Food for a Celebration, Food for Comfort, Food for Loss

It’s a weird day.

Today is Friday, usually a good day.  Fridays are like the little pages of the week who scurry ahead of the weekend, tooting horns and proclaiming, “His Lordship, Saturday-family day-fun day!  Her Royal Highness, Lazy Sunday morning in pajamas eating pancakes!”  This morning, however, arrived with just a little bit of Mommy-foodie-stress amidst the joy (if you can’t imagine what I’m talking about, reference yesterday’s confessions of my Overdeveloped Sense of Kitchen Guilt).

Tomorrow is a big day in our family.  Loving husband J. and older child L. share a birthday, and tomorrow is it — meaning, for the first time this year, a real “party party,” with preschool friends and other parents and favors and such.  We’re going to a farm, L.’s idea of the dream day, for a hayride and animal encounters and maybe even — if the humidity breaks a bit — a campfire.  We’re providing food for everyone.  Yikes.

So naturally, when I awoke this morning, the mental list of all the things that needed to be done for the Big Event was already gnawing insistently at the back of my cortex.  Tonight, instead of cleaning the house while J. grocery shops, I’ll be baking a few dozen cupcakes — chocolate AND vanilla — and icing them to (hopefully) resemble the cows and ducks from the “Click Clack Moo” book series.  J. will be wandering the aisles of the store in search of plenty of lemonade (HFCS-free, of course…possibly organic…I stopped just short of contemplating squeezing my own), iced tea for the grownups, and some pretzels, crackers, or other such relatively nutritionally friendly, and kid-friendly, snacks for the guests.

It had occurred to me, briefly, as we planned the Big Event, to actually make all the food.  Because, let’s be honest, we certainly weren’t going to serve hot dogs at this farm picnic shindig.  L. loves cheeseburgers, so that was in the running, but then I envisioned myself standing sweatily over an outdoor barbecue while everyone else relaxed and enjoyed the hayride.  No chance.  (Not to mention the fact that I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of paying for responsibly farmed, grass-fed beef to make burgers for all those people…and regular commercial ground beef scares me too much to feed it to other people’s kids, much less my own.)  Pizza wouldn’t work, because the farm is too remotely located from any pizza place that delivers, and besides, hot pizza on what might have turned out to be a 90+ degree day didn’t exactly sound appealing.

Luckily, my best friend — the one for whose family this blog is named — just held a big party for her twins’ first birthday.  She and her husband (also a lifelong friend of mine) did what ordinary, sane people do when confronted with entertaining lots of people at a kids’ birthday party: they ordered in.  Everybody made plates.  The food was pretty good.  Everyone got fed.  And actually, I realized in the middle of the party that even if the food hadn’t been good, I wouldn’t have cared — nor would anyone else.  It wasn’t the point.  We were just happy to be there for the little ones.  My sanity thus saved, I wound up figuring out how to budget for some beautiful sandwich platters from Whole Foods (nitrate-free!  Yay!) and a lovely assortment of fruit.  Food for the Big Event became, blessedly, one less thing to worry about.

Unfortunately, the Universe has decided that now would be a good time to test us a bit with that sweet-sour-bitter balance of life (why do I make life sound like Pad Thai?).  Birthday preparations have been shadowed by this morning’s early phone call from J.’s mom, who just endured the terrible loss of her youngest sister six weeks ago.   Now she’s been told that her mother is hospitalized.  She might not come out again.  The family, once more, is braced for crisis.

I asked her what I always ask: “What can we do?”  I know the answer.  There’s nothing to be done.  She and my father-in-law will make the trip to New Jersey to spend time with the rest of the family, be at the bedside, make the nightly phone calls home to report to J. and his brothers on The Latest Prognosis.  It’s painfully familiar.  But I so WANT to do something.  And I’m feeling very aware of how closely on all sides I am being touched by grief, grief that doesn’t affect me too strongly — no matter how much affection I may feel for my husband’s extended family, they’re not a part of me — except in the toll it exacts on J., his mom, his dad, and our kids, as they struggle to understand why everybody is So Sad.

For generations, centuries, women far better than myself have cooked at a time like this.  When J.’s parents returned from his aunt’s funeral last month, I did just that — we brought the boys up to their house for a visit, and L. and I spent the morning cooking so we could arrive with a nice dinner and dessert to spread out for everyone, because I knew that my mother-in-law would start working herself into a frenzy to cook for us. Now I think: OK, we can do that again.  But it feels so small. And so remote.  I want to do something now.

So my brain today is pulsing with thoughts about food and comfort and grief and celebration.  Amidst the cupcakes and ice cream and picnics and birthday fun, I’ll be looking at my husband, whose own big day is being shadowed by impending loss.  Some crazy part of me thinks that it should be fall or winter or some cold time, when I could wrap him up with comfort foods, cooking warmth and love and strength into braises and stews.  Summertime is not a time for comfort food.  Damn it, summertime is not the right time for grief.  You can’t wrap somebody up with a salad.  Green beans, no matter how beautiful, don’t say “I’m here for you.”

That’s my quest, this Friday: to figure out, in a different way than usual, how to get everyone fed.  We’re feeding bodies and bruised feelings this weekend, and I’m acutely aware of how necessary that will be, how much J. will set aside his troubled thoughts to be there for L. to celebrate their special shared day.  The routine will have to become ritual.  Food for celebration, food for comfort, food to weave the family together, until we know what’s coming next.

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