4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
I had never used tarragon before working in a quaint New England sandwich and bake shop in 1994. I didn’t even know what cilantro tasted like or looked like, let alone tarragon, “the fines herbes of French cooking”. But in that way common among women with eating disorders (mine was what I consider thankfully mild, but still…) I was suddenly slightly obsessed with baking and learning to cook.
And so when I heard about a job opening for a baker that summer, I drove over, filled out a job application. And even though I was a first year teacher with a degree in neither teaching nor cooking, the groovy owner, a willowy, confident, energetic artist type, hired me.
And over the course of a few summers I perfected a gingersnap recipe I’d been fiddling with, gained about ten self-conscious pounds in ginger oat cookies, learned how to make soups, hummus, good sandwiches and coffee (kind of), and I learned to prepare a gourmet chicken salad made with brandy-soaked currants, and this mysterious, mystical ingredient I couldn’t even find the words to describe, tarragon.
We visited that very same little bake shop this weekend midway home from an overnight family trip. We’d driven down to Newport, RI for a memorial service, two actually. One was for the brother of a childhood besty and the other for the father of a good friend.
During our journey south I kept thinking about my father’s death in 1997, how in the depths of grief I kept trying to figure out how to be a daughter without a father. I wondered how I could tell my dear friend that you journey from that dark place of blind grief to here, a place where my father lives beautifully and comfortably in family lore, lucky parking spots, and in my children’s’ denim blue eyes, widow’s peaks, penchant for math and sushi. I wanted to convince her that it happens slowly but that in time, the happy memories weigh more than the pain of loss. That it’s never the same of course, always somehow tragically sad, but somehow also almost enough. It was Father’s Day this weekend, no less, a time for wrapping our arms, or hearts and minds if our arms can’t reach that far, around the men in our lives who raised us.
We were also there to celebrate the tragically short life of my husband’s best friend’s brother, a surprising loss for which there are no words, parents losing a son, a fiancé losing her lover, a man losing his brother.
It was also my youngest child’s seventh birthday, all toothless smiles, corn silk hair, and dirty, overly long fingernails.
So tarragon, two memorials, the ghost of my father, a child’s birthday and me in a tiny hot kitchen half a lifetime ago at age 23 smelling the parsley then the cilantro, parsley then cilantro, which is which?, and grabbing for the mysterious tarragon to sprinkle on chopped chicken breasts.
All weekend we tried to balance the birthday and Father’s Day (presents! gluten-free cupcakes!) with the mourning (quiet hugs, whispered words of apology.)
In a carpeted funeral home near Newport, RI, my four children sat with my friend’s children in a cluster of metal folding chairs amidst a sea of tearful adults in dark clothing.
“This will be awkward,” I’d said on the car ride there. “But it’s not about you feeling shy and awkward. It’s about being there for people we care about, being whatever they need us to be, sad or happy or funny. And if you don’t know what to do, look around and see what you can learn about their grandfather from the photos and the things people say.”
And they did just that, sitting with their friends and hugging them, then being silly, then staring at the slideshow that even in the hundreds of loving family photos, could capture only tiny fraction of the joy and wisdom that was that man.
Then we got into the car and drove down the island to a beach where children ran in the sand and climbed rocks and grown-ups told stories, often laughing, occasionally toasting the too short life with choked voices, eating barbecue, writing down memories, gazing at piles of photos scattered across a long table and hung with clothes pins from twine. We’d hug and then someone would suddenly burst into a gasp of surprising tears, a tiny explosion of the grief that would ebb and flow.
“Too soon,” someone would say. “I’m so sorry.” And then, “I loved him with everything I had.”
It was a congested kind of weekend with all that, even for a family of six. And on top of it all we knew we were preparing for one of my children to have a procedure on their heart in a few days time, something that wasn’t so serious compared with the grand scheme of things, but that was more than slightly terrifying when considering all the possibilities- doctors, nurses, anesthesia and so on.
So add that to the weekend’s list, a child’s heart beating crookedly.
As we drove along the New England coast to the sandwich shop, pre-op but post memorials, I was astounded by how little I recognized. I’d driven this twice a day for two or three summers so many years ago and yet I couldn’t recall any of it, not the old-timey Cumberland Farms or the sailboats in the inlet or the wide bridge.
But the second we walked into the store it was exactly as it had been, charming and warm, white marble countertops, gummy raspberries and jelly beans in glass jars with a silver scoop laid on the counter. On the chalkboard by the sandwich room, the same sandwiches I’d made day after day. And I knew exactly where the jar of tarragon was, over the metal counter next to the deep sink where I would stand and wash enormous mixing bowls smeared with batter while Alannis Morisette crooned anout a jagged little pill.
Standing outside the sandwich shop and bakery with my old boss and friend, only the second time I’d seen her in the 20 or more years since I’d worked there, she introduced me to someone, “This is Jen, one of my favorite people.”
Which seemed impossible. As sloppy, haphazard and powerless as 46-year-old me feels on most days, she can’t hold a candle to that messy twenty-three year old girl for ineptitude.
“No!” I interjected. “I was horrible! I can’t believe you ever hired me!”
“Nope. One of my favorites,” she replied. We hugged, then hugged again.
I thought about that as I climbed into my car with my four children and we headed north, who I was and who I am and how I’ve gotten here.
And as my child left the pre-op room today I snapped a picture of a perfect wrist with a bracelet that said LOVE on it. My child’s friend had brought it over yesterday to have during the procedure so that they’d feel safe. The two bestys had hugged, then hugged again with their matching bracelets, then once more as the friend headed to the car.
“You’re wrapped in love,” I said just a few hours ago as the gurney wheeled away, kissing the freckled forehead, smoothing back the blonde hair, gazing into the denim blue eyes. “You’re wrapped in love.”
I’m not sure what this all has to do with tarragon, but I’ve been mulling it over for days. And as I sit at a metal table on a sidewalk in Boston just down the block from the hospital where my heart lays on a hospital bed, I have some thoughts.
We remember so little, or at least I do. So many of the details are lost. How little I understood about my twenty-something self all those years ago as I stood and baked cookies, the details of the progression of my own grief over my father, what it felt like to be who I was then.
What will fall away from this weekend and what will then remain? Will I remember sitting here outside a coffee shop in Boston, writing, awaiting the call from a nurse from the operating room to tell me how things are progressing?
The hugs from a father who has lost his adult son too early.
A cluster of children sitting side by side in a funeral home creating this oasis of unselfconscious smiles and comfort and kindness, probably the most representative of the grandfather who has passed.
A grieving friend I would give anything to be able to comfort, to throw a life ring of hope into the storm-tossed sea.
The loss of a brother, adult son, fiancé. (“I loved him with everything I had,” she’d said fiercely.)
Or the birthday of a little girl, suddenly seven, who holds my hand, my leg, my arm, any part of me she can reach with the proprietary ownership of the youngest child.
From here it appears that it’s the love that will remain once this weekend has passed, this week fallen into a distant memory, a tiny scar worn on a hip or on a soul. I believe that love is the tarragon, the mystical, mysterious spice we will find impossible to explain but that we will carry with us forever nonetheless.