This past Monday evening, at a meeting for my theater company, my friend, MB, greeted me with a hug, and in a conspiratorial tone, whispered, "I have a gift for you". You see, MB, a food enthusiast himself, (and proud member of the Park Slope Co-op) has taken to bringing me a small sample of produce, knowing I may be one of the few people he's met who will appreciate a fresh spring onion slipped into my purse at a bar, or a tiny, perfectly ripe, dusty-looking, mottled plum, tucked into the palm of my hand. What MB couldn't have known at that moment, on that Monday night, was just how significant, how special, how perfectly appropriate that small gift was.
It would be a grand understatement to say that the past few weeks have been challenging at best and downright rough with a capital R at worst. And while on the surface, with so much going on, food seems like an afterthought, a minor diversion to be relegated to subsistence-level in the face of bigger and heavier issues, I've found that my mind and heart keep coming back to it as a sort of touchstone. And in that moment, when a small, smooth plum was dropped into my hand, I could not think of any other gesture, large or tiny, that could have been more comforting or more perfect.
What MB didn't know was that the day before the plum, we had to say goodbye to a certain orange, fluffy, four-legged member of our family. Ollie was a gentleman among dogs, a proud, gentle, and dare I say eccentric, fellow whose silky golden plume of a tail waved as majestically as any flag. We watched as, in recent years, that tail tucked itself under him, almost immobile with arthritis, and his jaunty aristocratic gait transformed into a stiff shuffle. While the doggie diapers were cute, for a proud old guy, you could just sense the humiliation. I think I finally faced just how old our poor friend was getting when I learned that he could no longer snack on scraps from the table, little squares of cheddar, a scrambled egg yolk or two, or leftover giblets from the roast chicken, set aside just for him. I think the thought of a life deprived of anything but special dry dietary dog food sounded just too unbearably cruel.
We give gifts of food often when there are no words that will suffice. Casseroles dropped off at a home where a loved one has passed away, an ice cream cone after a tough day at fifth grade when there's no way to explain that sometimes, people are just mean, breaking bread when the argument has run its course and its better to pass the peas than say "I'm sorry" (remember that incredible last scene in Big Night when Stanley Tucci makes an omelet for his brother, and you just know they've forgiven each other without a single word?). When I started grad school a couple of weeks ago, one of my biggest fears was that I wouldn't have the time or energy to cook. But I've found myself, amidst the chaos of all that's happened in the past months and days, returning again and again to my kitchen. I spent a few minutes feeling guilty for cooking when I should have been reading, but I quickly realized how crucial it is (and will be) that I give myself this gift. A quiet moment alone in the kitchen, watching my hands create something real, something nourishing, something that doesn't require words or analysis or explanations, is more than a gift. It's a necessity.
On my last walk with Ollie, we stopped off at the deli on the corner and bought a quarter pound of roast beef and a little tin foil pouch full of crispy bacon. There is no easy way to say goodbye to a dog who has given you unconditional love for the past 15 years. And there are certainly no words that can provide him any comfort. But there is no question that the best gift you can give, aside from love, of course, is all the bacon he can eat. As he tripped along after the scent of my greasy fingers in his stiff, loping gait, I caught a glimpse of the excited young puppy who wandered into our lives, nuzzling our laps with his big black nose, and reminding us that every morsel is a gift.
P.S. If you feel so inclined, give the gift of food to some needy dogs...
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