It Was a Year

As the era of the bragging Christmas letter comes to an end, Facebook has taken up the charge by offering your friends and family the opportunity to create a slide show of photos they posted for the last year.  I have noticed that all of the slideshows which show up in my newsfeed say it was a great year.  I am curious though, do the images really tell the whole story.  I wonder if there are nuances that are not conveyed.  Similar to the bragging Christmas letter of past years, where fabulous vacations and children’s accomplishments are extolled; hard times are rarely shared, Facebook slideshows don’t seem to tell the whole story.  Was it really a great year?

Since November 3, 2014, I have spent a lot of time thinking over the last year.  Like so many others our family would compose an annual missive to send with a Christmas card.  Each of us shared in writing the letter.  Over the last few years my love would craft the letter.  It typically touched on the highlights of the year without the feel of bragging. My love had a way with words that conveyed a sense of mirth and hope. Typically the letter would be written the weekend after thanksgiving.  For a number of years our son would create the art for the card. This year I just could not find the strength to write a letter.  The events of November 3rd lay heavy in my heart.  How could I craft a letter that conveyed mirth and hope? In the end, a simple photo of the three of us was used to create a card.  On the back, a photo of my love was placed and the caption stated, “Make every moment count as you never know how much time you have left.  In loving memory of our beloved husband and father….”

Creating the illusion of an adequate representation of the past year, have I conveyed the true sense of the year with two images?  In an attempt to better understand the visual language conveyed in an image, I took a step back in time and reread Roland Barthes essay, “Rhetoric of the Image.”  I found comfort in reading Barthes analysis as it conveys the science of being as related to the image presented.  A photograph involves a certain arrangement of a scene.  In order to read the image, all that is needed is the knowledge bound up with our own perceptions.  Barthes state, “the knowledge is not nil, for we need to know what an image is (children only learn this at about the age of four) and what a tomato, a string-bag, a packet of pasta are, but it is a matter of an almost anthropological knowledge.   The message corresponds as it were, to the letter of the image and we can agree to call it the literal message, as opposed to the previous symbolic message.”  (Barthes, Roland, Rhetoric of the Image, The Visual Culture Reader, Routledge, London & New York, 1998, pg. 72) If the reader of the card just looked at the front, they would see a happy family standing outside the bar they use to own.  The reader would see the father and the mother standing on either side of their teenage son, not knowing that this would be the last time the three of them would be together in this place.  If the reader of the card turn it over then a deeper meaning would unfold.  The image on the back consisted of my love wearing a Santa hat and a twinkle in his eye.  What you see is a happy man from a couple a years ago.  The only way the reader would have any idea that all was not right with the world would be from the words written on the card.  Visually thinking, photographs capture a moment in time that is gone.

A photograph can stimulate a range of emotions: love, hate, anxiety, awe, fear and nostalgia, to name a few.  I have been reluctant to allow Facebook to create a slideshow of my year.  Sometimes I am curious what kind of slideshow Facebook will create. The random slideshow that Facebook created included images from our last family trip to Washington State; cruises with our son on Stan Stephens’s glacier Cruises; our trip to Minnesota to bring the brothers together one last time; and a tribute to our cat that died a week after my love.  You would think that these trips were for grand vacation purposes. While they were time away, we were tasked with making sure my love had an opportunity to say good bye to loved ones.   As my love did not want his cancer to be spread out in social media, the only way you would know that he was sick was if you really looked closely at the photos of him.  Instead of a twinkle in his eye, his face was tired and gaunt.  You would not have easily seen that because he did not want people to know how sick he really was.  As a matter of fact, I too did not realize, because he rarely complained (or I did not want to really hear it.)  I truly believed we had more time.  After my love passed away a friend messaged me in shock.  She said she could not figure out what she missed.  She had seen all the trips but did not realize that they were bucket list trips.  I replied, there were hidden messages in the posts for those who knew about the cancer.  The photos of the last year could be perceived as happy family vacations.  The reality is the viewer does not get the whole story which does not convey the true essence of the year.

2014 was not solely about loss.  My struggle is that I do not know if it is ok to share the good with the bad, given that the bad was so intense.  Am I allowed to share that I received the 2014 Governor’s Award for the Humanities; that our son was on the high honor roll in school; that our son received a varsity letter in cross country skiing; that for the first time my love’s family came to visit us in Alaska; that we traveled to Minnesota to bring the three brothers together for the last time; and that our son received a bronze medal in regionals for swimming.  Should I edit the Facebook slideshow to include these moments in time as well?  Should I move on and look to 2015 with a fresh sense of determination?  2014 was a year that was.  I cannot say that is was a great year.  There were moments before and after cancer came into our lives that put a smile on my face.  I just cannot seem to overcome the great sadness that is representative in my Facebook slideshow of 2014.


From Honey Roasted Nuts to Turducken

The Holiday Season was always a time of tradition in our house. After Halloween, we began planning the Thanksgiving feast and then started thinking about cookie baking and Christmas meals. Each year there would always be the favorites and something new. Holiday meals were carefully orchestrated and planned out.

Typically the house would be filled with aromas of baked goods, homemade broth and various other mouth-watering sensations. The refrigerator would be bursting with so many delicacies. We never had enough refrigerator capacity. Even before moving to Alaska, the porch served as a cool spot to store prepped items that would evolve into some kind of entrée. The kitchen sink would be filled with dirty dishes. The counter tops full of food in various stage of preparation. Music playing. A little cussing if something was not going right alternating with whistling. The kitchen was the center of the Holiday Universe.

Over the last 32 years, I have many memories of Thanksgiving. Some of them are a little more vivid than others. Some of them more lavish than others. Each memory centered on the food that was eaten.

In the fall of 1984 we lived on James Street right by the Lakeway Drive off ramp on the I-5. It wasn’t anything special. As a matter of fact there was a hole in the floor right in front of the toilet where cold air would come up. I also remember that the shampoo would freeze in that house. The living room had a Franklin Stove. We heated with wood and only heated the living room. I am so glad we had a heated water-bed; it made it difficult to get out of bed to go to work though. We did not eat at home much because we worked at the University Dining Hall. The Franklin stove not only heated the house but served to heat up more than one meal or pot of coffee.

That fall Bellingham received a rare snowstorm that even Valdez would have taken note of. The thing about Bellingham is that they really do not plan for snow. The year before, because we had no significant snow fall in a number of years, the City of Bellingham sold their snow removal equipment to Whatcom County. We had planned on going to my mom’s house in Arlington for Thanksgiving dinner that year. While we thought we could get out because we had a four-wheel drive truck with chains, we got stuck two blocks from the house. The chains got wrapped around the axle. After lots of cussing and fussing somehow we got back to the house.

Earlier that fall the Ennen’s on Holly, now the Whatcom Educational Credit Union, was having a sale on odd canned goods. It may have been a going out of business sale, but I am not sure. Well, anyway that is not the point. The point is that my love picked up a variety of canned meats, nuts and other odd canned goods. For some reason he thought that we needed to stock up in case of an emergency. Looking back, I guess this was an emergency. I remember building a fire in the Franklin stove and my love in the kitchen opening a variety of canned goods. Thanksgiving of 1984 consisted of honey-roasted nuts, baked beans heated on the Franklin stove and canned wieners. To this day, I cannot eat a honey-roasted nut. I can now eat baked beans and canned wieners, but no honey-roasted nuts.

After my mom moved to Bellingham in 1995, Thanksgiving meals were typically at our house. As time went on each year the turkey and fixings were carefully refined. The turkey never was prepared the same way twice. Whenever there was a new trend, my love would create his own version of it. He would BBQ the bird, smoke the bird, put Cajun spice on the bird and stuff it with a variety of creative stuffing’s.

About ten years ago, a new trend in deep-frying turkey was all the rage. As we owned a bar in those days, my love decided to create his own deep-frying system out of an empty keg of beer. He spent weeks creating the system. He found someone to cut the top off the keg; researched oil temperatures; and developed a harness so he could safely dip the bird in the hot oil. My love had heard of incidents where people caught their house on fire while deep-frying their turkey so he set up the frying station away from the house. He set the propane single burner unit in a brick fire pit. He even conceived of an oil filtration system after the cooking was complete because he did not want to waste the oil for a single use purpose. My love was very resourceful that way. He was set; the system was ready to go.

As always he spent the week leading up to thanksgiving prepping all the dishes, baking rolls, and baking no less than four pies. Timing was everything. All of the side dishes needed various amounts of cooking. His goal was to free up the oven and that year worked out perfectly since his plan was to deep-fry the turkey. So once everything was set inside, the rest of the time he tended the turkey. Once he had the oil the right temperature he placed the bird in the hot oil to cook. When he researched the times for deep-frying he really did not believe it only took about a half hour at most. With anticipation we all hovered around for the turkey to be ready. As I began to put all the food on the table, my love brought the turkey inside. We were all eager to see how it came out. While my love did not burn the house down or get injured from the cooking process, we heard grumbling in the kitchen. With anticipation, we all were eager to taste the turkey. We soon learned why the cussing and fussing. In all the years of delightfully prepared turkey, this one, well I’m trying to be delicate, was over-cooked and would wad up in your mouth as you chewed it. Of course we all tried to be positive. This was the first and only turkey that failed.

As I don’t want my love remembered for the failed deep-fried turkey, I will now tell the story of an all time favorite. A few years ago the Turducken sparked my loves attention. A Turducken is a dish consisting of a de-boned chicken stuffed into a deboned duck, which is in turn stuffed into a deboned turkey. The word Turducken is a combination of turkey, duck, and chicken. The cavity of the chicken/game hen and the rest of the gaps are stuffed, sometimes with a highly seasoned breadcrumb mixture or sausage meat, although some versions have a different stuffing for each bird. The result is a fairly solid layered poultry dish, suitable for cooking by braising, roasting, grilling, or barbecuing. Of course, instead of buying a pre-made version at a specialty store, my love researched, conceptualized and created his own version.

The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving took on a whole new level of preparation. In addition to prepping for all the delicious side dishes, the pies, and rolls, the Turducken required three different kinds of stuffing as well as deboning the turkey, the chicken and the duck. The refrigerator was at capacity and then some. Given the size of our kitchen, the counter space was at a premium. If I recall correctly there was wild rice stuffing in the duck; a cornbread stuffing in the chicken and bread stuffing in the turkey. You might think that the mixture of flavors would compete with one another but I have to say, they blended together well. Each slice contained portions of chicken, duck, and turkey with stuffing in between the layers. It really was not difficult to make, but it is a little time-consuming. The end result was a worthy showstopper.

This year the kitchen was a quiet place. It seemed like we were going through the motions. Instead of buying a full size turkey, I was able to buy a turkey breast. That might seem easy in the “lower 48” but you never know what is available at our Safeway here in Valdez. While we did not have all the traditional favorites, I did make sure that my love’s favorite side was included, scalloped onions. As this was a dish that my love created and made a little different each year, I was uncertain if it would come out. The onions turned out like a rich and thick French onion soup. Fortunately, my love had written down his roll recipe. While the meal was tasty and the kitchen was not a disaster, it just was not the same.

Over the years our son has been the one responsible for setting and creating the table scape. With out thinking about it, he set the table for five instead of four. As I needed more room for the meal, I asked my son to remove the place setting. I think now that the setting should have stayed in place. Although, leaving the place setting might have made it even more difficult.   My love was with us. He was placed at the end of the table.   We raised our glasses to him but could not find anything to be thankful for.