanksgivings there were always boisterous.  Loud.  Communal.  In fact, I never cooked a thing back in the day. Women's work.

That year, I cooked the entire meal.  I took our family's favorite time honored traditions and tweaked them.  I changed them.  It was my time. Like a scene from Babbette's Feast, I meticulously prepared the last supper. The turkey was brined, honey-glazed, sprinkled with fresh thyme, and roasted with turnips, onions, parsnips, garlic, and carrots.  It was a fine turkey with crackling skin and luscious deep flavored giblet pan gravy. Creamed pearl onions, my favorite side dish,  became cheesy gratine' with gorgeous pungent ripe brie.  I poached pears in red wine, split them in half, scooped out the centers, and served  Michael's mother's scratch-made cranberry sauce in the cavities, craftfully displayed on an ancient sterling silver tray.  In lieu of scalloped oysters, I opted for Oyster's Rockerfeller topped with fresh sauteed spinach, melted aged parmesan, and perched atop a bed of coarse sea salt for stability.  Briny and Brilliant. Wine and iced tea flowed.  The food was good, even if a bit unconventional.  We all were glad to be there together crammed around the table eating off of my mother's beautiful German Winter Wheat bone china.

My family loved it. I loved it. My father's seat remained empty through the entire meal.  He never left his bed that day.
Or any other.

I treasure the time he and I spent together during those 6 months.  It was hard and joyous.  We grew to respect and love each other in a new way. He was happy I had Michael to lean on.  Happy that Michael would be there when he was gone.  He respected Michael and our relationship.  I left his land and the experience with no regrets.  Not one.  I lived my life with ingregrity and helped him live and die with his.

Last weekend was a sweet gentle reminder of my time in the woods with my dad. 
Sometimes, we need  reminders.

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