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17 March 2007

the joys of simple food

quesadilla at midnight

Dear Cooper,

You haven’t met me yet, but you will, come July.

Your uncle Danny (whom I call the Chef on this website) talks about you all the time. Your dad is his brother Pat, you see. Pat, the Olympic skier, and now the man who put you on your first pair of skis a couple of months ago. You had flame-red hair and a big, lopsided grin, your small teeth as white as the snow. You hunched down over bent knees as you started to soar down a little hill. Your uncle saw that picture and teared up — another Ahern skiing boy is born. I saw the pictures of you when we were visiting your Granddad and Grandmother in Tucson, last month. They are so proud of you.

That’s a great family you’ve been born into, kid.

Everyone in Tucson wished you could have been there with us. I know your dad had to work at the ski area, and you had visited Tucson only a few weeks before. But still. Think what fun you would have had, with all your uncles and aunts making a fuss over you. And I would have happily kneeled down on the floor to play blocks or read you a book. I just can’t wait to meet you.

You see, there is a photograph of you above our stove. Every time your uncle makes us food, late at night, after he has returned from his restaurant, he looks up at that photograph — the top of your lip smeared with a crayon-made moustache — and sends out a little kiss to you. And next to you sits a photograph of Elliott, standing on a chair in his kitchen, contemplating the quinoa on his spoon quite seriously.

Elliott is my nephew, my dear-hearted, wonderfully particular, nearly-four-years-old little boy. From the day he was born, Elliott was my favorite person in the world. He dances with words, shimmies his way into every part of my brain, and waltzes out the door after a long visit, without knowing just how much the memory of him will tap across my mind. Yesterday, he was visiting me for the afternoon. The first thing he did was run into the bedroom I share with your uncle, climbed onto the bed, and bounced on the top of the covers for ten minutes. I watched his little, white-socked feet spring up from the mattress, his toes pointed downward, already anticipating the soft return, and saw his hair flop up from his face with every leap. He kept grinning, an open-mouthed smile that made me giggle.

And later in the afternoon, when he was standing in our kitchen, mixing yellow and blue food colorings in a glass of water, his mom told him that we were ready to leave for the store, to find him a toy. (He isn’t old enough to know that we were only going to the local Goodwill, and the scuffed red rocket he clutched to himself only cost four dollars.) He stood up, his eyes excited. And then he paused for a moment, to contemplate. Suddenly, he thrust his arms out, into the air — an expansive gesture, embracing the moment — and said, “And Shauna can come too!”

My goodness, I love him.

You and Elliott will meet soon. You will meet in one of the most important weekends of our life: our wedding. You probably have no idea what that means, do you? A few weeks ago, I took Elliott aside after a long walk in the forest behind his house, and I said, “Do you know what? Uncle Dan and I are going to be married. We are going to have a big party in a park, with all our friends. And we would love for you to be there.” He nodded gravely, and let out an airy little “…yes….” I don’t think he understood. And he’s over a year older than you. So you don’t have to understand.

But on a day toward the middle of July this year, your uncle and I would like you to put on your brightest Hawaiian shirt, and a pair of cowboy boots, and walk a little distance, holding Elliott’s hand, toward the two of us. I’m going to be wearing a white dress. Your uncle will be wearing a blue suit, and we’ll both be smiling at you. Somewhere in your small hands, you’ll be carrying these silver rings.

Last month, I was holding Elliott on my hip, pointing to the photographs on our refrigerator. He always laughs when he sees himself, and he recognizes his grandma and granddad, whom he adores. Then, he saw the picture of you there, your hair gleaming red and tousled, your hands clutching a rock you liked from the garden. “Who’s that?” he asked.
“That’s Cooper,” I told him.
“Cooper,” he repeated, solemnly, curving his mouth around the letters of your name.
“Cooper is Uncle Dan’s nephew,” I said, pointing to the man standing behind me. “Maybe one day you could be his friend.”
Elliott paused for a moment, to think. And then, in his sweet, small voice, he said, “Yes, I will be his friend.”
I looked around at your uncle and saw the tears fill his eyes, immediately.

So, don’t be upset if you see us both crying, on that sunny day in July, as you walk toward us. We will both just be happy, you see.

Last week, your uncle called your house to say hello. You — just like Elliott has — go in and out of liking the phone. Mostly, when he calls every week, you just listen on the end, your little breaths hitting the sound recorder. Once, after he had moved into this house, your uncle put me on the phone too, the both of us listening. That’s how I heard you say your first word to him: “…book.” That made him tear up too, to hear your voice.

I remember the first sounds Elliott made that sounded like words. He sometimes pointed to the lamp above the chair in which we sat, and with every force and urgency he could muster, sputtered out, “Dight!” I can still remember the delight of hearing that d, the explosive force of the t at the end of the word. I knew what he meant.

Now, his voice is thin and reedy, sweet and pleading. I wonder — every day now —whether your uncle and I will meet our own children. I wonder what their voices will sound like in my ears.

Last week, when your uncle talked to you on the phone, you said your first sentence to him. Your father had stopped at a little Mexican take-out place for dinner, and he had just given you some food before he asked you to step to the phone. Apparently, you said, “I have a quesadilla, and it is good.” While your uncle talked to you, amazed to hear an entire sentence, you munched away, contentedly. All he could hear was the sound of your chewing.

And the first sentence you ever said to him was about food.

He called me just afterwards, to convey the conversation. He was a little misty still, his voice a little ragged. You see, every one of you in his family (and now every person in my family — we’re all one family, joined by the two of us, now) is so deeply important to your uncle. He’s pretty sensitive to life, moved by everything, making jokes about everything else. But his family? And you? You are all, without a doubt, the most important part of his life.

That’s part of why I love him so. He loves his food, he works hard, and he treats people well. But in the end, the only thing that truly matters to him is the people he loves. I feel blessed to be one of those people.

Your uncle is a good man, Cooper. I hope that one day you will be a man as good as him.

All of this is how, last Saturday night, we ended up at a gargantuan grocery store, at nearly midnight, searching out the ingredients for quesadillas. This store was cavernous, with cold fluorescent lights, and almost no one there. But the two of us were laughing hard and discovering food on different aisles. As he walked through the produce section, he walked with his hand on my butt. (You’re going to have to be a lot older before you realize what fun that is.) That’s one part of being with someone you love this dearly — anything can be a joy.

We rushed home, talking about families and nephews and customers in the restaurant all the way up to our home. And then we cut up chunks of avocado and grated soft cheese into a small hill on the plate. We opened the jar of salsa and flipped up the lid of the sour cream. He sautéed us some slices of steak. I took the corn tortillas out of their package and started to heat them in the skillet.

These tortillas were made by a company called Mission. This definitely won’t mean anything to you for awhile, but I can eat them because they are gluten-free. Not only are they made of corn, but the company has taken the care to label them and explain their manufacturing process on their website. Later, when you are older, you might understand how loved it makes me feel to know that someone is taking care of me like this.

Sometimes, the best food is simple, spontaneous. If we had planned ahead, we might have made our own salsa, from scratch. We could have ground up chiles and bought better cheese. It’s easy to make corn tortillas by hand. There are a dozen ways we could have made this meal more gourmet. And I could have made some again the next afternoon, just to take this picture in the best light.

But you know what? The best food is always shared with people you love. Just that day, I had gone to my friend Francoise’s house. When I entered, she jumped up to hug me, and gestured widely at the table, where Adriaan sat. She said, “We are just eating lunch. Would you like to join us?” And so, she raced into the kitchen to cut up an avocado, and dribbled it with balsamic vinegar. She sliced a tomato and sprinkled sea salt on it. A handful of greens, a squeeze of lemon juice. On the table, some hummus. That was all I needed. It was a tremendous meal. Not gourmet, not good enough to write about in a fancy magazine. Just good.

And when I told your uncle about what Francoise had done, he said, “That is a good woman.”

Because you were eating a quesadilla, and told your uncle about it on the phone, we sat in our bedroom, after midnight, eating hot quesadillas just off the skillet. We made jokes about Napoleon Dynamite (“Get your own damned quesadilla!”) and held each other’s hands. Sour cream and avocadoes spilled out both sides of the tortillas, and we both moaned with the messy pleasure.

Thank you, Cooper, for inspiring such joy in us.

It’s amazing how much we all affect each other in this world.

See you in July, buddy.

Your soon-to-be aunt Shauna


At 4:40 AM, Blogger Beccy said...

I just love your writing Shauna, Elliot and Cooper are very lucky to have you and the chef as their aunt and uncle!

At 8:01 AM, Blogger Mrs. G.F. said...

Sweet. It is amazing how food connects us.

Not to get too religious here, but that is why Jesus asked people to remember Him through food.

Food does amazing things.

At 9:32 AM, Blogger Kristin said...

Shauna - you write so well and so beautifully. I feel as if I know the people in your life already. Thank you for opening you heart and sharing these pieces of your life with the rest of us. Every new post from you is a treat !!

At 10:21 AM, Blogger E! said...

I was trying to explain to my husband the other night how it is that I'm completely in love with a couple I've never met in person...I was trying to explain your writing, the way you communicate, how it speaks from the heart, directly to the heart...I'm not sure he totally got it, as he's just getting over pneumonia and was on at least two Percoset - but that's OK.

Our son Izak, who is just 20 months, has Celiac. I diagnosed him myself when he was around 9 months, having suspected somthing was amiss after noticing that the contents of his plumbing weren't quite right. After countless subsequent trips to his pediatrician and the pediatric GI doctor, everyone seems to be in agreement and he's been gluten-free for almost a year now.

In many ways, it's easier knowing what we know now - while he's young, and can get used to a certain lifestyle and way of eating. Plus, I already love to cook, and your blog has been a continuous inspiration for me. How else would I have know what Teff is? Or that sorghum beats the heck out of straight rice flour?

I was always somewhat of a 'foodie' but sharing your passion for life and food through this blog has really brought out the best in me. Izak and I baked bread yesterday - it was a mix from the Gluten-free pantry - and he squealed with delight at watching the big old decades-old Kitchen-Aid mix the wet & dry into a gooey doughy mess that was even more fun to scrape out with a rubber 'patch-oo-la' (My 20-month old cannot recite his ABCs, but can visually and verbally identify a spatula, whisk, mandolin slicer, mixer, blender, paring knife...etc. I love it!)

We beat eggs with a fork to make omelettes in the morning, peel mangoes after making a giant X at the top using a sharp knife with mommy's help, pour milk using two hands on organic gluten-free cornflakes for breakfast. I cannot tell you what a joy it is for me to have a little helper, and to know that despite his 'condition', he will grow in to a fine young man who will know his way around a kitchen and be able to amaze his friends with 9-course gourmet gluten-free feasts. And I am so so so SOOOOO looking forward to the two of you experiencing that same joy for yourselves!!

Maybe some day they'll have an Iron Chef Gluten-Free, or a Gluten-Free Top Chef, and my little Izak, and your little whomever-s/he-may-be will face off against each other to create something magically delicious, and I can sit next to you guys in the audience and smile and tell you how great you are!

At 6:30 PM, Blogger Tea said...

I should know better than to read your posts in a cafe. Now I'm crying in public and people are thinking I'm sad, but I'm not--just moved.

You didn't mention that you were marrying into a family with redheads in it--you are one lucky lady, my friend!:-) What a cutie.

At 7:35 AM, Blogger Loner said...

my husband asked the other day how I decided what to have for dinner each night - and this is the same thing the happens to me - sudden inspiration - then a delicious dinner. You are going to have such a blast at the wedding - and Cooper looks like a dollbaby - and an imp all rolled into one!

At 9:16 AM, Blogger Samatakah said...

I think the best thing we can do for children is show them (not "teach them") that there is **plenty of love** in the world for them. And the best thing we can do for parents is show them that their children are loved by their aunts, uncles, "aunts," and "uncles."

When my cousins asked their four year old nephew (on the other side of their family) to be a ringbearer, his response was, "Yes. I've wanted to be a ringbearer my whooooooole life!"

At 10:19 AM, Blogger Rachael Narins said...

Girl...every time I think you have hit maximum sentiment, you out do yourself. I love this post. I’m going to be an Auntie again in a few months, and then again a few months later. That will be nephew number two and then niece number three. I can’t wait. Being an Aunt is the best.

At 4:52 PM, Blogger Kimberly McKay said...

That's so cute. I love the name Cooper too!
Hey how did you get the gluten free items/groceries listed down the side of your blog?
My dh has severe gluten allergies, and I wanted to post some of those groceries on my sites.

At 2:09 PM, Blogger chrisd said...

I had tears in my eyes reading this post. You are so blessed to have those 2 little boys in your life. I am so happy that you feel so connected with them.

I'll be by to see what's next.

Blessings -- and I'm going to check out that tortilla place.

At 7:59 PM, Blogger Cate said...

That just may be my favorite post yet ... total goosebumps every word. Thanks, Shauna, for reminding us how truly precious life is ... off to kiss my own 4-year-old kitchen monkey.


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