"How could I prepare myself for an absence the size of you?" ~unknown poet
"Make him a rhubarb pie," my cousin, Tracy, suggested. I'd asked him what his father might like for his 64th birthday. "He hasn't had rhubarb in ages, and that's his favorite."
So early that morning, I followed Tracy's directions and pulled into the parking lot of a market in Newport Beach, California. I probably should mention that Tracy and I had only just been reunited after a 26-year separation. I'd been staying in his home for two days, trying to catch up and reconnect. I hadn't yet seen his father, Phil, but at the business Phil and Tracy built (Wet Okole ... they make really amazing custom seat covers), a potluck was being thrown to celebrate Phil's birthday. If I could get my hands on a pound of rhubarb, I'd get busy making a crumble pie.
Maneuvering past a forklift and around a pile of produce crates, I stepped over a mound of rejected corn husks and broccoli stems and wove my way into the market. Twenty pairs of dark brown eyes fastened on me, until one man said, in thick English (and not nicely), "We're not open. Come back at 10:00."
It was 8:00. I needed those two hours to chop, coat, dot, pat and bake. "Is this the only place where I can get fresh rhubarb?" I asked, not liking the desperation in my voice, but not knowing how to expel it. "I really need to make a pie."
The barker hesitated, sighed, and asked (again, not in a very nice way), "How much do you want?"
"Just a pound."
He sighed again to make sure I knew how awful I was, and then said, "I'll sell you a pound." And then, fearing he might look soft in front of the other corn peelers, he raised his voice a notch. "You wait over there!"
I obeyed. And I almost didn't say anything when he brought back three pounds of rhubarb. "It's going to cost a lot," he warned. I had to agree when the total came to $11.
"I ... uh ... only need one pound."
I think if he knew the English words for ungrateful, unappreciative, or stingy, he would have used them. Instead, he just glared and thrust half the red stalks to the side. I paid for my 1 1/2 pounds of rhubarb, hurdled and darted my way through the fruit and veggie obstacle course, and hurried back to Tracy's.
Once in his kitchen (and I have to say, I have never enjoyed cooking anywhere as much as I enjoyed cooking in that expansive, seldom-used, all-for-me space), I set to work. As I was assembling all my ingredients, Tracy's houseguest, Dennis, came home and set his keys on the counter. "What's up?" he asked.
With my laptop on the counter and a playlist blaring at top volume, and Dennis and I chatting away about things both significant and not, I almost managed to keep my thoughts on September 28th, 2007. Almost. But while washing the red and green rhubarb stalks, my thoughts kept drifting to September 28th, 1987. I made roast beef, potatoes and gravy the night before, and dished some up, and brought it to her house ....
Scooping a cup of sugar, a couple of spoonfuls of flour, and a dash of salt in a bowl, I began blending it with my fingers. I then broke an egg into the bowl and began smooshing it together. But she never answered the door ...
A quick slice through the length of the first stalk, then another, and then I began chopping it in tiny chunks. I left the food on her doorstep, and drove to the school to get ready for my class ...
More chopping. Dump each pile into the egg and flour mixture. Stir. And when they called to tell me she had killed herself, all I could think was, "How am I supposed to live another 50 years without her?"
I didn't tell Dennis about the anniversary. And when I arrived at Wet Okole an hour and a half later, I said nothing to Tracy, either. We were here for a party.
"Come back and see my dad," Tracy said. I followed him through a doorway to a pair of desks--and there was Phil. Though more than 30 years had passed since I had seen him, I remembered liking him very much. And nothing had changed. His eyes were soft when he smiled. He held out his hand and I took it. And then he said, "You look like your mother ... she was a beautiful woman."
Phil took a big slice of rhubarb pie topped with fresh whipped cream, and thanked me. But the real gift had been his.