Put on your shoes and walk in the world, talking to me. I’m right here with you; I’m always within reach. It’s a good time to chat, so go ahead. You’ll know it’s me when you know it’s me. But even when you’re not sure, I’m listening.
Sure, I can help you find missing things, but I’m not one of them. I have not gone astray. Death is just a change of address, remember? You wrote that a long time ago, and you were right.
No, I can’t give you my new address— it’s not a place—but when you stand in the back yard, hose in hand, watering the last yellow zinnia that insist on popping up its sunny head, even if it is October, listen with your whole heart.
When you sit in the loft with others and see what shows up as you type, when you let the words appear, take good notes. You’ve gotta whole cheering section here. I’m just the latest addition.
You did it better than you thought you did. You’re doing it better than you think you are. What it? Every it. You always have done.
Yes, it’s fall, the dying season, not your favorite, though it was mine. Now, as you walk, inhale the cool. The heat has finally shifted hemispheres. Scuff your feet like a little kid through leaves on the path. Stop, crouch, admire their fallen state. Soak up golden gingkos and blushing maples. Pick up acorns and their jaunty caps that have separated in the falling. Relish the crunch of brittle sycamores.
Every leaf is born, lives, dies. Tuck them into your heart, where the ebbing summer and I will carry you through every winter, into every spring. As one does.
About 50 people gathered in Sacramento the day before Georgann and Ron’s 25th wedding anniversary for a ceilidh. That’s pronounced kay-lee, and it’s Gaelic for a party, which Georgann loved. Her brother, Bill Taylor, opened his former restaurant for the ceilidh, and her oldest kids—Andy, Tiff and Jena—did the heavy lifting the day before to set up the place for what turned out to be a grand gathering.
A number of folks spoke about the extraordinary human who was Georgann Taylor Turner, and we ate and reminisced, and there were certainly damp eyes. But I can’t help but think she enjoyed the ceilidh in her memory. She promised to show up for us, and I don’t doubt that she did.
The same evening I’d been invited to read at a Sacramento Poetry Center outdoor reading. I decided to read four poems about Georgann. This was one of them.
Two days after our hemisphere shifts into autumn, your loved ones gather for a party, a wake, a meal, a social gathering in your memory— though without a good Irish band for dancing.
Still, you’d call it a ceilidh, as you named a cat that you bequeathed to me long ago. I never could spell her name without looking it up, but Ceilidh, the sweet calico, graced my house until it was her time to go. As it was yours just a month ago.
You, who saw the spiritual in the ordinary, who preferred the overcast cool of fall to searing summer, who bestowed upon us her fierce devotion, who found the holy in repetitive tasks—cooking, planting, raising children—who loved a good ceilidh.
Yours was a vibrant light, even as it faded, even as our side of the planet begins its tilt away from the sun, as the wings you’d grown lifted you into mystery, as we celebrate you, at last unencumbered, and carry your essence with us as we traverse all the seasons to come.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s because my partner, a 40-year photojournalist, recently chronicled the decommissioning of The Sacramento Bee building, and I provided some words to go with those photos (which you can see in the September issue of Sacramento magazine here). Maybe it’s because working for newspapers has provided me with some of my greatest colleagues and experiences, as well as some pretty awful ones. Maybe it’s because ink seeped into my veins as a kid who started her own neighborhood newspaper and later as a teenager hanging around Linotypes at a small-town paper. Even though the ink of newspapers makes me sneeze, I have a soft spot for words and photos on newsprint.
Last year as The Bee, shuttered by COVID, began taking apart the building where it had made a daily paper since 1952, it began disposing of surplus. I got excited when, in my final year as a journalism professor, advising students who had not put out a physical newspaper for three years, I learned that The Bee was giving away its old newspaper boxes—the kind that sat on corners holding newspapers. Boxes into which you’d feed quarters, lift the lid and take a copy of that day’s paper.
My City College colleague Randy, with whom I advised the Express, was also a former Bee photo guy. We decided that we’d use his vehicle to snag each of us a Bee box. The Bee wanted people to promise to paint out The Bee logos on the boxes, particularly if they planned to display them as, say, free little libraries, which is something that’s now done with old newspaper boxes. I had no plans to paint anything. I wanted a beaten-up old Bee box to sit in the urban jungle that makes up half my back yard as an artifact of journalism, not unlike the old, rotting typewriters there. I consider it a writer’s garden art.
But it was not to bee. The guy giving away the boxes who was supposed to have our names on a list didn’t contact us about pickup, and when we eventually reached him, we eventually learned that all the boxes were gone.
I was a little disappointed, but that’s how things go. I only worked for The Bee for a few years—nowhere near Randy’s or Dick’s tenure. Instead, on the last day of the decommissioning process of the building at 21st and Q, Dick and I were given the last two rolls of newsprint in the building—demos, if you will, that used to sit in the lobby when they’d sell the end rolls to people for a few bucks. Blank newsprint makes dandy wrapping paper, especially if you’re moving or need to wrap, say, dishes before boxing them. We were tickled to have the end rolls and their price tags.
Still, I wished I could have snagged a newspaper box.
Well, I got my chance on the 20th anniversary of 9-11, a somber day for sure. That’s when I learned that the Sacramento News & Review was giving away its newspaper boxes. Bring a vehicle to their parking lot and pick one up. They had a number of them that had been painted by artists, but by the time I arranged with my friend Timi Poeppelman to drive me over in her SUV, those were mostly gone.
Not to worry—they had plenty of their original, bright red boxes with Sacramento News & Review stickers on them, too. And that’s what I wanted for the urban jungle.
Timi confessed on the drive to the SN&R that she’d been feeling guilty because she knew I wanted a Bee box… and she had snagged two of them. One for her and one she took to some kids in Oakland, where they turned the box into a little free library. She hopes to turn hers into a library, too, which will require painting it.
“I should’ve helped you get one then,” she said. But honestly, we were both busy teaching, and Timi is the person who made it possible for me to teach online for two and a half semesters. She coached me on the Canvas platform that colleges use for everything from assignments to tests to class discussions. She taught me how to teach on Zoom. And she was always available for my panicked phone calls when something didn’t work correctly—usually me. I literally could not have done my job without her. (Thanks again, Timi!)
“No, no,” I said. “This is even better.”
And it is. The Snooze (and I have long used that name for the SN&R with great affection) and I became good friends after I became a full-time journalism prof, missing newspapers. I’d become professional acquaintances with its founding editor, Melinda Welsh, when I was the editor of Sacramento magazine in the early 1990s. After I started teaching at Sacramento City College, I volunteered to work a few hours a couple of times a week at the SN&R with some of her editors. They were smart, competent young women, learning the ropes of journalism, and I loved working with the two Rachels and one Laura. They all went on to bigger papers and fine careers, and I served as backup copy editor to Laura, who was no slouch herself.
Melinda and I have remained friends all these years, sharing writing and having occasional lunches. I’ve long loved the Snooze and have had I-don’t-know-how-many journalism students intern and eventually work there.
So Timi and I found a red SN&R box in pretty good shape and loaded it into the back of her SUV. Before I could offer to buy her lunch or a coffee, she said all she wanted in return was a matcha, so we went to our neighborhood Temple Coffee Roasters. Her husband Rick joined us there, and after tea, coffee and conversation, we rode back to my house where Timi and Rick carried the red newspaper box down my driveway, into the backyard and plopped it in the urban jungle. (Thanks, you two!)
The next day I cleaned it out (why people think newspaper boxes are trash cans is beyond me) and hosed it off, delighted with this bit of newspaper history in my yard.
I hate that the SN&R is no longer printing copies you can pick up from those boxes for free, and that it’s easier to access The Bee online, too. But I’m happy that one of my former students is currently writing for the SN&R online (go, Casey!), and that, despite its many trials—including a vastly reduced staff—Bee journalists work diligently to produce good journalism. It’s not what it used to be; few newspapers are.
Dick and I consider ourselves lucky to have worked in print journalism as long as we did. I’m proud to have coached thousands of student journalists, many of whom worked or are working in the field today. There’s still a need for good, carefully reported news and quality visual journalism. Much of it is no longer produced in the great quantities it was on newsprint, delivered to people’s homes or distributed in boxes like the one in my backyard.
But I’ll look at the newspaper box and think of my former colleagues who toiled in newsrooms and had their stories and photos printed on newsprint and give thanks for them all. I’m proud to have been one of them.
Sitting in front of the TV, horrified, mesmerized, thinking, I’m glad you’re not here to see this, because, awful as it was, I was still wound up, sometimes in a ball on the bed, after your unexpected death six months earlier. And ever since, on this day, as others mourn a national tragedy, my mind falls to you, someone I grieved as the towers fell, as word arrived of a plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, another into the Pentagon. As images appeared of people fleeing down staircases in the dark, of firefighters going into the fray, never to return, of stunned, ashen souls walking for miles and miles, trying to get home, of those who never got home.
It’s how I feared your soul experienced those first seconds, minutes, hours after your sudden departure. Did you wander in the bardo, wondering what had just happened, where you were, what came next? Or were you plunged into nothingness, your essence released into the air, bits of energy sparking as you transformed into spirit?
If it sounds beautiful, perhaps it was. Perhaps only those of us on the ground called it tragedy. It’s not easy to go on believing in an afterlife amid a horrific aftermath. But perhaps those of you escaping bodies of ruined flesh felt freed, even as you blasted off, leaving the rest of us behind.
In June, newly retired from teaching, I decided to tackle the art of cheesecake and began practicing in earnest so I’d be ready to whip up what ended up to be three cheesecakes for my mother’s 90th birthday celebration in early July.
I learned to make a classic, cake-y, springform pan cheesecake. I made cheesecake from the recipe on the graham cracker crumbs box. And I made Margery Thompson’s cheesecake, which is really more like a creamy cheesecake pie—one that her family (of which I am a happily included part) deems The Best Cheesecake In All the Land. Actually, it was Marge’s son Mitchell who declared it so, though he died much too soon at age 43. When we in the family who have been tutored by the master (mistress?) make the cheesecake, we do so in honor of Mitchell.
I’ve been asked by a number of folks for that recipe, so here’s the version I took down, step by step, as Marge tutored her daughter Rebecca and me in cheesecake. I have to add that Marge got the recipe from an old church cookbook (the first version in the early 1950s, a later one that she still has in 1961). It was Helen Miniaci’s recipe, so we pay homage to her, too, with every incarnation.
“It’s easy,” says Marge, who has made this hundreds of times, and once you get the hang of it, she’s right. Easy-peasy, super yummy, not too sweet and very creamy!
Margery Thompson’s cheese(cake) pie
—Heat oven to 350°
—For crust (mix in 9-9.5-inch glass pie plate):
• 1 cup graham cracker crumbs
• 3-4 tablespoons melted butter
• 2 tablespoons sugar
(Press into plate so that crust goes up sides of plate nearly to the rim. Plate doesn’t need to be greased; “there’s enough butter in there so it doesn’t stick,” Marge says.)
—For filling (in a large glass or ceramic bowl)
—Beat with hand mixer or food processor until very creamy, almost runny:
• 16 oz. (2 8 oz. packages) of room temperature (“makes it easier to beat”), full fat cream cheese (“low fat doesn’t set up properly”) To make it easier to whip the cream cheese, beat in one egg with the cream cheese.
• ½ cup sugar (“basic white sugar is smoothest and easiest to whip”)
• 1 more egg
• ½ teaspoon lemon juice (“no pulp; tart lemons are best”)
• ½ teaspoon vanilla
—In a separate smaller glass or ceramic bowl, beatwith hand mixer or food processor until very creamy, almost runny:
• ½ pint (half a pint container) sour cream
• 2 tablespoons sugar
• ½ teaspoon vanilla (“rinse lemon out of measuring spoon first to avoid curdling the cream”)
—Fold sour cream mixture into cream cheese mixture “sloooowly to avoid air pockets,” Marge says, using rubber spatula to gently turn the sour cream mixture into the cream cheese.
—Pour into crust, smoothing “gently so it doesn’t pull up the crust” on the sides of the pie plate. (Optional from Mrs. Miniaci: Sprinkle graham cracker crumbs on top.)
—Bake 25 minutes (“Do not over bake!” warns Mrs. Miniaci.) Remove carefully from oven and cool on a wire rack till completely cool (“a good four hours”) before covering with plastic wrap and putting in the fridge. Allow to chill in fridge at least overnight (“24 hours is better”). Can be refrigerated for up to two days before serving.
—Optional: Serve with a berry topping (frozen or fresh). But honestly, it’s perfect all by its ownself. Very rich, and a little goes a long way!
Old wood type holds the patina of years of fingers caressing it, tossing it, placing it on metal trays or handheld composing sticks, and, once arranged, transferring it to the bed of a vintage printing press. I like to think it contains memory, too, of the words each letter built. I’ve long loved handling type, whether chunks of metal that lie heavy in the hand, or the lightweight wood, often larger, used for posters and announcements and headlines.
So I was delighted to sign up for a letterpress printing class that, as it happened, took place in the back side of an art gallery five days after my best friend finally died. She spent a dozen years living with colon cancer, much of it in reasonably good health, and I got to spend time with her about seven weeks before she died. I count myself lucky in many ways, but seeing Georgann for a week, despite the fact that she spent most of it sleeping, is one of those ways.
Even a death that’s expected upends the loved ones who weather it, so I walked into Myrtle Press a bit unsteady. Death always feels like a gut punch, and the closer we are to the one who dies, the harder the punch. We try not to walk around doubled over, but it’s hard not to. And whether they’re aware of it or not, the dead walk with us, especially in the early hours and days of their new status. We think of them almost nonstop. We wish they hadn’t left. We wish we’d said or done something we didn’t say or do.
So it was that my newest companion spirit accompanied me into a space of old type and a Vandercook cylinder proof press from about 1950 to meet a young woman named Barb, who was both printer and teacher. When I looked into the plastic bins of large wood type and some smaller containers of smaller type, I smiled. I have lots of old type at home, both wood and metal, but it’s fun to see someone else’s collection. Even better to be allowed to touch it.
After she introduced herself, Barb gave us each an 11×17 empty metal printers tray. “That’s your template,” she said. “You’ve got that much space to say whatever you want to say.” She waved at the bins of type. “Dive in!”
Since I was already standing by a big bin containing letters about four inches tall, I plunged in and ran my fingers over the smooth surface of much-used type. I had no idea what I wanted to say. I hadn’t arrived with anything specific in my head. But just like in the writing groups, if you put yourself in the environment and relax a bit, things show up for you. In this case, I picked up a ligature—a word I’ve long loved—two letters put together on one piece of wood, a lowercase double f. ff, it said. What could I do with ff?
And there was Georgann’s laugh in my head. “BFF,” I heard her say, as though she was standing next to me. For decades she had signed off handwritten letters that morphed into emails and texts with BFF. I began searching for a lowercase b to go with the ff ligature. It appeared easily, and I set the two pieces of type on my tray. I saw a large ampersand, one of my favorite pieces of punctuation that looks a bit like a treble clef. Grabbed that. Pawed through the bin to locate a G, then an A and a T. BFF GAT! Georgann Turner.
I giggled. Next to me, Missy Anapolsky searched through another bin. Missy is a graphic design professor at the college I just retired from. Several years ago she and I did a book together about the first century of the college’s history.
Missy looked at my tray. “Is that your friend who just died?” she asked.
“Yep,” I said. We stood there for a moment, looking down at the initials.
Then Missy’s hand dove into the bin in front of me. “Here’s a J!” she said.
I blinked. It took me a few seconds, but I saw where she was going.
“Oh!” I said, and I started looking for my other two initials: an L and an H. They appeared, which seemed a bit miraculous since Barb’s type collection was definitely not a complete font. But there, in uppercase, to match the ampersand, were my initials.
I added a lowercase s, and this is what appeared on my type tray:
There we were in upside down and backwards type that was probably older than both of us:
At least, I thought that’s what it said. Barb locked up the type on the bed of the press, snugging it in with various pieces of wood furniture, along with two quoins—slender pieces of metal that, with a special key, can be expanded to hold the creation in place. She put a piece of brown kraft paper (aka cardstock) on the platform atop the press and cranked the handle that drew the paper onto the great silver cylinder and over the type. Barb pulled the paper off the cylinder, and to our surprise it read:
Lowercase b looks a lot like a lowercase d, and I laughed, remembering similar mistakes long ago at a small newspaper in my hometown, as I put away larger type used for headlines or posters in the giant Hamilton job cases, easily mistaking b’s and d’s or lowercase l’s with the number 1.
I remember the nearly deaf Linotype operators who, when I expressed my desire to become one of them, told me that theirs was no job for a girl, and besides, they wouldn’t be around that much longer. They were right: Within a few years the old hot type letterpress days had ended in favor of electronic offset typesetting machines that resembled giant IBM typewriters. Those produced long strips of copy that had to be cut into different lengths, run through a waxer and stuck to paper pages that would be photographed and turned into metal plates for the press. I spent many hours pasting up newspaper pages as a young journalist. That technology gave way to computers that produced similar galleys, as the strips of copy were called, and eventually to digital systems that sent completed pages directly to presses.
It has not escaped me that I have lived through the end of hot type into cold type into computer-generated type to no type at all of online publications. Perhaps that’s why it was so satisfying, as I weathered the fresh loss of an old friend, to put my hands on wooden letters, set them into a satisfying arrangement and print them on a press older than I. Even if it did have a boo-boo (aka doo-doo).
Missy found the proper b and handed it to Barb, who removed some furniture to replace the letter and then locked it all back up again in a matter of minutes. She cranked the handle and made another print. Voila!
“Now you do it,” Barb said.
I grasped the handle that had been turned thousands of times and cranked it, grinning with delight at seeing red inked letters appear on paper—tangible proof of two of my longtime loves.
(Thanks to Karen, a printing classmate, for taking the photos of me!)
You may feel optimistic today as you think about all the possibilities awaiting you. Your upbeat mood could inspire you to manifest the life you desire. It may be helpful for you to visualize your life as you would like it to be. Try imagining your life as a road stretching into the future.
—Aug. 29, 2021, Leo horoscope, two days before the deadline for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan
Walking the road toward my future, thinking of those trying to do the same in a far-away desert, hoping to reach the airport, somehow talk their way onto a plane to anywhere but where they are.
My road stretches long, I hope. It runs fluidly alongside manicured lawns, past large trees preparing to loosen their leaves to fall.
For the many refugees trudging dusty roads, standing in canals, trying to gain the attention of soldiers who might help, their futures lie in the next barren moment, or, with luck, perhaps the one after that. No grass. No trees.
If they’re turned away, if they cannot leave—no matter how much they visualize a new life or how bright their beacon of positivity—they fear the worst.
How I wish them green grass, leafy canopies of comforting shade under which to rest. How I wish them a stranger’s fortuitous helping hand.
The day you died, I came across a naked man on my evening walk.
This is not the punchline to a bad joke, but it is something that would have made you laugh.
Balled up in the first hours of grief—despite the fact that I’d been wishing for your swift passage since I came to visit you seven weeks earlier—I drove to the house of the man I love and told The Duck, “I need to walk.” And so we did, the human Duck and I, to the Woodside duck pond where we sat for a while near the snoozing mallards, two occupying a rock each, all of us considering the universe. As you do when someone you love dies.
He’s The Duck because, long ago, his young nephew and niece mistakenly called him that instead of Uncle Dick. You loved that and called him The Duck ever after. I became Auntie Jan to your three youngest kids, and he was Uncle Duck.
But I digress. As I do. As you and I did in every anecdote we’d try to relay to one another.
So after sitting at the duck pond, we walked back to Dick’s condo where I left him and continued my walk through the former walnut orchard that is his condo complex. I didn’t get very far, and it was getting dark, when I passed three people walking toward me. One of the men said, after I offered a hello, “There’s a naked man walking over there.”
I chuckled, thinking, “Of course there is.”
And the clothed man walking with the two other clothed people said, “No, really,” gesturing behind him. “We’ve called security.”
I took about 10 more steps and saw the unmistakable profile of a tall, toned, naked man in the not-too-distant distance. I blinked to try to bring him into focus, but he remained blurry in the distance, which was probably just as well. He waved at me, I waved back, and he took off in another direction.
I meant to keep walking in my intended direction toward the naked man, but something inside made me take a hard right through a parking area and across a wide swath of lawn to head back to Dick. I thought, Georgann would love this, me encountering a naked man on a walk. “As one does,” you would say, tossing out one of your favorite phrases that means quite the opposite.
You picked that up in Wales, as you did many other British expressions, some of them just sounds that served as comments. Your “mmmmm” could convey a lot. That year or so in Swansea at university where you finished your bachelor’s degree in politics, where you wrote every paper by hand—because not even typewriters were allowed in the late 1980s—changed you profoundly, you said. It certainly gave you a new best friend in me.
That happened because my childhood best friend, Sue Lester, and I traveled through England, Scotland and Wales by train in the fall of 1988 shortly after you arrived in Swansea with your then 13-year-old daughter Jena. You and I had met when I was teaching journalism at Sac State, where you were working toward a bachelor’s degree. The day Sue and I visited you in your Swansea flat where you had to put coins in a machine so it would dispense heat (which was needed in September), Jena had just finished her first day of school. She came swanning in (another phrase I learned from your Welsh experience) in her cute uniform and announced, “Nigel fancies me.” We grinned like fools, trying not to guffaw at the ease with which Jena had already adopted some of the local lingo.
That visit was when you said, “If you write to me, I’ll be your new best friend.” Not that I needed one, I thought but wisely didn’t say. And so began our exchange of letters on thinnest of light blue Aerograms that folded themselves into something resembling an envelope, an inexpensive way to communicate with people across the pond. I still have the ones you sent me. And, true to your word, we did become best friends over that year or so, partly, you liked to say, because I was able to decipher your handwriting.
That was about eight years before you decided to become a foster mom and phoned me in Hawaii to ask if your oldest, college-aged son Andy could come live with me because you had a 2-year-old redheaded foster kid coming to live with you. I said yes, surprised, though I would have agreed to just about anything you asked. You liked to tell people that I, the teetotaler, was drunk on mai tais at the time. It was a better story. You were—though you denied this—always a very good writer who composed, then paid for, my personalized license plate that said GUD WRTR.
“I can’t drive around with that,” I said. “People will think I’m bragging.”
“Not spelled like that,” you said.
It went on my Honda Civic, and you deemed yourself a published writer, which you later were, too.
Bringing Max home was the beginning of what became your second family—three foster kids, all born to drug-addicted mothers, who you, a single woman, adopted within a few years. I was deeply relieved when you met and later, on Sept. 26, 1996, married Ron Turner, who had a bigger house and a huge heart, ready to take on the role of dad to your little tribe. (His grown son Matt also became part of your blended family.) Ron saw you through your initial diagnosis of colon cancer and the devastating surgery that was the beginning of your cancer journey a dozen years ago. He has never left your side and supported your family through everything up, down and in between.
I realize that this is just the beginning of writing about you in the after, now that you’ve transformed into my newest companion spirit. You saw me through the death of my husband in 2001 and a book of poems I produced called “Companion Spirit.” I’ve long known that you would become one of mine.
In late June I flew to Seattle to stay next door to you for a week. Ron picked me up and drove me to the house you shared on Oyster Bay in Bremerton where you dozed on the sofa, one of your magic suckers for pain control in the corner of your mouth. Years earlier you’d taken liquid opium, which you hated, declaring that it tasted like cat butt and chasing every dose with chocolate. You were, I once remarked, on enough opioids to make Michael Jackson look like a teetotaler. You had been for years, and still, they barely took the edge off your considerable pain.
I couldn’t do much for you, especially since you slept 20ish hours of every day, either in bed or on the sofa. You could barely walk. You’d fallen more than once. You looked skeletal to me, and, in fact, we learned, you’d lost 15 pounds in a month. But you were so glad to see me. Had a couple of gifts for me that you’d ordered online—kitty socks and a striped top with a big cat on it.
When you were awake and wanted to see me, we talked about all kinds of things, as we did. And I asked how you felt about approaching your end. “No one has asked me that,” you said, and as I began to apologize, you stopped me. “I don’t want it to end. I want to live forever.”
I didn’t say, “Even like this? With all the suffering?” I knew you wanted as much time as you could get, but I also could see that your life was literally ebbing away.
The “little kids,” as you once called them—Max, Emma and Maggie—are now grownups who also live in Washington. In fact, Maggie and her two girls also live in the house on Oyster Bay. But for some time you hadn’t seen your big kids, Andy and Jena, who live in Northern California. Stunned at your deterioration, I contacted them and strongly suggested they come see you as soon as possible. They soon did and brought their kids with them and, in turn, contacted your sister and brother. You had a lot of family descend upon you over the next few weeks. You loved it and rallied for them, awake quite a bit, eager and grateful to be with them.
While I was with you, when the breakthrough pain seared through you, I’d give you my hand and tell you to squeeze as hard as you needed. You hand weakly grasped mine as you wept. Twice you told me, “I’m ready for this to be over now.” Which is why, when we were alone, I broached the subject of hospice and even the end of life option your state offers. But you never took those options.
You did not want to leave the party. Ever. You had small grandchildren and bigger ones. You wanted to see how they and everyone else turned out. You, ardent reader—who launched me into more than a few of your favorite mystery series—wanted to read all the way to the end of the story.
The last day you and I spent together began as Ron and I somehow got your barely-able-to-walk self into the car for the ferry journey to the cancer center in Seattle. On the way to the ferry you perked up just like old times in Sacramento when the little kids were little and you and I headed to dinner and a bookstore on a friend date.
On our last day together you, who would typically sleep, chatted through the hourlong ferry ride. You directed me through the labyrinth of Seattle till we reached Aloha Street and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, which had cared for you for a decade. You chatted up the woman who took your blood and the nurses on the seventh floor overlooking Lake Union. You reclined in a comfy chair as fluids and minerals and your oncology P.A.’s “magic anti-nausea cocktail” rolled into you through the port in your chest.
You were having a good day, an up day after so many down ones.
You were hungry, so I went in search of food after discovering that the cafeteria kitchen had shut down for the day. You said you wanted a burger, so I found a snazzy restaurant on the lake and ordered a burger for you and fish and chips for me. I texted you that info, and you said you wanted fish and chips. After trudging back up the hill to the cancer center, I ate the burger and you downed every bit of the fish and most of the chips. And, even before the anti-nausea cocktail, you kept it all down.
This was, to put it mildly, unusual.
You wanted to stop at an Asian market on the way home to buy a whole dead duck for your Asian neighbor Margaret, who would love one, you insisted. While I kept my questions about that to myself, I said, “I can’t imagine how I’d get you in and out of a grocery store. We don’t have a wheelchair.”
“I can walk fine,” you insisted, though I knew that wasn’t true. But you thought you could, just as you thought you could direct me back to the ferry, which involved another series of “turn here—no, wait—OK, next block maybe…” directions. We eventually got there, but not too many years ago you had the route down cold. Still, you spent the whole ferry ride home on your phone, “window shopping” for clothes. At one point, after having talked about hospice and your end that seemed to me to be coming soon, you said, “I guess I shouldn’t be shopping.”
“Why not?” I said, looking over your bony arm to the phone showing a selection of inexpensive tops. “You should be comfy even lying in bed or on the sofa.”
You liked that. You didn’t buy anything online, but neither did you sleep that whole trip. By the time we got home, I was ready to collapse. You slept well and didn’t throw up that night. But by morning, as Ron was ready to drive me to the airport to go home, you were on the sofa retching and in pain.
To you, who lived on Hawaii as a teenager, I bid aloha—until we meet again—and told you I loved you. You responded, as you had more than once, “You’re the bestest of best friends. I love you.”
Somehow I didn’t cry until I was strapped into my seat on the plane as it soared into the sky.
But wait. I digress. Again.
You became the Mystery Voman a couple of decades ago when I had arranged a rendezvous with my new beau Dick in a downtown hotel. I set up a scavenger hunt of sorts, with notes in different places telling him where to go next. You two had never met, but you were waiting for him at a café with a note from me that held the next clue. You introduced yourself to him as the Mystery Voman, and we have for years quoted your line after Dick read the note: “You must go now.”
After I came home from our final visit, I talked to you in the air many times each day. “Let go into the mystery,” I’d say, using a concept familiar to you. “Become my newest companion spirit. Your job is done. You don’t need to be in that pain-filled body, your systems shutting down.” By then you were in the hospital, a tube draining fluid from your abdomen. But you stayed.
“Why are you hanging on?” I wailed to the universe, as if it was up to me—especially after I’d talk to Ron on the phone, visiting you daily in the hospital. “You must go now, Mystery Voman!”
I got no answer from you, not even in dreams, but a wise friend who worked for years as a cancer nurse, reminded me, “She’s not done yet.”
Oh, yeah, huh? That was another of your favorite responses to an obvious truth. For years you had rallied—up and cooking, shopping, engaging with family and friends for a day or two, maybe three, before you crashed again, down for days or eventually a week or more. But you often said that you had a grateful heart, you who told us all that you loved us to the moon and stars… because to the moon and back wasn’t far enough.
In the early hours of a new morning, for reasons none of us will know, you did let go, in hospice for your final few days, at long last done with your incredible journey of a lifetime. And at dusk the universe presented me, at a distance, with a fuzzy vision of a naked man walking casually through a long-ago-walnut-orchard-turned-condo-complex.
I have no idea where he went or what that was about, just as I don’t know how to think about life on the planet without you here. I just know that you’d love the story. So I’m telling it to you, dear companion spirit.
As one does, you’d say.
As I imagine telling you stories until we meet again—please God—in the mystery.
for Georgann (Taylor) Turner March 1, 1951–August 17, 2021
“Dinner and books,” you dubbed our best friend dates, and while the restaurant might change, it had to be somewhere in the vicinity of the bookstore— you picking me up in the mini van that doubled as kindertransport for your second set of kids, first fostered, then adopted. The baby seat in the back rattled without Maggie in it, too quiet without Max lisping his way through a song or Emma looking out the window, Ron at home with them all.
This was your escape, and I got to be part of it.
The food didn’t matter; books did. We’d cruise rows of shelves like barflies on the hunt, searching for the just-right specimens to take home for the night, and perhaps, if it worked out, to keep for a long time.
As we added volumes to the growing bundles in our arms, we’d find each other in the stacks, you asking, “Have you read this?” You thought I’d read everything. But I was not the one who wintered with Dickens, summered with Austen, your paperbacks so well-thumbed I bought you new crisp-paged versions to give the veterans a break. And while you heartily thanked me, years later, I found them pristine on your shelves, realizing your preference for softer, familiar friends.
It stands vacant now, that store we circled like sharks. Who’d have thought such an institution could disappear? That you’d be flattened by cancer surgery, followed by a decade of pain, the metastases chasing you two states north because, you said, you didn’t want to die in Elk Grove.
And you didn’t. You’ve hung on all these years, rewriting the definition of Stage 4, stubbornly putting the lie to “terminal” in your rental house by Oyster Bay where the tides ebb and flow twice daily, where Ron mostly tends to you, the kids grown, though Maggie and hers live with you. You delight in your granddaughters, relay their latest antics when I can get you on the phone.
Now you tell me that you’ve fallen again, acquired a new shiner. “It’s a real beauty,” you say. Then, “You should come soon. I have a bookstore I want to show you.”
And though I don’t know if that shop lives in your head or in your town, or if you could stand for an outing to buy books you can no longer read, it doesn’t matter.
“Yes,” I say into the ether between us. “Yes, I’ll come.”
Published in Friendship, vol. 3 of the Lifespan series, Pure Slush Books, July 2021
Because she requested it for her 90th birthday party at the end of this week, and because she completes nine decades on the planet today (happy birthday, Ma!), I am practicing cheesecake.
My sister asked our mother what kind of cake she’d like for her party, and she immediately said, “Cheesecake.” And while I know that I can buy cheesecake in any number of places, I decided I’d learn to make it.
This is because Marge Thompson, my de facto sister-in-law (Dick’s sister), who makes the best cheesecake I know, said, “It’s easy.” I’ve long said that I’ll eat anything this woman puts on a a plate. She’s been whipping up cheesecake for decades based on Helen Miniaci’s recipe from a 1950s church cookbook. She gave me a photocopy of the recipe, which immediately stumped me.
It begins: “Crust: Crush 16 graham crackers fine…” I did, and it didn’t look like nearly enough to cover a 9-inch pie plate. Then: “Mix: 4 small or 2 large packages of Philadelphia Cream Cheese…” Wait—small? large? I saw only one size at the grocery store. What’s that translate to in ounces?
I asked Marge on the phone. “You know,” she said, “two blocks of cream cheese.”
“Are there two blocks in the little box?” I asked.
“No, just one,” she said.
“But it’s a big block,” I pointed out. “Is that enough?”
Pause. I could hear her rummaging in what turned out to be her fridge. “Noooooo, I don’t think so,” she said. “I generally use two of them.”
“So that’s 16 oz. total then?” I said. I’m not a numbers gal, but if you give me ounces, I can usually make that work.
“I think so,” she said. “I just do it the way I do it.”
That’s when I knew I needed to watch her make Mitchell’s Favorite Cheesecake. And R. agreed.
Mitchell was Marge’s oldest child, Rebecca’s (known as R. in the family) big brother, who, when asked always requested his mom’s cheesecake. To Marge, it was Helen Miniaci’s cheesecake, but Mitch and Rebecca knew better: It was their mom’s. And it was The Best Cheesecake Ever.
“It’s easy, very simple,” Marge always says when someone brings it up. She can do it by heart, but she still has Mrs. Miniaci’s recipe close at hand. I tried it at home alone, making the fatal error of using (horrors!) low fat cream cheese and sour cream, and it was a runny mess. (“Yeah,” Marge said, when I told her, “that’ll do it.”) I couldn’t get the graham cracker crumbs to set with the amount of butter in the recipe, so I added more, and it still didn’t set properly.
So R. and I decided to get some tutoring from the Cheesecake Goddess herownself in her own kitchen, no less. R. took direction from her mother as I watched, photographed and took notes. This was after I’d tried two other cheesecake recipes on my own—one using premade crust (very easy) and another with a springform pan and five eggs (for me, fancy). Marge thought so, too. Her recipe calls only for two eggs.
And she’s right—it’s easy, once you see her do it, as Rebecca and I asked dumb questions. Like when she rinsed the 1/2 teaspoon measuring thingie out after I squeezed a bit of fresh lemon juice in it for the pie filling. “Oh, you do that so there’s no lemon in there to curdle the cream. Because you need the teaspoon to measure the vanilla.”
Well, we did. She probably just tosses in a perfect splash.
Mitchell died three years ago at the much-too-young age of 43, and we all miss him terribly, especially his wife Christina and daughter Ella. I imagine that there hasn’t been a cheesecake his mother has made since his death that hasn’t brought Mitch into her mind. He was certainly with us as we practiced cheesecake.
R. followed the recipe to the letter—well, her mother’s instructions—penciling notes onto Mrs. Miniaci’s recipe.
“It’s really a pie,” Marge said more than once, especially as she pressed the graham cracker crust mixture into the pie plate. “Cheese pie.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t sound as good as ‘cheesecake,'” R. observed.
“But it does taste superb,” I said, a veteran of many a Marge cheese pie. R. agreed.
Once assembled, the cheesecake/pie went into the oven, and 25 prompt minutes (“Do not over bake!” warns Mrs. Miniaci’s recipe) later emerged to cool on a wire rack (“Gotta get me a wire rack,” I muttered to R) as we oohed and ahhed and inhaled its velvety smell.
Today at Marge’s house they can dig into the cheesecake. We all know what it tastes like—creamy heaven on a fork. It really is the best. Mitchell was right.
And Ma, it’s coming to a party just for you this weekend.
Thanks to Margery Thompson, Cheesecake/pie Goddess!
Margery Thompson’s cheese(cake) pie (“Because it’s really a pie,” Marge says, based on Helen Minaci’s recipe)
Heat oven to 350°
For crust (mix in 9-9.5-inch glass pie plate): • 1 cup graham cracker crumbs • 3-4 tablespoons melted butter • 2 tablespoons sugar
(Press into plate so that crust goes up sides of plate nearly to the rim. Plate doesn’t need to be greased; “there’s enough butter in there so it doesn’t stick,” Marge says.)
For filling (in a large glass or ceramic bowl)
Beat with hand mixer or food processor until very creamy, almost runny: • 16 oz. (2 8 oz. packages) of full fat cream cheese (“low fat doesn’t set up properly”) • ½ cup sugar (“basic white sugar is smoothest and easiest to whip”) • 2 eggs (“add one, beat into mixture, then add the second egg”) • ½ teaspoon lemon juice (“no pulp; tart lemons are best”) • ½ teaspoon vanilla
In separate, smaller glass or ceramic bowl, beatwith hand mixer or food processor until very creamy, almost runny: • ½ pint (“half a pint container; you don’t have to measure”) sour cream • 2 tablespoons sugar • ½ teaspoon vanilla (“rinse lemon out of measuring spoon first to avoid curdling the cream”)
Fold sour cream mixture into cream cheese mixture “sloooowly to avoid air pockets” using rubber spatula to gently turn the sour cream mixture into the cream cheese.
Pour into crust, smoothing “gently so it doesn’t pull up the crust” on the sides of the pie plate. (Optional from Mrs. Miniaci: Sprinkle graham cracker crumbs on top.)
Bake 25 minutes (“Do not over bake!” warns Mrs. Miniaci). Remove carefully from oven and cool on a wire rack till completely cool (“a good four hours”) before covering with plastic wrap and putting in the fridge. Allow to chill in fridge at least overnight (“24 hours is better”). Can be refrigerated for up to two days before serving.
Optional: Serve with a berry topping (frozen or fresh).