The Funeral

“We can’t have a funeral until we put on a pot of beans,” I mutter while carrying a handful of fresh green beans from the strainer in the sink to the pot with caramelizing onions and bacon pieces sizzling away in the bottom.  I let the beans fall from my hands and a few droplets of rinse water pop and sizzle when they hit the hot bacon grease.  I turn back to the sink gathering another handful of beans and Vivian looks back at me with her seven-year-old look that says,” don’t bullshit me right now.”

“What?” I stop and say, a little more animated now, standing still as drops of rinse water fall from the beans to the floor, “people will be hungry after the funeral.  At Dad Dad’s we had ham sandwiches and chicken wings in the back of the church.  I had beer on ice in the trunk of the car. People get hungry.  And thirsty.  You feed them.”

She relents from her constant questioning about

‘when is this funeral going to happen?”, then tells me she is going upstairs to work on the casket.

“Besides,” she adds clumping her feet heavily on each stair as she ascends, “it’s only us going to be here.”

“But you never know who might stop by,” I say loudly, my voice chasing her up the stairs,  “You have to be prepared when you are having a funeral. It’s just how it is.”

It’s not that I didn’t want to get Mr. Bluefin into the ground but more to the point dinner needs to be cooking so we can eat before we have to be back at school for Lynn’s kindergarten  open house. 

I am not heartless.  I do feel for her but Mr. Blue fin is not the first fish to die at our house.  There have been others and they all had burials at sea but then I admit to myself Mr. Blue fin is different.  He has been here longer then any other animal with the exception of Maddie Dog.  He has been through thick and thin.

Vivian comes back down stairs, walks by with a little yellow plastic box in her hands and as she passes she says,  “Dad, can you open the garage? I want to get the shovel out,” she pauses, “I need to dig the grave.”

“Sure honey, I can do that,” I say gently and with a lot less sarcasm.  I pick up a dish towel and wipe my hands as I walk to the back door.  “Can I help you dig?”

“No, this is something I’ve got to do myself.” she answers with resignation.

“Where you going to put the grave?” I could just see the dog digging it up which would be far worse then the fish dying.

“Under the apple tree,” she says.

“Oh, thats a good spot in the shade and all.  That will make a good resting place,” I say in a soft voice and with the realization the dogs can’t get to the apple tree.  I open the garage then reach up for the shovel and slip it out of its holder.  I hand her the shovel and watch with my hands on my hips with the dish towel still in hand as she walks off.

As I walk up the few steps to the back door, I am glad I decided to make meatloaf this morning, it’s her one of her favorites.  I go back inside to turn the beans, turn the heat down and put a lid on it. I start work on the rest of dinner.

It occurs to me as I am peeling baby carrots Vivian has never experienced a funeral, and then as I am standing there with my mind wondering, I couldn’t remember the first funeral of which I was aware.  I am sure I went to a few funerals but I didn’t really know the person, a great uncle or aunt or something.  People so distant their death didn’t really arouse any emotion.  It had to be Grandma’s or Ken’s.  Ken was my dad’s best friend growing up.  I was as close to Ken as any uncle.  We vacationed every year with his family and got together at Christmas. He died young.

I hadn’t had much history with death.  I could only emulate what I knew or had seen, and by seen I mean on TV.  All these years later I can’t tell you how I felt at my grandma’s funeral but I can remember Ken’s.  I was supposed to feel sad so I tried my damnedest to be so.  My dad is sad.  It might be the first time he truly feels mortal.   In the back seat of my dad’s car I lean my head against the cool window and blankly star out.  It is winter and there is a cold rain.  In my head I wonder if this is how sad feels.  My button-up shirt and necktie were scratchy against my neck.

The back door slams shut.  Vivian walks into the kitchen carrying a small brightly colored bouquet of flowers.  It is a hodgepodge of different blooms from around the yard.  She sets them gently on the counter and asks to use the permative marker, she has always mispronounced permanent.

She climbs up on a bar stool at the counter.  On the little yellow box she has been carrying she writes, Mr. Blue fin, in her best handwriting.  She sorts through the flowers looking for the best ones for her bouquet.

“Hey Viv,” I start in, “I think we should go to the open house then have the funeral.  That way Mommy will be home.  I think she’ll want to be here.”

“OK.  Can you help me get Mr. blue fin out of the tank and into the casket?” she replies with a note of serenity.  I nod and answer, “Sure, whenever your ready”.

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The Music Lesson

All afternoon and from inside his parent’s house, as Bill and I sit outside in the comfort of  lawn chairs talking, trumpeters one after another run through their scales, do re mi fa sol la ti do, over and over again.  The notes drop from the open windows like fall leaves from the trees.  It could get annoying, it doesn’t, and after a bit the repetition becomes soothing. 

I reach out and flip open the lid on the large orange ice chest.  Into the ice laden water goes my hand and it quickly goes numb.  I fish out a cold beer, pass it to Bill then promptly repeat the fishing expedition for myself.  It is easy to look forward to the time Bill and I spend with each other,  we have known each other a long time, and besides at the very least it is always nothing short of unforgettable.

Like today, my friend and I often sit in lawn chairs out in the grass just a few feet from the back porch of his parents’ house.  Sunglasses shield our eyes from the bright sun until it finally tucks itself behind the steep hill that rises upward at the back of their yard.  Even then the sun won’t actually set for another hour.  So the landscape becomes a black wall of matchstick trees lit by the yellow glow of evening right up until the sky burns out and the back porch light kicks on.  Mostly, Bill and I sit and talk a lot about nothing but we do it well.  Even so we manage to garner a few epiphanies over the years, some shared, some not, this one wasn’t.

As a high schooler I hated running scales while practicing the trumpet.  I thought they were pointless, boring, and stupid.  I should be practicing the music, memorizing it note for note, if I want to play it well.   But sitting here, two or three beers into my thoughts, remembering what an awful trumpet player I really was, all of the sudden, all these years later,  I understood, I got it.

Bill’s dad was a world class trumpet teacher at the university.  He is retired but he still gives lessons to advanced students.  His biggest lesson, the one he repeats over and over again, the one I heard him tell his last student for today,  “if your mind leaves the sound of the horn, obstacles will appear.”

I have heard Bill Sr. say it so many times before but today it hit me differently, it’s exactly what we don’t do when we teach people how to cook.  We give people a recipe, much like a piece of sheet music, and expect the cook to be able to play.  While we know there are those that have the skill set there are many, many more who don’t.  We try to pretend it doesn’t matter, it’s just a recipe after all but it does because the cook never builds the skill set to play at a level satisfactory to their own liking.  Hence obstacles appear which prevent real enjoyment.   I’ll wager it happens in cooking all the time.

And in this is where the conundrum lies.

I count myself lucky in that I honed my kitchens skills for years in a commercial environment.  I can never fully express how much the experience has added to the happiness I feel when I am in the kitchen.   Simple things like cutting onions for onion soup might take me minutes while others are in tears for hours, or maybe because I sautéed boneless skinless chicken breast by the thousands I know when they are just the right color of brown and that anymore coloring will make them chewy and dry and how with the push of my fingertip I can tell when they are no longer pink in the middle but still juicy and edible without fear of food born illness.

I don’t think of anything I do as special but I know sometimes friends look on with amazement and wonder while I look back at them through my own naivety as if everyone knows how to do these things.

So the question for me becomes how do I translate my joy to others, how do I create a  desire in others to build the skill set needed so they can create the kind of food they like to eat, create it with efficient, quality results and excitement.

It is frustrating for me in moments such as this, not because it makes me mad but rather because I love being in the kitchen and  I want people to share in this same joy while being in theirs.

When I started cooking I copied, to the T, recipes of every famous chef and cookbook author whose food I liked.  I cooked from cookbooks day-in and day-out.  Even when I am cooking full time at a restaurant when I come home I turn around and cook at every opportunity.   At first it is hard to build the confidence to cook even with step by step directions at my side but as I progress my fear of cooking without any guidance diminishes.  I am convinced my abilities improve because I learn solid cooking technique until I know how to sauté, braise, roast, grill, and poach.  My knife skills improve and I work on plating.  I want nothing more than to learn to cook.

My style at first is a conglomeration of  all those I mimic until one day my style of cooking just “is”.  It is easy for people to tell whose food they are eating and before long I find myself edging up to the stove and cooking from experience.  I don’t even remember the day it happened because it just did.  

I wasn’t born a chef.  I started out life as a photojournalist and I never thought I would be anything but but when I decide I want to learn to cook I dive in head first, I expect to come out with a filthy apron, I am passionate about it, and I know I won’t stop until I am good at it.