Spiced Grief

7995377D-E3E8-41B6-8ECA-008EA3A76ECAA few days ago, I was mentally occupied by the popular trend of  minimalist reorganizing and purging of things that no longer spark joy. Although I like being organized and certainly am not on a mission to acquire material goods, I’d pretty much decided that this whole focus on what we own was basically irrelevant to me. Stuff is stuff. I have more important things on my mind. But then, just when you think you’re done with a topic, boom. Another angle pops up and if you’re self-aware, it needs to be considered. This pop-up angle is also about stuff. But there’s no joy involved. There is grief. Oddly, in this case, the grief is spiced.149A4117-C5E6-4088-82F1-A2B7549888DC

When Michael died, I needed to move quickly to attend to the business of clearing out a bunch of his things. My son only had a week at home before leaving the country for 6 months. I knew that I wasn’t going to keep Michael’s clothes for that long and I wanted my kid to choose anything special that he wanted to keep before I unloaded the closet and dressers. I was also worried about cleaning out Michael’s study. He was a foot taller than me and had shelves towering above his desk, all the way to our 9 foot ceiling. I felt that the task of trying to disassemble the accumulation of heavy books and school resource materials was going to be more than I could physically manage. So together, my son and I attacked those projects, setting aside what would go to my daughter and her family and stashing what he and I wanted to keep. We got everything done, he left the country and I just walked away.

 

I haven’t remodeled anything. There’s a bunch of empty space with no new plan for it. I haven’t felt compelled to switch out what once was there. The months following that purge were taken up by the bureaucratic busy work that follows death and by planning a memorial for Michael. That event ultimately became more like a curated museum exhibit.

 

He was a public figure in our community, having co-owned a local business for 27 years prior to becoming a popular high school teacher. Interspersed in those years was a political career which included being both an elected and appointed official for 20 years, as well as serving on multiple boards and commissions. I’d never done anything like it before. Ultimately, it was a cathartic labor of love that helped me sort through our life’s memories and find a way to share them with a lot of people while not exposing myself publicly to overwhelming attention. Hundreds of people came, ate a bit, watched a slideshow, listened to music and walked through the exhibit which kept the focus on Michael. That worked for me.

 

In the meantime I was trying to attend to my own needs, working my way through the exhaustion and loneliness which were my constant companions after his death. I went to therapy, I traveled, I swam and I took classes. I gardened and went to the movies. I read and wrote, listened to music and spent time with my family and friends. The following year I became a principal organizer for my 50th high school reunion. Busy times. Except for the disposing of most of Michael’s personal things, the inside of my house and the garage are virtually the same today as they were when he died. I really like these spaces. I’ve been glad to be in them. I’m comfortable. But I have a list of chores that need to be done, a list that has some items crossed out, while some still sit there, staring up at me. Their persistence should have been a clue for me.

 

Somewhere in his 30’s, Michael’s love for food took a leap into growing it and cooking it rather than just eating it. To the great joy of the whole family, he accrued a wide range of recipes which included many favorites we’d discovered together on family trips and his own personal creations. His vegetable and herb garden ensured great flavors and over time, he used them in both fresh and dried forms.3B10FA74-D4A7-48B2-B515-D98AAEC11049He canned every year so there were tomatoes for spaghetti, chicken parmesan and pizzas, corn relishes, pickles and special rubs for chicken and ribs. He built two spice racks for the kitchen and another devoted to his collection of hot sauces. I still cooked but I never loved it the way he did and over time, my repertoire shrank as his grew. Toward the end of his life, he looked at me with great concern and asked me what I was going to eat when he died. That’s one of the conversations  I’ll never forget.

 

My interest in cooking didn’t change after he was gone. I wrote a blog post  last year called The Lonely Kitchen. Although I’ve cooked a bit for my kids and grandkids, when left to myself,  I tend to grab what’s easy, rarely preparing meals for myself. I actually started wondering if my stove still worked. While I’ve been okay with this lifestyle, the kitchen itself, never remodeled and already showing its age, began to look pretty dingy. I was appalled to find cobwebs in cabinets and containers that had expired years ago. The kitchen chores clearly needed to be bumped up to the top of the list. My son helped a bit one day when I asked him to reach the top of the spice rack that was almost at the ceiling. We agreed it was dusty and disgusting but as he was leaving town, we put off making it a project until he returned. Meanwhile, I was feeling that I really needed to move forward with it. I kept thinking that avoiding this task wasn’t a simple thing, but was masking a deeper avoidance issue that I couldn’t quite pin down. So yesterday I decided to start with the spice racks and get rid of the expired ones, clean the shelves and try to deal with knowing that I’d need to adapt to the more barren look that awaited me.71D8B264-33A0-4AC1-A647-81309E918849

I didn’t expect that job to crack me open and unearth the stream of grief that ripples along inside of me. Recently I’d been thinking that although I feel somewhat emotionally flat, I’ve not been breaking down as often as I did last year. The second anniversary of Michael’s death is looming and although I miss him every day, I’ve been pretty stable. But the bottles of spices, partially used and long untouched brought me to my knees. Michael wasn’t his clothes. But there’s so much of him in the racks he so lovingly built, and the spice bottles he acquired so he could create luscious food for us. There are containers of his own concoctions that were for his special recipes. I can feel him in the kitchen, thrilled when something was just the way he wanted it, and furious at his failures. The spots on the ceiling are from those.2402FDF2-F167-43B1-99B6-138E550311E0

I see him standing with our grandson, teaching him how to chop and cut while they chatted. I remember how he loved to have a beautiful presentation of his meals with garnishes plucked from the garden. How can he still inhabit that room and those dusty bottles? Stripping away all the partially used containers and tossing them away was incredibly harsh.104AE32A-A77C-4A43-BCF0-EA71E706ADBB

My grandson came to visit me partway through the process and said he’d wondered when I’d get rid of grandpa’s spices since I didn’t use them myself. I wept at that comment with its absolute truth about what had been and what would be. I know I won’t be replacing the bulk of what needed to be gone. This sweet 8 year old boy slung his arm around me and told me it was okay for me to feel emotional. The incongruity of our dynamic was lost on him but not on me. The little kid understood that clearing away the little jars and containers felt like I was clearing away pieces of Michael in a different way than I’d done before. For me, he wasn’t in his clothes or his books, but damn if he wasn’t in those foodstuffs. And the truth is, keeping the kitchen a somewhat gross shrine has been an unconscious strategy I’ve employed to avoid how desolate that place is without accoutrements de Michael. There is no phase in all these goofy grief steps for spicy grief. But that’s what I’ve felt for the last few days. And I’m going to stew in it until I’m ready to move on. 8B15AE12-6057-4F8C-9453-26257C7C7175

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