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The Little I Can Do

In order to avoid living like an actual grownup, I have made a compromise with myself about working. I have to do it, because we need the money, but I do not have to have a Real Job because my husband (who is an actual adult) has one that comes with magnificent health insurance for which I am eternally grateful. I have cobbled together a somewhat bizarre set of jobs based on my equally improbably skill set: I do legal consulting for another attorney, I do super secret work for a website, and I am the “backup hospitality provider” for the church down the street. The latter means that I mostly cater funeral receptions (since people stubbornly refuse to die on a schedule) and the real hospitality person is most likely to be unavailable for funerals because they tend to be short-notice affairs. It is a standard joke in my family that I should have a business card that says, beneath my name in copperplate, “Lawyer, Writer, Funeral Caterer.” All that’s missing, really, is “rodeo clown.”

I was asked to do the catering work because I was known to be a “foodie,” and I do love the planning, the shopping for the ripest fruit and the freshest baguettes, and the slicing, peeling, and simmering in the church’s giant kitchen. What I didn’t know I would love so much is the sense of giving something real and comforting to families that are grieving. I remember the funerals of my mother’s family, after which the ladies from the temple would “make a lunch” that was extravagant and redolent of noodle kugel and love. When a child in my son’s class died, years ago, it was the luncheon after the service that held the family in its arms after a grueling period of “keeping it together.” It was a time when the facade could drop, and where they could sink into the comfort of family and friends, with church ladies bustling around with casseroles and lemonade that were the tangible form of sympathy, empathy and faith in eventual healing.

When I have rallied the church ladies to donate cookies and time, and laid the tables with white cloths, and covered them with the best food I can make, it is not just work but real spiritual sustenance to look out across a room in which people are finding some respite from a terrible time. It isn’t a “fix,” the beloved is still gone, but it is a chance to celebrate a life and share memories in a safe, warm place. My hope is that it gives mourners something to take with them, something that may be obscured by the unbearable pain of loss for many months, but which may blossom again in memory after the worst pain has subsided.

Until now, all of the receptions I have catered followed services for elderly people. Obviously, the fact that the loss involved someone in their 80s or 90s does nothing to mitigate the loss; those people were all somebody’s father, somebody’s grandma, somebody’s brother. It does mean, though, that the death followed a long life, a life in which families were raised, there were silver and gold wedding anniversaries, and in most cases, there were peaceful retirements rich with grandchildren, travel and volunteering like raisins studding a scone.

Yesterday I got the call asking me if I could do a reception for the funeral of a young man killed in an accident. I didn’t recognize the family name at first, and then I remembered. Last summer, as I stood at the stainless steel counter of the church kitchen cutting up cantaloupes, working in the relative cool of the evening, a woman came in wearing a nurse’s uniform. She was in charge of the jewelry sale the church puts on every year during a local Folk Festival, and had come in after work to put price tags on the contributed necklaces, bracelets and earrings. She introduced herself to me and we talked.  I told her I was “really a writer” but did the catering work on the side because I loved it. She told me her older son was a writer, too. We talked about her sons, who sounded quite delightful, and I told her that I hoped my boy would turn out to be as productive and community-minded as hers had proven to be. This Saturday’s  funeral is for her oldest son, the writer of whom she had spoken so proudly.

I dreaded calling her to make arrangements; I knew that it wasn’t about me, and that it was no time to project my own love and fear about my own child onto her real and present loss. I still didn’t want to call. When I finally made myself dial, she came to the phone sounding exhausted, and subdued. “I remember you,” she said, “we talked about our boys.” I asked her questions about what kind of food she’d like, and she spoke of her son in the present tense. “He likes food from Oasis” she told me, and I said that I was sure I could get the local middle eastern restaurant to sell us humus, pita and kabobs. “He likes coffee, but with real cream. He doesn’t like the powdered stuff.” Together, we worked out a motley assortment of food that her son loved (loves) including the middle eastern food, potato samosas, trail mix and carrot cake. She asked if we could have, maybe, a casserole for older folks coming in from out-of-town who might not be comfortable with grape leaves and hashwi. I assured her that we could. It was not a menu I would ever have planned, but it was, for her, a representation of her child. It was the food he liked best, to celebrate his brutally truncated life.

I can’t decide, today, whether I love or hate this job. Coming so close to the death of someone else’s  son has pierced me to the core. I think about my own son, and I know that when her own lost boy was 13, she imagined, as I do, the unfolding of a long, rich life that would stretch out long past the end of her own. She never saw this coming. I want to fix it, I want to make it a different world in which this never happened. I want to fix it, and I can’t. All I can do is order the trays of food from Oasis, e-mail the stalwart church ladies asking them for carrot cakes and help with the reception, and make sure that the celebration of this boy’s life will ease a terrible day.

At the end of our conversation, this mother said to me “I’m so glad we talked about our boys. I feel like you know him.” I can’t fix anything, but I can pour my sorrow, and sadness and hope for her sustaining faith into every carrot I peel, and every plate I set carefully on white linen. Sometimes, there isn’t anything else I can do.


About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

13 responses »

  1. This one made me cry. I can see the kitchen, the cantaloupes, the conversation, and the snow. I’m so sorry for her, and for us all.

  2. As always your writing touches me in a personal way.
    First of all, this is how I feel many times as an estate planning/elder law attorney when someone we have worked with has a similar experience. In can be overwhelming, exhausting, and yet nice to know that your presence made a difficult time just a little bit less difficult for the family.

    I am an attorney because I love it, but I enjoy writing (food, movies, plays wine, books and music) with similar zeal. The way you love your family feels familiar to me as well. A friend of a friend lost a VERY young child in a very tragic manner this week and I cried and I do not even know these folks just because it scared me to think of what something like that would have done to me….it is nice to know I am not the only mom that does that.

    ps if you want to do more secret web site work let me know….

    • You are such a good lawyer, and I happen to know (!) that people come to you distressed, confused and in need of care and comfort. You are definitely not the only mom who does that…I think it is the most natural response. I just have to work VERY hard at keeping it together and remembering that this not my sorrow or my story, but theirs.

      I am interested; I will be in touch through our more regular channels. 🙂

  3. It is so very true that the kitchen can be a place of many many emotions…this piece truly took us to that sad, grieving spot alongside the sink, peeling a carrot. I am sorry for the mom, for the young man whose life ended so young and for you too!

    • I cry in the kitchen all the time, because I’m a sap…this time is just harder, for lots of reasons. I’ll be okay, and probably come out of this appreciating life even more; I wish I could imagine any real healing for his parents.

  4. As the son of a mortician and as a father who lost a son at a very young age, this article touched me deeply in a number of ways.

    I grew up helping my father during funerals and viewings. One thing that always struck me was how often people made what seemed to be very inappropriate comments to the family members of the deceased. I remember talking to my father about this one evening after hearing a calloused comment from a woman to a mother who had just lost her young son. My dad told me that most people don’t know how to deal with other people’s grief very well and even more so when a young child is involved because it “hits too close to home”. People don’t normally know what to say to parents who have lost a child and instead of keeping quiet, they feel compelled to say something, which is often the wrong thing.

    Having a “Third Party Intermediary”, like food, to talk about is often the best way to avoid the grief directly while addressing it in an indirect way. This allowed her to talk about her son on a personal level, what foods he liked, without having to go into details that are probably too painful to dredge up at this time.

    And truth be told, there isn’t anything you can do to help this lady other than what you are doing. You can’t take away her pain, her loss, her anger, her disappointment. But you can show her that losing a child doesn’t mean she is socially ostracized because other people are uncomfortable with her loss and don’t know how to interact with her.

    • It means the world to have your thoughts, here. I do think she was calmed and had a little peace just talking about her son “like normal.” I also know, because my son was with a boy who was killed in front of him when they were 7, that people do say really strange and sometimes painful things when they don’t know what to say. i was taught that “I’m so sorry” is always sufficient. I cannot believe that anyone feeling “pain, loss, anger” and “disappointment” needs to hear anyone else working out their own feelings.

      She isn’t ostracized, and no matter what anyone thinks about organized religion, I know that she has deep faith and a community of people at her church who will be with her physically or in spirit depending on what she needs at a given moment.

      Thank you, again, for your thoughts – I wish more people had a guide like you when dealing with someone else’s grief.

  5. Oh this made me cry too. The part I loved is that a simple conversation with someone who you happen to run into and meet, may have been for a reason. It provided her reassurance and comfort that in some way you “knew” him. Isn’t the world an amazing place?

    • It is an amazing place. It was tough (the funeral) but I could see the family supported by the incredible love coming from the people who shared hummus and kebabs with them. It was a good thing to facilitate.

  6. I recently attended a funeral at the before mentioned church for a 10 year old boy who had suffered his whole short life with a horrible, painful brain disease. When I saw the service was to be held at that church, I wondered if you would be one of the women helping with the luncheon. You were not. The parents had catered a literal smorgasbord of all of their son’s favorite foods. Seeing the spread of food from chicken fingers with ranch to dip to meatballs- no sauce, peanut butter and jelly and fruit put a smile on the face of many of us.

    As you know, I come from a southern family where food is life breathing. Every meal is planned well in advance and preparing a meal for a person is our way of showing our love, sympathy, excitement, congratulations, apology. Whatever the emotion, it is better expressed with a nice pound cake.

    I don’t have a particular point about your blog today other than to say I hope you continue to find and give happiness to those in need through food and your writing. Because you happen to be very good at both. BTW- I’m sure you are a good attorney; luckily I have never needed to utilize that particular talent of yours.

    Also- I am sorry for the lose of the young man you wrote about.

    • I was asked to do that one, and I couldn’t…it sounds like they did a wonderful job of celebrating his life.

      I DO know about your family; we have been the beneficiaries of that kind of love more than once, and it meant the world to us. It is the good meaning of “food is love.”

      Thanks for the kind words – I don’t even know if I’m a good attorney any more; I hope neither of us has to find that out. The other two things are far more compelling in my life.

      By the way – where’s my pound cake?!

  7. Pingback: Balance « Forest Street Kitchen

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