. . . . . .is it me you’re looking for? Sorry to drag schmaltzy song lyrics into it, but maybe in my subconscious I think if I make you giggle you’ll forgive me. Forgive me for being away so long. I didn’t want to be.
For the past 7 months (That long?) things have been volatile. Family crises, health problems. I’ve wanted to write but every time I sit down, things seem to conspire against it.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about food. Or doing things with food. Or taking pictures of food. Or brainstorming about where I want this blog to go. With food. I’ve done all of that. No matter what I’ve got going on, the food is always there and the cogs are always churning along the lines of, “How can I write about this? How can I share this?”
So bear with me, this post might get personal, but want to share what I’ve been experiencing. It’s a lot. It may even span a few blog posts. I’ll try to be brief but make no promises.
Our dog Lois died in May, but it was winter when she started to slow down, to show signs this might be the end. Pair that with my snail-slow recovery from Lyme Disease and all writing came to a halt. Plus, I needed to be there for her. The way she’d been there for me all these years. It didn’t matter that writing might’ve helped me process. I just couldn’t do it. Besides, I didn’t have an appetite anyway. I went months subsisting on Kefir and white rice with sugar, butter, and salt, a panacea for pain that Momma used to spoon feed me when I was young. It tasted good. The white carbohydrates mixed with the sugar and fat and salt to create a fast food high that was a band-aid for my aching soul. At least I was eating.
When she finally died, every time I tried to write about food, I’d think about Lois. I knew I had to write about her first. But if I did that, if I tried to put into words what she really meant to me, then she’d really be gone. She’d never come back. Facing that hurt a lot. A real lot.
Lois was my world for 7 years. Brought to us from a shelter in Pittsburgh she’d called home for an entire year. She’d been adopted out once, but returned for being “too destructive”. Originally she’d been picked up from what was only described as “an inhumane situation”. She slept under the desk, wagging and smiling at visitors. Part of this was due to her over-exuberant friendliness, and the fact she was the volunteer favorite, but part of it was because during thunderstorms she went totally crazy. Like tearing up the house, makes Marley the dog look like a pussy, batshit crazy. The desk was the only safe haven.
We loved her anyway. Initially she hated walks, the outdoors, other dogs. She had serious guarding issues. We trained her out of all that. I’ll never forget the day her “shelter jitters” subsided. The crazed look relaxed into big doe deer eyes, full of love and puppydom. She realized this, in fact, was her forever home, and no matter what, we’d love her. No matter what.
I miss the way she’d paw us to play ball, roll onto her back for belly rubs, pretend to behave for hours only to counter surf a tomato when we weren’t looking. She couldn’t help it. It looked so much like her red Kong. Even during those times we had to leash her, Thundershirt her up into her doggie strait jacket and sit with her in the shower until the storm passed, we loved her. The hours and hours of playing Drop 7 on my phone while she panted and drooled at my feet, her only Xanax the Phyllis Hyman I played on an endless loop from my Spotify. Who knew? My darling independently-minded female Labrador could only be calmed down by the dulcet tones of a gorgeous black R&B diva. If Phyllis were still alive I’d give her a hug.
Lois was my best friend, my companion. I always said if I’d had Lois when I was a teacher, I’d have been a better teacher. And I might still be teaching. She taught me that much. About patience, perseverance, how love can sometimes involve the giving of yourself until it hurts. Four years ago when I took the plunge and decided to work from home, we became even closer. We spent entire days together, she curled up at my feet while I wrote. Standing at noon, wagging her tail (to be let out), and again at 4pm (to be walked). The routine, the constant companionship guided my days and comforted me during the dark times when I was suffering from neck injuries, Lyme disease, my most recent writing rejection. I know my husband has his own remembrances of Lois, but for me, she was my rock. I leaned on her as much as she leaned on me during those storms. Lois was a true friend who stuck by me all day, every day.
So imagine my shock to receive a call from my husband that Lois was dying. I was 7 hours away in the wilds of Kentucky at a food event. I’d hemmed and hawed about going, but she’d been doing so well. Twenty-four hours later, she wasn’t.
The event was the First Annual Appalachian Food Summit at Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky. For two days food writers, purveryors, chefs, historians, and enthusiasts gathered to sing the praises of Appalachian food and to brainstorm ways to improve the economy of Eastern Kentucky and to get the word out to the rest of the world that Appalachian food, often culled from lean cupboards, is freaking delicious.
The entire weekend we ate, talked, laughed, and rocked on porches. There was a genuine potluck church dinner with ham biscuits, chocolate love cake, potato salad topped with bacon, jello salad, banana pudding, and four kinds of pie. There was a supper of soup beans, collards, dilly beans, green tomato fried pies and fried catfish crafted by Travis Milton, a native of Wytheville and chef at Richmond’s Comfort. Late nights spinning records, listening to live bluegrass and sipping West Virginia bourbon on the sly (Shhh. . .Hindman sits in a dry county).
Then the call came, and the news was devastating. Lois’s kidneys were failing. I knew I had to leave. To do something I’d hate to do. As I lay in bed late that night listening to the fiddle, the banjo, then later the Merle Haggard records coming from the cabin’s living room, the laughter and the bourbon flowing, I knew no sleep would come. So I pulled out my phone and looked up, “How to bury your dog”. The guilt sat like an elephant on my chest. I should be there now.
But as I wound my way through the hills and valleys of Kentucky at dawn, the sun rising right into my eyes, I felt gratitude mixing with the guilt, dissolving the rock in my chest. Gratitude for the camaraderie, the companionship, the shared love of good, simple Southern food. I hadn’t eaten that well since I’d sat at my Nana’s table. I hadn’t eaten that well since Lois took sick. All that sustenance, both physical and emotional, would prepare me for the task that lay ahead. Thank god for that.
Still the drive home was horrific. Knowing she was hanging on, but might not make it before I could arrive. In desperation, even though I NEVER do this, I appealed to Facebook friends to send prayers for my safe arrival, and for her comfort. I wanted us both there, but if she needed to go, so be it. No matter what, I wanted folks surrounding her with love, easing her pain. The response I got was overwhelming, and to this day, I know I got there in time because of those well wishes. Thank you so much for that.
Thanks go out as well to my fellow Appalachian food enthusiasts. This gathering was the best I’ve ever attended, in its relaxed nature, its sincerity, and in its unpretentious, fucking delicious array of homegrown food. I cannot WAIT until next year. And I cannot wait until this weekend’s Fire, Flour, and Fork event in Richmond, because many of those same folks will be in attendance. And there are many hugs of thanks to give out. And soup beans to eat.