Lowdown from the High Country
I spread my plunder from the mountain farm market on the counter of my small kitchen, popping still warm tom-thumb strawberries—the last of the season—as I contemplate what’s for supper.
The answer is an odd one, involving two leftover deviled eggs (mayo, garlic aioli mustard, smoked Spanish paprika, a mincing of dill pickle, and a few dots of capers on top). I wrap each in a couple of thin slips of subtly seasoned roast beef from the Amish store around the corner, then wrap this in crisp organic lettuce leaves, lightly spread with just a smidgen of Duke’s.
Is this Scotch Eggs done up with a New Age wink? Or Vietnamese by way of Valdosta? I taste one tentatively, pronounce it perfect, and put it on a plate. The plate is square like a picture frame, colored like the soul of an avocado, but shiny, slick, with a pale green rim—I plop a handful of deep orange sun gold tommy-toes—cherry tomatoes. They roll around the plate in pleasurable abandon and I laugh.
And then I stand for a moment, caught by the perfect pairing, the exquisite harmony of these simple spheres—the color of bittersweet—backed by the dark green, the lovely pale lettuce just left of center. I think of the man who taught me to see the profound beauty in such simple acts as arranging food on a plate to please the eye, the heart, as well as the tongue. I give silent thanks for that gift. Then I take my plate to the love seat where I will sit to consume my supper in sacred solitude.
There was a moment, brief but radiant, in which it seemed as if that man and I would make a life of it, creating acts of beauty—words, music, art—together. I give thanks for that moment, and for the longer, painful, but ultimately liberating, learning that followed.
I wrote once about a close friend of mine who celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas alone. She described the simple joy she had in preparing her special breakfast on those sacred days; the hours she spent poring over fat newspapers on the floor, savoring the decision of what movie to go to later; the ease of coming home to make a candlelight meal, with fine wine, alone.
She said those days were holy. My editor said my friend could not mean that, she was only trying to make the best of a difficult situation. My editor was a woman wrapped in family like thick colorful scarves, convinced that without them she would be cold. My friend was not cold; she was at peace, alone.
I have done both—danced with scarves and without. Each has its reasons, its blessings. (“I give you an emptiness, / I give you a plenitude,” writes the Scottish poet, Norman MacCaig. “Each has its time.”)
I am in many ways like my mother, a smiling, welcoming woman blessed with the love of many. Yet she lived the last quarter of her life alone. She felt the grief of it many times. She also savored its joys.
My mother had an odd way of saying grace at the table. It came not at the beginning of the meal, but some bites in, when all had been tasted and something had been found especially good. Then she would recite the names of the beloved absent, those she knew would have savored that one particular dish. I thought, as a young woman, that it was a sigh of loss I heard as she chanted this; I believe now, as an old woman, that it may have been, can be, a sigh of deepest pleasure. For the memory of love, yes, but even more for the still soft moment of experiencing the vastness of love alone.
I say grace as I finish the lettuce packets, lick my fingers—not enough to count the blessed souls who have led me here.
I save the tiny tomatoes until last, unwilling to disturb their painterly grace upon the plate. Then I place each one, alone, in my mouth and break sunlight, sweetness, juicy life, on my tongue.
Read “12 Things to Do With a Just Picked Heirloom Tomato,” by Ronni Lundy.
More of Maury Gortemiller’s photography can be found in his Eyes on the South feature.