Chow Bella has a valentine for you. For the rest of February, we're handing out Candy Hearts -- stories of food and love from some of our favorite writers. Enjoy.
My sister approaches me with her baby on her hip, "Me and the kids have to go," she whispers, "I think there's about to be drugs."
We're at our father's wake. "What makes you say that?"
"I just heard that woman tell that woman that someone named Susan was bringing a relish tray."
She gestures discreetly to Kathleen and Janet who stand in the kitchen grazing at the buffet table. "And the second woman said, 'Thank God, I was hoping somebody would bring a relish tray. I love a relish tray.' And the first woman said, 'Me too. I just love a relish tray!' And then they laughed."
I look around at the guests. I wouldn't be surprised if someone fired up a doobie. I sniff the air.
My father was a life-long drug user. According to legend, the first time he ever took drugs was in elementary school and the last time was Monday, the day before his sudden fatal heart attack, when he dropped acid during Frisbee golf. Almost everyone at the wake is a person who has partied with him at one time or another, including me. My father's favorite high was marijuana. He smoked pot the way other people visit the restroom; routinely and without fanfare.
"A relish tray?" I'm not sure I heard her right.
"Isn't that a drug term?" My older sister is an exceptionally principled person with a sharp, analytical mind who, unlike me, chose early on to protect herself from the unsavory aspects of our father's life. For my sister, visiting my dad's house, being among his friends, must be like visiting a foreign country where she doesn't know the vernacular.
"I've never heard drugs referred to as a relish tray," I say. I'm tempted to laugh, but I don't because it would be mean and because the more I think on it the more relish tray does sound like a plausible euphemism for drugs.
"It's just got to be drugs," my sister says, "Nobody could love pickles that much! It's unnatural."
When I was a child we had a period of poverty during which food was scarce. This feeling of scarcity colored my whole relationship to food; how much I ate, how fast I ate, and how indignant I was that others were getting my share. The foods that only showed up once a year (holiday foods, for instance) were welcomed back to my plate like old friends who'd been cruelly kept from me.
We had a relish tray one day a year; Thanksgiving. Our tray contained: pickles with folkloric sounding names like gherkins and midgets; smooth bread and butter pickles which squeaked when you bit them; and "stuffed" celeries which fanned around the plate slowly sloughing off their cheeses. In the middle lay the olives.
Green olives are a perfect food, save for that off-putting red matter in their core. But, I didn't have the luxury to be squeamish about the pimento as the competition for the olives was fierce.
My sisters and I would squabble about who was the bigger hog as we stuffed ourselves; eventually settling into a truce during which we took turns declaring our allegiances to this year's favorite pickle.
When the green olives were dispatched I'd move on to the black ones. Licking the metallic juice off my hand I would jam an olive on my thumb and pretend I was a carpenter who had injured myself with a hammer.
As we got older, we were put in charge of fishing the olives from their jars. Some of the allure wore off when I discovered that pimentos could break free from their host olive and float around in the brine and if you weren't careful, they would touch you. Still, I loved the relish tray. But, when my older sisters moved away from home, and there was no one to gorge or compete with, I lost my zeal. The relish tray became just one more dish to wash. (Eventually, I will have kids of my own and I will be excited to revive the beloved tradition. But, sadly my children won't care for the relish tray. I'll realize once and for all, if I have no one to share it with, what's the point? If I want a gherkin, I can get a gherkin, and I find I rarely do. Turns out, it wasn't the pickles I relished.)
At the wake I tell my sister, "If anybody does drugs, I'll stop them."
"I don't want to be trouble. I should just go."
I can feel her pain.
On the one hand she has zero desire to expose herself or her kids to drugs. On the other hand "goody-two-shoes" is an unkind label that's been foisted on her all her life by our dad and I'm sure she isn't eager to be seen that way just now. But, I don't want her to go. I haven't seen her in years. And as sad as this last week of funeral preparations has been, we've had phenomenally good laughs. We've made new memories. My sister is hilarious and dependable and I am savoring every second.
"I'll take care of it," I assure her.
She's not convinced, but she agrees and wanders off to locate her kids while I make my way to my father's closest friends to see if I can get their help spreading the message "don't fire up."
A few minutes later my sister calls me softly from the kitchen,
"Kim, may I speak to you?" her voice is edgy her expression too intense. I enter the kitchen and see her standing by the buffet table next to Susan. My sister gestures like a game show hostess toward a platter of pickles and olives. "Look, Susan brought a relish tray," she says, trying not to laugh, "Wasn't that nice?"
"Thank God!" I say, making my way toward the table, toward my sister. "I was hoping someone would bring relish tray."
"Me too," my sister says, "I just love a relish tray."