Back when I was still finding my footing as a writer after grad school, I blogged— one of those ridiculously annoying “ten inches of prose before you get to the recipe” kinds of blogs (apologies if you read through it back then, or if you write something like that now). Mostly I wrote about gardening and food and sometimes life. Like my later writing/reading blog, my cooking/gardening blog had one regular reader: my dad. I could tell when he checked the blog— the reading of a visitor on early morning traffic, and then he’d email me about what he’d read. One recipe that I shared was his mother’s, my Grandma Polly’s simple cucumber salad.
It’s hard to make a salad wrong, but it’s also hard to make it just right. Making vinegary cucumber salad, with tender-crisp vegetables, means you can’t throw it together at the last minute. The most key step is time— you peel, slice, and salt the cucumbers a few hours before serving to make them tender and remove the bitterness and excess water. Salt and time. Salt and time. That’s the key to good cucumber salad.
I made this salad today for the first time since my dad’s death, and I started crying as I sliced the cucumbers. He used to serve this salad in small side bowls, since the sloppy vinegar/half-and-half dressing doesn’t stay neatly in one place. The onions bite, and the sugar makes it just sweet enough to marry the flavors. I knicked a finger, but that definitely came after the tears and wasn’t the cause for it. I wrapped my finger in a paper towel and let the realization that I would never eat salad he made again wash over me.
In June, I began reading Crying in H Mart based on seeing it everywhere, recommended by everyone. I hadn’t read the book jacket. I hadn’t read the original New Yorker article , nor do I listen to the author’s band, but I finished the audiobook in three tear-filled days. The memoir follows Michelle Zauner’s childhood and life, but focuses on the months leading up to and after her mother’s death. It’s a memoir about food and family, fitting in and standing out. It’s a novelistic memoir, zooming you in and out of scenes with carefully rendered dialogue. It’s a very specific memoir, specific to Zauner and her experiences, but everything when you’re grieving is about your grief somehow.
When does reading about death stop being about your death, your recent loss? How many months of this am I in for?
Is this just me? Is this just me being a narcissist? I worry this constantly. I steer away from media having to do with death. I’ve read a lot of romance novels this year. I read sci-fi— that kind of death mostly feels far away. I haven’t watched a movie in months, except Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. I tried to watch the third Lord of the Rings movie with my husband, but I forgot about the Eowyn’s dad’s death. I sobbed during a movie about hobbits.
I do not watch TV. I feel things at the skin level, aware that at any second someone can just die. Unlike a horror movie where you can look away from the stabby scenes, every word in something sad is sad or preparing you for sadness. I do not watch even happy TV— I am emotioned-out.
I wonder about the people in the grocery store, how many of them have had someone die this year. I think about this a lot as I’m driving in traffic. There are a lot of us, driving and listening to music. Our children are clambering in the back seat, maybe also lugging grief in their backpacks. They avoid public places or hospitals or books about heroic dogs or that ice cream flavor, the exact one they had last with—
And I don’t know if I’m over-correcting. I wonder if those strangers veer the other way— dive into the closet and root out the loved one’s clothes right away. I wonder if they’ve deleted their loved one’s contact information from their phone, if they did it the day there was no more breath to make a phone call in those lips.
I read this piece in HAD today and it felt like good grief. (Is that a phrase I can use? Will Charlie Brown emerge from the copyright factory and sue me?) ‘Good ‘in a way that isn’t necessarily healthy or aspirational or inspirational, but is brief and true. Good in a way I can digest right now. It’s fiction, probably. It’s not noted as not being nonfiction, but I needed it, this digestible piece of grief. I needed that salt.
I don’t know how much salt I need before I’m tender and not so bitter again. I can’t measure that. I wish I could measure that.
We buried my dad with his cell phone. He had just gotten it before his death, and his midwestern cheap gene would have caused a restless spirit. Plus, it was kind of a joke. A bit of levity on the day of his burial. He had a good sense of humor. And he’s still a contact in my phone. I think about him, using his data (he would never) to read this. Emailing me about it early in the morning.
Summer is the hardest season without him. He would eat a quarter of a watermelon, straight from the rind, with just a sprinkle of salt. I think of him when I see blueberries (he called them ‘a miracle food’). My father was the gardener, he used to press the fragile lips of snapdragons together to make them part and bite my fingers. We ate the cucumbers straight from the garden, their insides warm from the sun.
He wouldn’t want me to cry when I eat salad, to cut myself. He had to grieve his own father, his own mother. He probably ate cucumber salad after her death with some amount of sorrow, too. I can’t ask him now.
I don’t have a satisfying way to end this, except that I know I can’t be better without rest and time. I’m not a salad, but I’m also only human. I’m writing this because I know there are lots of you strangers in cars, mourning. I’m salting and resting, alternating that. I hope things taste better soon.