Sunday, January 5, 2020

What Happened on 12/21/19: Phyllis Brotherton, Anne H. Putnam, Susan Arthur, Joseph Demes, Jennifer L. Thornburg

On 12/21/19, we invited writers and readers to write about "What Happened" that day, however they interpreted it, as an exercise in mass attention, and promised to publish as many of the resulting essays as possible. So here we go! For more details and a full list of the contributors, click the What Happened page.


December 21…To an Orange Grove

The Plague had laid us very low; my wife, Denise, and I playing musical chairs, couches and beds for 10 straight days prior, coughing and hacking until our ribcages ached. This, the first time we’d been sick at the same time in our almost twenty-five years together, or sick at all for a long while.  This, also the first time we’d ventured outdoors in more than a week (we’d even started our cars to assure the batteries weren’t dead), marked the annual trek to a niece’s house for a gathering of Denise’s family to celebrate Christmas, a very special house in an orange grove.
     The not-so-tiny rub: we’d not attended this family gathering for three years, for various reasons having to do with family “stuff” I’ll refrain from detailing here; just the stuff of all humans which sometimes creates distance, for a short or long time, sometimes forever. But, this year, our lovely, persistent niece has invited us once again, and who knows how or why, the planets align just right for us to say, “Yes,” which will remain a secret and a surprise to all but a few.
     This annual get-together has decades of history, all the way back to Denise’s youth, through varying geographic places and residential spaces, through weddings and divorces, births and deaths, tragedies and triumphs. Faces changed, people changed, literally and figuratively. Bodies grew tall, larger or smaller. Hair changed styles, color, grayed, fell out. But, a constant over the past two decade or more: the house in the orange grove, off a lone county road outside Exeter, California, with its wooded acreage, its fountains, its circular driveway, its big barn, its pool, its pool house, its fire pits, its five to six dogs, including huge black or brown Newfoundland’s, the oldest named Maverick; its decorated Christmas trees, all shapes and sizes, inside and out; bowls of Christmas balls, burning Christmas candles, platters of Christmas candy, mountains of Christmas presents, multiple Christmas stockings hanging from the mantle over the glowing fireplace, ready to warm prone dogs and flush our faces. And the giant Christmas dinner table, with its giant beveled glass Lazy Susan, upon which twirls past us, baked brie, beautiful breads, and bottles of wine, white and red. This is comfy, country opulence and, no doubt, white privilege, but it’s also Christmas love bestowed upon loved ones, who sometimes have flaws and are many times fractured, in one way or another, and all who’ve seen tough and lean times, too, who may not have seen each other for a year or several or ever before. And, all are welcome.
     The surprise of us is revealed and there are many hugs, despite the warnings of our major cold cooties; and tears all-round. We sip from mugs our traditional hot toddies of Tom and Jerry’s mixed with brandy, which soothes our raging throats and warms our chests. We’ve resolved to stay for only 3 hours, from 1:00-4:00: 1) to get home before the Tule fog descends, 2) to keep our sick selves out of the cold night air, and 3) for the very real reason that Denise wants to be home to watch the San Francisco 49er game in her comfy clothes and in front of her own TV. We are missing out on the after-party in the barn, with pool games, shuffle-board, foosball, classic country music, dancing, beer, and Crown Royal or Fireball toasts, but we’re OK with that, no longer willing to hang until the wee hours.
     Before the barn was built, the after-party occurred in the living room, where people often ended up danced on the small coffee table, everyone taking turns. On one of those nights, I met Denise’s mom for the first time. I feared she’d hate me, since she’d never been particularly fond of her daughter’s lesbian lifestyle and would normally have preferred not to be reminded of it. But, somehow, we seemed to click and actually danced together that night…but not on the table. Everyone’s mouth dropped open. Later, she would share old family recipes with me and I would cut and style her hair when she was in chemotherapy. Later, the coffee table would break under the weight, she would die and her second husband Jack would die. But, the tradition of the family gathering the Saturday before Christmas continued.
     We say our goodbyes and prepare to depart. Our niece, also a talented photographer, wants a family photo outside. Every man, woman and child flows out into the leaf-deep yard. There’s the bright idea to take the photo by Denise’s new red Blazer parked in front of Vern’s tree. Vern, beloved late nephew and brother to our nieces, passed away tragically in 2000 from alcohol poisoning at the age of twenty-one. A senseless death from too many Tequila shots in a hot tub, partying with his buddies after work. Every year since, Vern’s tree, a sprawling pine now towering into the sky, is hung with big Christmas balls and strung haphazardly with lights. Haphazardly—so much better than neatly. It says so much—about what we feel and have always felt about Vern. The lights cannot be perfect. Life is never neat or perfect. 
     Vern, who gave us lavish hugs and wet kisses, who played bumper cars with his Aunt Denise on the golf course, who wrote poems, who was becoming a chef, who embraced and loved life so much. After framing the shot, our photographer runs to grab tree pruning shears. Errant bare branches from a smaller tree are blocking a clear view of Vern’s tree.  Off the branches come, one by one, all of them. Now, the shiny Blazer looks like an outsized red Christmas ornament on Vern’s memorial tree.
     “Everyone smile!”
     The shutter clicks again and again, as we remember lost or absent loved ones, cherishing those still with us. Cherishing a family tradition.             

Phyllis Brotherton is a memoirist and personal essayist, holding an MFA from Fresno State University. Her work has appeared in Entropy, Under the Gum Tree, Shark Reef, Brevity Blog, and elsewhere. Her essay "Ashes and File Cabinets" was nominated for Best of the Net by Jet Fuel Review. She is currently marketing her memoir of essays, "Creating Artifacts," for publication.


My husband excels at birthdays. His is a unique combination of passions: for long-term research, deal-hunting, active listening, and above all, me.

Some people (ahem) might feel constrained by our annual birthday budget and waste weeks angsting over whether to give one luxurious gift or more smaller ones; an experience or something more tangible; practical items or frivolous delights. Not Scott, though. Somehow, every year, he seems to come up with a brilliant balance of all options—which means, of course, that six months later when it’s my turn I’m sliding around in his overlarge shoes. But I’m working on shaking that anxiety out of my mind and instead leaning into the loveliness of having someone put so much effort and thought into making my birthday special.

My actual birthday fell on a Wednesday this year, and we both had to work; we went for a rare dinner out, but Scott made it clear that Saturday, December 21st, would be the true celebration day.

It started with breakfast in bed. I’d allowed myself to hope for coffee, but I didn’t expect the breakfast sandwich (cooked in a ring he’d ordered for this sole purpose, and including bacon he’d hidden somewhere in the depths of the fridge). After a quick shower/tidy up we hit a matinee of Knives Out; thanks to Star Wars, we were two of only six people in the theater. Scott hates buying concessions at the movies—such poor value for money—but he invited me to get popcorn, and I ate it in full thrill. The movie was also great.

We hit a coffee drive-through on the way home and he bought me a Christmassy flavored latte, and when we got back to the house he baked me a classic birthday cake: yellow cake with chocolate buttercream. When he asked me what ‘butter and flour the pan’ meant, I finally understood just how much he means it when he says he doesn’t know how to bake. This was the first cake he’d ever attempted, and considering that fact it was not bad!

Dinner was supposed to be at a sushi place about 20 minutes south, in a small town called Stanwood—after dinner we’d be going to a Christmas lights festival nearby—but the restaurant was closed due to staffing issues. A bummer, but we tried another well-regarded place around the corner; no room at the inn. The third restaurant we tried was also unexpectedly closed (our curse was creeping in at the edges of my day), so we pulled into a strip mall and wound up at a teriyaki joint, where we did manage to have some sushi after all (take that, curse!).

The Christmas festival boasts over a million lights, strung in trees and archways and formed into scenic displays. It was beautiful, actually—much more so than we expected. Besides the standard nativity scene and a few angels, it wasn’t even too heavily focused on ‘the reason for the season’; there were boats and gnomes and mountainscapes and plenty of other secular imagery. It rained a little, and was pretty muddy, but as someone who rarely gets opportunity to be romantic with her husband in public, I was more focused on the hand-holding than the weather.

We wound down the night with birthday cake and a raunchy comedy. For the shortest day of the year, we packed an awful lot in, and all of it was exactly what I wanted for my birthday celebration. I’m trying not to panic about how I’ll come anywhere close to this level of achievement when Scott’s birthday rolls around in May…

Anne's first book, Navel Gazing: One Woman’s Quest for a Size Normal, was published by Faber&Faber (U.K. and Commonwealth) in 2013; in addition to her work as an author she is a teacher, editor, and (because she has to eat) associate financial representative. A California native with a New York City birth certificate, Anne earned her BA in English from Washington University in St Louis and her MA in Creative Nonfiction from City University in London; she currently lives in Western Washington, midway between Canada and Seattle.


Winter Solstice, 2019

A day of resolution(s). Resolutions I will probably continue to ignore:  Consistent studio time. Daily yoga. A cleaner house. No internet solitaire ever again (harder to quit than smoking ever was).

I intended (that paved road to hell is in sight) to get up early enough to watch the sun rise, to see where it first strikes the earth at this latitude—41 degrees North. I want to build an installation that marks the sun at the solstices, a project idea that’s been brewing for years. The sun was up long before I was. Trees in the way anyway, I offer myself this excuse, that if I really wanted to see it, I’d be at the beach where it’s wide open.
     Too damn cold, too damn early.
     But then the argument with myself continues: how many more solstices will I get?

I push myself to notice things. To just notice the day. The sun seems to speed up, zipping across the sky today so much faster than in the summer. It’s just high enough now in this low winter sky to bounce light off the oak floor and annoy my eyes.
     Tomorrow the day will be longer, just a little. Same 24 hours, with a few minutes more light.

I paint woodwork.
     I slice my thumb open on the metal edge of the hummingbird feeder.
     I read, I walk, I eat.

We live on a remote island and my husband is away. I speak to nearly no one most of the day and no one face to face. I have a long, genial chat with my younger son on the phone and then later, with my husband-the-oncologist, who is off treating cancer patients at a Boston hospital. Whatever I do is trivial next to that.

It’s cold today, in the 20’s. I walk our dog, a Saluki with an extravagant white tail, to the mailbox—.7 miles each way, nearly a mile and a half round trip on our sandy, rutted dirt road. He’s wearing his orange hunting vest so no one mistakes him for a deer. That white tail of his worries me, too reminiscent of a deer’s upturned white tail. He bounds through the scrubby woods, happy, as oblivious to my world as I am to his, full of odors I am incapable of detecting.
     I see deer tracks embedded in the road, one, then two, but no deer. My dog follows an invisible scent trail. All I want is the mail.

I ready the surface of the wall to paint clouds in my granddaughters’ room, painting it a deep sky blue. Winter clouds or summer clouds? I must make myself notice what the difference is. Is there a difference? One You Tube video points out that clouds are grey underneath. They are! All of them? I look outside again—no, but the big ones are, wide, flat swaths of grey on the side that runs parallel to the earth.

Forty-eight hours ago the House voted to impeach Trump. Let this stick, I pray to what- or whom-ever might be listening. Get him out of there. But I also know he reflects more of the country than I’d like.
     Very little happens today. A relief, though post-impeachment and pre-Senate trial, I am on a brief media diet, so if something did happen, I wouldn’t know. I keep the tv off, the internet news sites unopened for just this day. I haul my book with me, off to an early bed. Tomorrow is soon enough to check back in with the world.

Susan Arthur is an essayist, a mixed media artist and a photographer. Her work can be found at


At the start of actually writing this, I have just woken up from a nap. Normally I don’t nap, but my partner, Naomi, and I are on holiday in Paris, and it feels very Parisian to nap at mid-day. Or because I am on vacation—I usually work afternoons at a bookstore/café, so the mornings are important to me for reading or writing or exercising; and when I work the mornings, I am too hopped up on espresso afterwards for me to sit still and shut my eyes—it feels okay to sleep at this point in the day, and I am able to do so.

But to begin with, the morning started out on this same spot that I have been napping on: a grey armchair with a long attached ottoman which makes me think of a manatee and which sleeping on feels as if being spooned. Naomi and I—she on the elongated ottoman, and I in the chair proper—started the day with coffee, having planned yesterday evening the route of graves we want to visit today at Père Lachaise, and were talking about the wedding we will attend in March for a childhood friend of mine, Jake, and his partner, Elaine. Something’s came up that reminded me about the wedding, specifically an item on their registry: a coffee mug that regulates and keeps the drink stable at a person’s ideal temperature (it’s not because we’re having coffee that I am reminded of this, though I can’t remember what it was now). It’s kind of a wild gift, one that neither of us could ever imagine wanting. We both like drinking our coffee slowly, but don’t mind when it gets cold.

And for no reason—I am designing the drink menu for them (two options (a his and hers kind of thing) to be presented between the “aperitif” hour of beer & wine and the subsequent open bar)— I had the idea to add Campari into the build for Elaine’s wedding drink: a version of a Madras, for which I am subbing Cointreau in lieu of orange juice, making the drink more like a Cosmopolitan. Immediately I missed the taste of Campari; I have been nearly a year sober, though plan to indulge again after the new year, and it’s actually (thankfully) been relatively easy to give it up. I’ve not missed the feeling of being buzzed, let alone drunk—or its consequences—but I have missed the taste of certain things: a proper daiquiri, a Suze and tonic, a shot of Malört, a certain house blend of amaro that I get at my favorite bar in Chicago (shouts out to Sportman’s Club) paired with a bottle of Topo Chico, blablabla. I start taking notes for the adjusted drink build, and think that maybe this is a sign that my abstinence, because of the ease of staying sober and the fact that what I miss is not the effect of alcohol but the pleasure of how a cocktail tastes, means I am at a more mature and stable place with my drinking habits, which has been the point of taking this break. The Campari will, I hope, in a small dose, add a bit of bitterness to offset all the sweetness of the cranberry and Cointreau, but a pleasant kind: the way the remainder of pith on an orange’s flesh dials back the overwhelmingness of natural sugars.

Having finished our now-lukewarm coffee, Naomi went to get ready while I took down another list on my phone: kinds of sweets I like, so her mom knows what to stuff my stocking with. I can only come up with four things: toffee, chocolate-covered fruit and nuts, and peanut butter cups. In the middle of pacing around, trying to think of more candy, I went to the front window of the apartment we’ve rented and realize there are roaches of hand-rolled cigarettes in the planters on the mini-balcony—we can open the windows and smoke inside the place! The French fucking rule. I pointed this out to Naomi, and we were both way too excited about this discovery.

But so smoking: it’s the first thing we did when we stepped out of the apartment. We lit up—she smokes Marlboro 27s, and I am a chump who likes American Spirit yellow—and proceeded southeast down Rue de la Chine, heading southwest on Avenue Gambetta, past Chantefalbe, where we will end up having dinner tonight, towards Avenue du Père Lachaise. Mid-40’s and grey, but still sunny—no signs yet of the rain that was predicted for this evening, which ends up never really coming. At the roundabout by the Gambetta metro stop, I confused the ‘M’ sign with a McDonald’s logo: the former is the same shade of yellow, and I somehow believed that this was just the way the logo looks in France. Immediately I realize what I’ve done, because across the way there’s an actual Mickey D’s. (Who else calls them this? It has to be regional; my dad, who grew up in New York, says this, but no one in California—where I’m from—has ever heard of the nickname; is it just an east coast thing?)

This is unimportant, though, compared to the task at hand. We have a list of folks we want to see: Isadora Duncan, Georges Perec, Richard Wright, Proust, Bellmer & Zürn, Abelard & Eloise, Jim Morrison, Colette, and Chantal Akerman. We don’t necessarily have a particularly strong affinity for everyone on our list; we’re here also to take photos of the headstones, as gifts for certain people whom we know would appreciate the individual we’ve gone to visit for them. The entrance is closest to the columbarium, so we start there with Duncan, Perec, and Wright, who are mainly for our pleasure. Each were found fairly quick, after figuring out where the zero point was. Duncan’s  is #6797, Perec is 832, and Wright is 848; part of the 7000 and 8000 block are underground, which is where we started by accident. These three were the easiest to find, compared to the rest. Proust is in section 85, west of the columbarium (section 87), and though he took only five minutes or so it was real searching, not just following a sequence. Next: Marcel Marceau in section 21, whose birthday, I learned upon seeing his headstone, I share. There were two white gloves on top of the raised ledger stone, clearly worn from exposure.

On the way to find Colette in section 4, who ended up giving us some trouble, we stopped at Bellmer and Zürn. We ended up going through half of section 4 but couldn’t seem to find her. At this point we hadn’t eaten, and the breeze was getting chillier. It came down to a couple options: go around to view Abelard & Eloise and Morrison, in the 7th and 6th sections (respectively) and then circle back to see one more time if we could find her before heading north again; or turn around completely, get lunch, and pick off the rest of our list another day. We went with the former, finding all three easily (Abelard & Eloise have easily one of the biggest plots and monuments in the section 7, let alone the entire cemetery, and someone pointed out Morrison’s grave in section 6 after probably hearing us speak English). After walking back up, we took a smoke break at the memorial garden.

Let me stop here and say what a view of Paris it is from there. All the arrondissements on the south side of the Seine are visible; the Eiffel Tower stands almost exactly in line with the garden. & yet the space was almost empty; we saw maybe six people stop and stay to look out at the city. Given that it wasn’t the most pleasant day, ok, yes; but also given that it was a weekend (albeit close to the holidays), it was surprising. The point of visiting this particular cemetery is the list of people interred, obviously and yet still what is outside the gates goes unnoticed. But the point of a cemetery in general is to remind us of life, and not just of its termination.

After one more go-around of section 4 we found Colette. We had almost nearly come by her grave the first time, before we took a break, but had gone up the south end of a middle pathway that splits the section in two rather than continuing along the perimeter; her grave is one plot over from the edge of that path. Akerman comes last, took considerably less time to find than Colette, and is by far, aesthetically, my favorite grave: the inscription on the marble gravestone is an excellent blue, similar to the façade of the café which we end up going to after our tour.

The place is called Kahwegi, and from the exterior one would think it a more contemporary café designed for tourists: a pleasant dark blue exterior; sidewalk sign with menu items in English, but in perfectly readable French handwriting (two things Naomi & I talked about on our way to the cemetery: how superb the handwriting on the menus in every boulangerie, brassiere, pâtisserie, and café are (fact); and why it might be that the caps of each 1 denoting a menu item’s price has such a long, swooping, but completely charming cap (no clue)); Edison bulbs hanging over the bar facing out to the street; a very clean sans serif font of the name plus logo in the window. Every patron and staff member was older than us by at least 30 years, and all of them knew one another well; each said ‘bonjour’ and ‘au revoir’ to whomever entered and left, almost all in unison (but not in the way that’s creepy like the twins in The Shining) and are all gossiping about the same people, interjecting into each other’s conversation (all this I know because Naomi tells me later; I speak no French). We were the only Americans there. We ordered two filter coffees and sat down to record some details from earlier in the day.

At a certain point, Naomi asked to reference my list of whose plots we visited, and I noticed (I have dated the page at the top-left) that the numbers look the same when the list is inverted, though not exactly; the caps of my 2’s are always more flat than rounded (vice-versa for their tails) and I don’t put a cap or add feet to my 1’s, so by default they are always symmetrical. Inverted, the 2’s look more as they appear in this Word document. So I tried a game of observing the rest of my handwritten notes upside-down, seeing which words appear and what kinds of words I can make. ‘Long’ could be ‘swag’; ‘also’ looks like ‘asp’; and, more exciting, on the facing page, where there is a draft of a section of my novel, ‘compromised’ looks like ‘pasimardmon,’ which has some really fun literal translations when I split the consonants apart in various ways to make new words:

  • pasi mard mon: after / disease / my
  • pas im ard mon: not / in the / high / my 
  • pasim ar d’mon: my boyfriend / with / of my
  • pa si mar dmo’n: Dad / if / sea / tell me (n)

Eventually we finished making our notes, and I finished turning my notebook upside down and right-side up again and again, looking absolutely insane, we walked home, and I promptly took a short nap in the manatee chair while Naomi continued to write. She is, everyone should know, far more disciplined of a writer than I am; she wakes up consistently at 7:30 AM and writes through the day, and more often than not won’t eat until 11 or so, or until I bring her a plate of food if it’s further past that. I’m up maybe an hour later than her and tend to begin my day by reading, or going for a run, and by the time I’ve stopped reading I’m hungry, or by the time I’ve come home from my run and showered and eaten I have to take the bus to work, and will probably read more on the ride there. I’m not as good about getting myself to begin my day with writing, much less to write each day.

Even more eventually, I wake up and she’s ready for a nap too. And by the time we both wake up a couple hours later the shade of the sky coming through the massive floor-to-ceiling bedroom window (again: the French know what’s good) is a shade we’re deciding to call Earl grey: a very muted purple steeped thoroughly in the dusk, nothing in the sky visible, no bottom to the metaphorical cup. We go back to the main room to do the writing you’re now reading, and coordinate some stateside-return travel plans: will we take one train from Grand Central into New Haven and get picked up there, or hop another one to Hartford, which is closer to her parents’ place; what do we want to do for the last night of Hanukkah; how long will Naomi’s sister be in town before heading back to New York. It will be the first time I spend a holiday with significant other’s family, as well as my first (albeit abbreviated) Hanukkah and first visit to Connecticut, which I only know through Naomi’s writing and what she’s told me about it personally.

I am having a snack of a banana, just barely starting to spot (I like mine firm and not too sweet, a little just before the turn towards ripening—a bright yellow peel with maybe a bit of green at the stem and base—which is the texture I especially like for fruits that are ripest when viscously soft, like peaches or nectarines) and a glass of some green stuff: puréed apple, pear, and cucumber; matcha, lime juice, ginger extract, licorice, safflower (?), and spirulina (??). I bought it at the store the other day because I was sniffly, and didn’t want to stop smoking for a day or two.

I finish writing before Naomi does and am back to looking at my notebook upside-down again like an idiot. ‘From’ resembles ‘way,’ ‘and’ becomes ‘pro,’ and ‘Maupassant’ is a really warped thing: ‘promadrow,’ which it turns out has zero translatable permutations. But I’m beginning to like this game, and I think I will continue to do it in the future. Not only will it motivate more diligent writing (I hope) but even doing it now lets my brain relax around language in a way that proves difficult when: trying to find the right word, working the proper turn of phrase out, architecting a smooth structure of a narrative arc.

My roommate, Nathan, texts me to ask how the trip is going. I fill him in on the details about Père Lachaise.

“‘French Cemetery’ would be a good band name,” he texts me in return.

“All our song titles are just birth and death dates,” I text back.

He’s got a cold and has been drinking a hot toddy, trying to feel well before driving to Michigan with his partner to meet her parents and to fly with them all down to Florida for Christmas. I let him get back to resting; Naomi and I decide we need to have dinner, and I head to take a shower.

It’s important to know that I’m a very small man, and this tub is not fit even for someone my size; with my feet pressed up against the other side, and sitting with my back leaned agains the other edge, my legs are still bent at a solid 45-degree angle. Still, it’s not often that I’m too big to ride the ride, and the shower head is one of those handheld ones that rest on a flat platform and make the whole thing feel like I’m using an old–old-timey analog phone: brass receivers and wood handle and the rotary dial that goes shhhkuh every time you spin the numbered wheel, that real grown-up shit. I also don’t normally take baths (clearly I am bad at relaxing), but we’re in France, etc etc.

Still, it’s at this point that I stopped writing and I made it a quick shower. The two of us walked to have dinner at Chantefable. Immediately upon arriving we requested seating in the covered patio, thinking we’d be able to between dinner and dessert, but there weren’t any ashtrays on the table. (The French…almost always rule?) We decided we could live without though, began perusing the menu, and came to the usual conundrum: we both wanted the same thing, but had a backup option in case; neither one of us was willing to budge, insisting the other get what we each wanted to begin with. However, I realize we had’t looked at the specials; across the width of the patio, the chalkboard was fairly unintelligible to me, despite everything being written neatly, except for one thing: pot au feu.

Pot au fucking feu.

I’ve had it before, or I think I’ve had it before—or at least I’ve definitely watched multiple tutorials on how to prepare it—because immediately I got excited, and you should be getting excited too. I looked it up to confirm that it is what I thought was is, and our problem was solved. If you’re not familiar, here it is: Pot au feu is a very simple stew, something traditional and emblematic of French cuisine, made primarily of lean cuts of beef, carrots, onion, radish, and potatoes, all in a lightly seasoned broth. It can be done up, as can all basic dishes of any culture, but to make a very good pot au feu—again, like making a staple dish of any culture—still takes a lot of skill, especially when the margin for error is wide; it’s the hard-to-fuck-up dishes that, when done right, are absolutely amazing, and I am always game for those.

Even the server got excited: here was this American calling for a special, and not (I assume) one of the fancier special on the menu (indicative of my un-fanciness is the fact that I say ‘fancy’).  Also, it wasn’t tourist season, so maybe the bar had been raised a bit in my favor. Whatever the case is, in a short while our dishes came.

And oh, dear reader. Dear, dear reader. Where to begin? With the meat, I suppose, which is where I began: more than fork-tender, lacking any visible marbling (except for a thin top layer of fat on the stout rectangular pieces), having taken in all the moisture and flavor of the broth perfectly; any more and the meat would have tasted water-logged. Whatever richness came from the stock had thoroughly soaked into the perfect medium-cooked cut. The carrots, too, also did not need a knife to cut, but had not been over-done and were still very sweet. No floury starch taste remained in the potatoes; instead, a good neutral flavor, a balancer for everything else going on in the dish. In place of an onion was a small leek, which I you could bite through like hot mozzarella, minus the stringiness (writing that now sounds gross, but it’s true: the leek was incredibly soft, though somehow not limp (I assume added last to the mélange (I should note that this all took, like, 10 minutes to prepare and serve, so I assume parts were added in piecemeal)) as if the chef had instructed it to replace only half of its natural water content with the stock and it somehow listened willingly). As a last word: I dislike turnips, mainly because of the way their herbaciousness comes across: they’re not as bitter as radishes, but still hit with that combo of a cold, almost minty snap, and dirt, even when washed and peeled. It’s not everyone’s thing. This dish made it my thing: the firmness of an apple baked halfway to pastry filling-done softness, and the right dial of winter heartiness mellowed out by all the other ingredients.

And everything the stock gave the dish’s parts, those parts gave back to the stock. We ate the liquid in the only proper way: sopping it up with our fresh side of bread. I shit you not when I say we cried from laughter from how good it all was. This was the first full day (by which I mean non-traveling day, which was yesterday for me) of our first vacation together, let alone our first Christmas together; we were in Paris, sitting in a random bistro, laughing over stew, talking about how excited we were to include this moment in this essay, and I think in another essay someone might talk about the magic of this day, perhaps the magic of the holidays and its effect on us, how because most of our day was not planned and because so many good, simple pleasures lined up one after the other that therefore the day had a quality of enchantment to it and blablabla. But Naomi and I had been deliberate about what we wanted for the day: to walk, to write, to eat somewhere, to relax, to see Duncan and Perec and Wright and Proust, and Bellmer and Zürn and Abelard and Eloise and Morrison and Colette and Akerman. We determined our day, as much as one can determine anything, and in doing so made it what it would—or could—be.

This meal and day, like many good meals—both ones taken alone and ones shared, though of course meals taken with company stand out more in memory because a meal shared no longer becomes a basic task of keeping oneself alive, or at least that facet of eating becomes part of the way-back background rather than the point—and many good days, was the way it was because the pleasure (and adventure) of it was derived from saying “This is what I want.” For a long time I refused to make choices like this, not because I was unwilling to be an adult and make decisions for myself but because I did not feel as if I deserved to do so. I felt that life had afforded me the option of choice in many respects which many others are unfairly denied, and at some point I began to think that wanting anything good for myself was indulgent and thoughtless and asking too much when I had already been given so much, and I began to live a pretty quiet and lonely life. I thought wanting to eat out was gluttonous of me and wanting to write was egotistical of me and wanting to take a break from work & travel was lazy of me and wanting someone to share my life with was selfish of me. For a while I was very depressed, and it took a long time for it to lessen. It took longer for me to feel confident (and by ‘confident’ I mean ‘not like a bad person’) in making deliberate choices to build a life that felt more balanced, to acknowledge what I wanted and allow myself to work towards each thing—to not feel like I was asking for everything all at once, but to work on one thing at a time and let the rest come into focus when it was right. It took me three years to get to the point where I could feel good about having this kind of day, and now I had shared it with someone I love very much.

For dessert we split a small scoop of pistachio ice cream, which was light and nutty and creamier than what you can get in the states, and decided it had been a good day, and that we were ready to walk home, have a smoke, and go to sleep. Nothing left we could have wanted for, let alone imagine wanting. 

Joseph Demes is a writer, the managing editor of Funny Looking Dog Quarterly, and the fiction editor for Long Day Press. He lives in Chicago.


All the Colors

I woke up at 5:00 a.m., a slight dread washing over me. I’d gone to bed early, but  knew the work that lay before me…rising while the world was still dark and cold, facing the predawn hours of a frigid Montana winter. I drug myself out of bed and stepped outside. It wasn’t as cold as usual. In fact, it seemed Chinook-like, you know, when the warm breath of spring escapes its fetters, rising to surprising us all. I made a pot of tea and a couple Canadian bacon/egg sandwiches, which my husband, Jack, and I enjoyed while sitting at the kitchen counter. We chatted about what order we should load up in for the winter farmer’s market—produce first, baked goods last. I asked him how his day looked after he’d drop me off at the market. He said he’d make breakfast for his 93-year-old mom who lives in town.
     At 6:30 a.m. my husband pulled the truck up to the house so we could load: bushel baskets brimming with rosy apples from our orchard (Honeycrisp, Haralson, Red Baron), flats of pies carefully wrapped and placed (blueberry, strawberry-rhubarb, apple), pumpkin bars, chocolate cake, and just for the holidays, Speculaas (the traditional Dutch cookie from my great grandfather’s recipe in Holland). I’d baked for two days to produce an array of treats that I hoped would sell well and provide extra income. I’d taken a lot of trips lately, to be with my 92-year-old mother whose great heart was failing. Twice we were summoned, warned that she’d not live beyond the day. I traveled by car, plane and train, then, to see her, to be there. I needed to earn money to cover the extra travel costs. Thankfully, Mom survived, rising like a moth from the flame, singed but still whole. However, I knew more journeys would be forthcoming, and that I’d need money to pay for them.
     We packed the truck, taking up every inch of available space. Pies dotted the dashboard, dried flower wreaths teetered precariously atop jars of crabapple jelly, sheet cakes sliding as the truck went around corners. Jack was doubtful that we could fit it all in, but I knew better, being the Queen of Packing a Car. I normally fit everything for the market (tables, cloths, produce, flowers, baked goods) in my yellow VW beetle, a feat that I believe qualifies me for the Guinness Book of Records. I took a photograph once, of my packed yellow VW in the driveway, doors open like wings, hatchback raised in the air, marveling at how much it looks like a ladybug about to take flight.
     I’ve watched with amusement as the jaws of bystanders drop while they observe me unloading my car at the market. I can’t believe you fit all that in there! is a common refrain. But, alas, my bug recently breathed its last, it’s oil bleeding out on the driveway, and so I had to rely on my husband’s flatbed work truck whose cab is smaller than the entirety of my VW.
     Jack helped me unpack at the Emerson Cultural Center, and soon I was setting up tables, pricing, arranging, making it all look good for the holiday market. At 9:00 the bell rang with a happy clatter and customers descended. It had been months since I’d sold at the market, due to mom’s illness. What I noticed most was the pleasing variety of faces. Historically, Montana has been predominantly Caucasian: white faces, white snow, white on white. What I saw the morning of the 21st was a color wheel of skin tones: the usual varying shades of white (actually versions of tan), the dark brown to nearly black of Nigeria, the medium brown of Native Americans and Hispanics, the lighter tan of Asian descent. This pleased me. From the time I was very small, I felt instinctively that people of all skin colors should dwell together. That a place was somehow not complete unless all the colors were present.
      Another distinction I noted was the gluten-free folk, and those who readily eat wheat flour. I bake both types of goods, so I enjoyed talking with those who were appreciative of my gluten-free pies and cakes, several thanking me profusely for baking gluten-free. It struck me that the world is split into categories, but we are all just people. The very young came to my booth, a liquid-eyed four-year-old boy whose brown eyes grew large as he rushed up to my bright red holiday table, looked over the pastries: pecan pie, oatmeal blueberry muffins, pumpkin streusel muffins, glittering strawberry-rhubarb pies—their crusts blooming with sparkles of organic cane sugar, French apple tarts, and then, just as I thought he’d choose one, he gushed, “This all looks sooo good. My mom would never let me have it!” His bright smile flashing as he turned around and sped off. He didn’t seem particularly distressed by this, just stating a fact.
     Another distinction: those who eat sugar, and those who don’t. An old friend stopped by, slipped me a World Peace sticker, and gave me a warm hug. An old man, with pendulous ears and a trembling smile, bought a piece of pecan pie, asking me to wrap it carefully so he could eat it at home. Another friend bought a wreath of dried roses and sage for her mantle, a pastel reminder of summer’s bounty. The vendor across the aisle sold Hanukkah treats: poppyseed sugar cookies, and Latkes with brown sugar syrup. We smiled at each other across the distance. I was bee-hive busy for four hours, packing, wrapping, selling. It was a good market with brisk sales, worth the two days labor. I felt grateful. At noon my husband reappeared and we began to pack, though far less goods than we had that morning. At the end of each market, after the bell rings, there’s a short time for swapping. I traded a rhubarb pie for beets, carrots, and onions from Nate at Almatheia Farm. How satisfying it felt to choose firm, bright orange carrots knowing how good they’d taste in my salads. I swapped flower seeds for a bag of Chai tea from Chris at The Friendly Flower. Jacey, from Gallatin Valley Botanicals, traded me a carton of pea and cilantro sprouts for a bag of organic apples. Feeling rich with the day of selling and swapping and connecting, we drove away. Satisfaction welled up inside me.
     As soon as I got home, I ate a salad and some soup, then climbed into my unmade bed and fell asleep. A nap was essential. It takes a great deal of energy to harvest, prepare, set up and take down a farmer’s market. Once, at a summer market, my table blooming with gigantic dahlias and heirloom tomatoes, a friend said to me, “I’m jealous! I want to be the one selling beautiful flowers and vegetables at the farmer’s market. I want that to be my life.” I cocked my head and smiled. Said, “Well, it’s a good life and a certain privilege to grow things in the earth, to be sure, but this is a whole lot of work. You have no idea how much!” After the market I was too exhausted to do anything else, so I slept for an hour, then woke and went outside to unpack the truck. This took another hour.
     Then we heard a knock on the door, and Bruce and Leta, our neighbors, entered to give us their traditional bag of Christmas cookies. We look forward to Leta’s treats, colorful sugar cookie cutouts in red and green icing, tart cranberry and walnut squares, and spicy snickerdoodles. In return, I gave her one large cookie—Speculaas—shaped like a Dutch man and woman riding in a Model T car. It measured 8 inches by 12 inches—a family-size cookie. I told them the story of my great grandfather, how he owned a bakery in Holland, how this recipe calls for 12 pounds of flour, 6 pounds of butter, 9 pounds of brown sugar. How you make a mountain of flour on the table, pour the wet ingredients in the middle, and mix “with many hands.” I told her how the cookies turn out various shades of brown, depending on how long you cook them. Some people like them a dark, rich brown, some prefer the lighter golden brown. I told how you press the cookie dough into hand-carved wooden molds that are shaped like animals (a wolf, pig, dog, and rooster), or windmills, or ships, or people (a man, woman, boy, girl, and even a mermaid!). Though they are called Speculaas, which means “mirror” or “one who sees all,” the Old Dutch name for these cookies is “Klasmaniches” which means, “Little Men.” I like the idea that the cookies turn out in varying grades of tan and brown, like humans.
     At dinner time we go to visit my husband’s mom, Ruth. She is very old. Ninety-three now, though she swears repeatedly, a starry look in her eyes, that she is NINETY YEARS OLD! Can you believe it? We bring pizza, salad, a bottle of chardonnay so she can enjoy her nightly glass of wine. My husband had set up her Christmas tree earlier, a pre-lit beauty, now dangling with ornaments that circumscribe the history of a family. She points to each one, saying “Do you remember…” and we listen and nod. After dinner, we do the dishes, clean up the kitchen and kiss her goodnight. She wants us to stay longer, but we must drive ten miles to Belgrade to see our granddaughter. She is very young.
     We cut across the valley, driving slowly in the dark winter night, watching for houses decked out in colorful Christmas lights. We see green, red, blue, yellow, white. When we knock on the door of my son’s house, he swings it wide and we enter, looking for our granddaughter Evie. She is a 10-month-old bundle of luscious, beautiful, baby goodness. We never understood the “Brag Book” tradition of grandparents who carry a photo album of their grandchildren, an accordion of pictures unfolding as they expound the virtues of each little one to veritable strangers. Until we held our own granddaughter. When that tiny little bird fell from the nest two months early, dropping into our world by C-section on a cold February night, we fell instantly, completely in love. So, we sit down on the floor and watch her latest accomplishment: sitting up by herself. She bats her eyelashes, then threatens to cry, then breaks into a charming grin. And we are smitten, all over again. Aaron, our middle son, says to her, “Are you a growly bear?” Evie instantly makes a guttural, growling sound deep in her throat, dark eyebrows momentarily drawn together, lips protruding in a pout. We laugh out loud at this quick transformation. She flashes a brilliant smile. We watch her play with toys; she lets me hold her for a bit.
     When I zoom in to kiss her cheek, her eyes grow wide and her lips quiver, so I back off. I’ve learned that she is a true introvert, and I must respect her sense of space. In the same way that not all people are the same, not all babies are alike. Our grandson Ellis is an extrovert, very social, easy-going and smiley from morning to night. It's okay that they are different.
     Aaron and Sierra say that Evie usually gets grumpy around this time of evening. On cue, she yawns, her eyes half-filling with tears. It’s time to go. We gather our coats, wave goodbye, and walk down the steps to our car. Snow sheets the windshield. My husband scrapes it off with his gloved hand. Outside the stars blur and sharpen through the patchy window. I wonder if God is watching all the people down here, all the “Klasmaniches.” I wonder if God, who sees all, smiles when all the colors dwell together in this place.

Jenny Thornburg lives and teaches in Bozeman, Montana which is a land locked in winter for a good part of the year. She grew up on the Northern Hi-line, where her family carved a living out of the dry plains. She thinks imagination is essential for survival, and enjoys writing about her family's past and life in Montana.

Check back tomorrow to read more about What Happened on December 21, 2019. —Ander and Will

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