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An offering to the family

Last Friday brought news of a much beloved teenager's untimely death. For years, he and my son have inhabited a world of uniquely male friendship -- gathering survival skills, tinkering, inventing and adventuring. They were brothers at heart, their affection cemented by their journey together from boys to men, savage and warm.

Saturday brought the emptiness that follows initial shock -- a grinding need to help, accompanied by a feeling of utter helplessness. The kitchen cabinet was covered with bags of fresh produce from Thursday's farmers' market, so I cooked. I would make an offering of food to the grieving, surviving father. I would remember the adolescent hunger of my son's friend who wolfed down uncounted meals at our kitchen table, always politely thanking me and fastidiously cleaning his plate.

Bright yellow, crookneck squash, washed, sliced and set to boil on the back burner. White onions sizzling in a black iron skillet.

In the background, the phone rings every ten minutes or so. Desperate voices want confirmation of the unthinkable news. How do we break it to our kids? How do we accept it? We search for meaning, for a reason. I wipe spatters of grease from the wood floor and lower the heat to a slow simmer.

Purple hull peas in tough, leathery skins. I snap the ends, pull the string down the center seam and push the smooth peas into a bowl over and over, thinking of what I can say to his mother. A slab of salt pork browning in the heavy saucepan; the peas thrown in; a long, green pepper for good measure and warmth; a bath of water; the whole mix set to flame.

My sons wander in and eat biscuits and jam, worrying about their brother, the best friend, who is out of town and must be told. He is difficult to reach. I call a long string of numbers before finding someone who will bring him to a phone, then nervously wait for him to call.

Starry disks of sliced okra fry in a pool of olive oil with garlic and onions. My eyes burn as I peel warm, homegrown tomatoes, squeeze out the seeds and throw the ripe fruit into the pan. Add plenty of pepper, both black and white. A dash of sugar.

When they first became friends, they pitched tents in the yard. One summer I took them camping next to the South Platte River, where they hiked and swore they saw a bear. I cooked for myself while they ate reconstituted packages of dehydrated food -- survivalist fare bought at the Army Surplus store. My son's friend relished the chore of setting up camp, then breaking it down two days later.

Flat green beans are snapped and strung, simmered with creamy new potatoes, peeled and buttered. Biscuit dough is floured and stretched, rolled and cut. The kitchen heat rises as the day grows long. My feet ache from beating the path back and forth from stove to sink, sink to telephone, telephone to counter, counter to stove.

The phone rings. A collect call. On the other end, a hopeful voice says "Mom?" I sit down for the first time that day. I look for a quiet room, but no room is quiet enough to soften the screaming, hurtful news. It comes blurting out -- a knife in my son's heart. The silence on the other end of the line is deafening. I offer comfort, all the things I know I must say, but my words are lost, drops of reason in a sea of confusion. I make him promise to talk to someone there, to call tomorrow, to let someone know if he needs help. I tell him that no one could have been a better best friend, that his friend knew his love. Silence again, then long, wet sniffs, the clearing of a throat, the required repeat of a promise. The voice of a man. "OK." "Yes, I promise." "I will." "I love you too."

I return to the kitchen. When he comes home he will miss the arrival of his friend's red car, every morning before school. When his friend got his driver's license, their friendship moved from the kitchen to the car. He was a really good driver, my son assured me. I knew that was true. He was a boy who took his responsibilities seriously. He was a boy with a tender heart. He was a boy.

I peel the fuzzy flesh from soft, ripe peaches, drop them into a dish with sugar, a dash of nutmeg, then cover them with batter. Dots of butter. They bake and congeal, releasing their sweet scent into the heat-clouded kitchen. My tears taste like salt, like rest, like hope. My son will come home and we will hold him close. We will talk to his friend in our dreams. He will never grow old. He will not be forgotten. He will be missed.

-- Dedicated to Thomas Joseph Boschelli, 9/23/83 to 8/1/02.

  • An offering to the family

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