So the BF and I were having a conversation the other day—she tucked into yet another hospital bed and me sitting on the foot of that bed—about a book she wants to write. “It’s about being there,” she said, making me think of the 1979 movie starring Peter Sellers. “You know—being there for people, people being there for you.”
She said this on her third day in the hospital last week. She’d landed there because of continuous vomiting, partly caused by an infection and partly caused by the oral meds she was given for the infection. Back in the hospital, hooked up to an IV and infused with the right drugs, she was starting to look and feel better. I was there for her, yes, but then, she was there for me, too. Ours has always been a nicely reciprocal relationship. Without even trying, really. It’s one of the reasons we’re BFs. It’s easy.
“Well, yeah,” I said. “It’s what we do.”
“But the book would be about ways people are there for others—ways that work, ways that don’t,” she said.
“Ways that don’t?” I asked.
She pushed her round tortoise shell glasses up her nose. She looks a little bit like a female Harry Potter in those glasses, only with auburn hair. It’s very cute. “Like when people send me emails saying, ‘Call if you need anything.’ Or ‘Let me know when you’d like to have lunch.’ ” She snorted. “As if.”
This makes sense only if you know how sick the BF has been—so many days in so much pain she could barely move from bed to bathroom and back again. And she’s not the type to call for help outside her own family. Many of us are not that type. But many more of us, when we get the news of someone who is ailing or lost a loved one, are spectacularly unsure about what to do.
“It seems to me it depends on the person who needs someone to be there,” I said. “For example, I love it when people bring food or cook for me since I’m not so good at that.”
The BF smiled at me. Years ago, she asked me, not unkindly, “How do you feed yourself?” when I called to ask her how to scald milk. I was making custards for the first time, and the recipe said “scald,” and I wasn’t sure what that looked like. The BF said it was when the hot, steamy milk in the saucepan had a bit of scum on top—or at least, that’s how I remember it.
It was 1999, and I was making custards for my guy Dick’s mommy, Elizabeth, who was in her final stages of life. She made wonderful custards, Dick told me, so I asked her about them. She said she had just followed the recipe that had come with her new G.E. electric range when the family moved into a new home in 1952. I borrowed the book from Dick’s sister, Marge, and asked her advice, too. (I have long said that I will eat anything Marge Thomspon puts on a plate—she’s a fabulous cook!) I photocopied the recipe, and resolved to make Elizabeth her own custards. I even used her 1950s custard cups.
I’ll never forget the look on Elizabeth’s face when I brought in the custards in their small white baking cups with plastic lids. Very proper. Very (as the Canadians spell it) civilised. Elizabeth was hardly eating anything then, her little 88-year-old self shrinking into the sheets. A week earlier she had talked me through the recipe, but when I arrived with them, she looked as surprised as a little girl getting her first bicycle. “Custards?” she said. “For me?”
Well, yes. For her. And that tiny woman ate two of them, practically inhaling the creamy vanilla bites. Ladylike to the end, she savored the custards and dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. As her granddaughter Rebecca liked to say, “You’re so cuuute, G.” (the G. standing for “Grandma”). She was, too.
So it was with her own custards that I was able to be there for Elizabeth, one of the team of family angels who hovered around her in her final days. She died peacefully—faded away, really, not sick at all—one late night after I’d sat at her bedside reading marked passages from her Bible to her. I still feel honored that I was the lucky last one to sit with her.
“Let’s ask people how they’ve been there for others,” said the BF the next day in the hospital. She sat up in bed, slurping one of the custards I’d brought her. She got to go home that afternoon, too—I like to think the custard helped a bit, though I supposed one shouldn’t discount good antibiotics and anti-nausea meds.
“Let’s ask them how others have been there for them,” she said. “What’s been helpful? What’s not been helpful?”
So we’re asking, the BF and me: How have you been there for others? How have others been there for you? Give us (as Jeanie Keltner, one of my favorite English teachers, said to one of my grad school classes) “ankadotes.” Talk story to us. You can do this in the comments section of the blog or in email form. We really want to know.
In the meantime, here’s Elizabeth’s recipe for custards. They’re easy—I promise. Make them for someone you love. They have magical healing properties.
Elizabeth Schmidt’s vanilla custards
(from the recipe book that came with her new G.E. electric range in 1952!)
6 servings 8 servings
2 ¼ cups milk 3 cups milk
3 eggs 4 eggs
1/3 cup sugar 1/3 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt ¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla 2 teaspoons vanilla
sprinkling of nutmeg sprinkling of nutmeg
Scald milk in saucepan. Break eggs into 1 point measuring cup or small pitcher. Beat slightly with fork. Add sugar, salt and vanilla extract. Blend. Add scalded milk slowly to egg mixture while stirring constantly. Mix well. Pour mixture into custard cups. Sprinkle nutmeg over top of each custard.
Place custard cups in deep baking pan filled with a half inch of water. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes. Remove cups from pan. Let them cool. Refrigerate.