Monday, November 28, 2016

Carolina Thanksgiving

I'm heading home to snowy Salt Lake City this morning after spending a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend with my sister, Martha, and her family in Durham, North Carolina. My kids always spend the holiday with their mother, and Mark and I had spent the last three Thanksgivings with his family in Colorado (2013), with my daughter in Vancouver (2014) and, last year, with the Koepke family in Portland. This year, the first after Mark's passing, I was grateful to be able to celebrate the holiday with Martha and her husband, Koen.

Lake down the road from Martha's house. The "Carolina blue" sky has been brilliantly beautiful.

It was a simple, low-key time. Sitting outside and talking. Going for walks. Playing with the dogs. Sitting inside and talking. Shopping for wine. Watching episodes of "Will and Grace" in the evening after dinner. Lots of laughter. Martha missed out on that show because she was living in Europe during the early years and busy earning her bachelor's and master's in French during its latter years. For my part, I was deeply ensconced in Mormonism and in the closet, and that show was far too "gay" and risqué for me to watch then. So we both enjoyed catching up and laughing a lot.

Samba - Martha's adorable English Springer Spaniel

Our meals were also low-key but fun and have featured some of the wines I've learned about these past few months in my northern Italian wine class (a subject for a future post).

Aperitivo wine on Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving Dinner (most of it) with a bottle of Amarone. Delicious.

Martha lived in Geneva, Switzerland for 10+ years and on Friday night made Swiss Raclette (melted cheese over boiled potatoes and cured meats, featuring San Daniele prosciutto [which I recently learned about in my Italian wine class]). My research had said the best wine pairing would be a bottle of Swiss white - which we were able to find at a local wine store - but none of us were thrilled with the choice. So we opened a bottle of Valpolicella Ripasso halfway through dinner and loved it.

On Saturday afternoon, Koen's children, Isa and Robert, arrived for a visit. Martha made risotto that evening, and we enjoyed a fun dinner capped by a dessert of Amaretti di Saronno cookies, almond flavored macaroons traditional to the town of Saronno in Lombardy, Italy. Upon doing a bit of research, I learned that this town is also the home of Amaretto, the almond and apricot liqueur that I used to enjoy in my college days (pre-Mormon) but haven't drank since coming out - a situation I intend to remedy over the holidays.

Isa and her friends

Robert, Koen and Isa

Risotto with Pomegranate seeds

I had never had these Amaretti before, nor had I witnessed the tradition of rolling up the papers in which the cookies are wrapped, lighting them on fire and then, hopefully, watch the last bit of ash take flight seemingly of its own accord. These efforts were largely unsuccessful on Saturday night except for Robert's, whose wrapper ascended a foot or so into the air before giving up the ghost and collapsing back to the table.

Koen pouring the wine

For wine, we had a Gewurtztraminer before dinner - a wine I had picked up that day that was made in  Alto Adige, Italy's northernmost region known locally as Sudtirol. This is a much drier version of the wine that is made in Alsace, which I haven't in the past particularly enjoyed.

The village of Tramin in Sudtirol where the Gewurtraminer was produced.

For dinner, Martha chose a French red, Vacqueyras, that is from an area through which Mark and I passed on a cycling tour in the fall of 2014. We were staying in Vaison-La-Romaine (in the Vaucluse, just north of Provence) and made a loop ride one day through the wine country surrounding the Dentelles de Montmirail.

The location of Vacqueyras near Vaison-la-Romaine

Mark in a village near Vacqueyras

A beautiful Carolina-blue sky on Sunday morning

Some souvenirs I'm bringing home.
The selection of Italian wine at Utah's state stores isn't what it is ... elsewhere.

Along with the good times, I had time to reflect on my life and where I'm at and what it all means - my life following Mark's death. I've come a long way since last spring. It's nice to have touchstones to make sense of it all. This past weekend provided some of those.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Goodbye, Mrs. Riddell

A few days ago, I found out that my favorite high school teacher had passed away. Her memorial service is being held today in New Harmony, Indiana 14 miles from where I grew up in Carmi, Illinois. I hadn't seen her since I graduated, and for that, in a way, I'm grateful. Because, you see, she is forever imprinted in my memory looking like she did in the above photograph (taken by classmate Kevin French in the spring of 1974), and that's the way I want to remember her, with her dark red hair, her piercing blue eyes and a gentle demeanor that exuded kindness and love and concern for her students.

I met Mrs. Riddell when I was a freshman. It was the fall of 1972. She taught my English class. Later, I would also have her for sophomore English as well. She cultivated in me the love of literature, the seeds of which had already been planted by other teachers: those who taught me to read; those who taught me to love to read; those who diligently taught me to write in cursive (I think I shall be forever grateful to have been taught this by a nun in a Catholic school); and those who introduced me into the mysterious and wonderful science of diagramming sentences. (That last bit is said with tongue firmly in cheek.)

Mrs. Riddell built on what others had done previously. She taught me to love literature and to take the science of sentence diagramming and turn it into the art of writing. But she did more than teach me literature and self-expression through the written word.

In my sophomore year, we were required to keep a journal that Mrs. Riddell periodically read and commented on (and which I dearly wish I still had). As a result, she was perhaps the only teacher at my school that had an inkling of what was really going on in my life at that time. My parents had been going through a bitter divorce and life at home was pretty much hell; plus I'd come to the discomfiting realization that I was attracted to boys, not girls, and I didn't have a clue what to do about it. I do remember writing in my journal, almost wistfully, about the prospect of taking my own life. Not that I would have done it. But I thought about it, and I wrote about it in my journal - how peaceful that might be and how it seemed, in a way, a very logical way of dealing with ... things.

I never had a "heart to heart" talk with Mrs. Riddell about what was going on in my life outside school, at least not that I recall. But I knew she knew - at least some of it - and she knew that I knew she knew. Her gentle, loving nature often reached out and touched me without a word being spoken between us. She was a source of gentleness and caring in my life when I sorely needed it. She also made me feel that I could truly be myself, that I could aspire to things that others might deem silly or impractical or foolish (like being a writer when I grew up). Just being in her class lifted my spirits and made me feel human ... and loved for who I was.

So, thank you, Mrs. Riddell. Happy travels as you continue your journey.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

What I'm Thankful For

It's been a number of months since I've written a post here on my blog. When Mark died last spring, my desire to write died with him. However, on this day before Thanksgiving, I have felt the desire to express some things, to explore some feelings and to count my blessings.

First and foremost, I'm grateful for the 4-1/2 years I spent with my late husband, Mark. They were the happiest of my life, and I'm thankful for each and every day we spent together. 

I'm grateful for the love that we shared and for the family that we created during those years we were together. I'm grateful for the opportunity to be forced to confront existential truths, to be taught how to live in the now and to cherish moments. And I'm thankful for circumstances that allowed us to live for nearly three years in what, in retrospect, seems like an almost timeless dimension in which we could simply breathe love.

I'm also thankful that Mark had the death he had hoped for. I can't imagine how the process of him leaving this world could have been less painful for him or more peaceful than it was. During the months since his departure, I have reflected many times on just how courageous he was to face death and the unknown it represents with such peace and equanimity. I'm grateful for his example and grateful that I was witness to that peace. In this regard, I am reminded of the poignant words expressed by a friend upon news of Mark's passing: "We feel his love and grace, and through our tears see his exuberant spirit and kindness. What a privilege to have known him." Amen.

I am also very thankful for each one of my children and for the love that we share. I am grateful for who they are as people and feel privileged to be their father. Gratitude rests in my heart for the special times we had together this past year.

The months following Mark's passing were for me at times lonely, difficult, confusing and fearful, yet they were also hopeful, comforting, promising and full. I am thankful for the family and friends near and far who helped me through difficult and sometimes dark times these past nine months. I'm also grateful for the opportunities I had to travel and meet new friends.

Lastly, I'm grateful for the journey I've been forced to take since Mark's death. A journey of, yet again, (re)discovering who I am. This is a topic I'll explore in a future post. But for now, I am grateful to be alive and thankful for the journey.