Where are you, Gwen?

My friend, Gwen, is an interesting person.  Interesting as in different or unconventional. She would be so pleased to hear that description. “Oh, Linda, there’s nothing worse than boring people,” she used to say.

We met at work years ago. She was in her late 40s but looked older. Her face was lined and her thick, unruly bob was completely white.  She would never consider colouring it because she doesn’t much care about trends or what others think of her appearance.

Her best feature, besides her quirky personality, is her beautiful blue eyes.  She makes continuous, wide-eyed contact during a conversation. Her blue eyes, magnified by her glasses, are riveting and hard to look away from. Of course, you would only know that if she decided you weren’t boring and engaged with you.

Gwen is curious and always up to try something new.  One evening as we were driving to a concert with her then teen-aged daughter, Gwen announced that she wanted to be an “older model”.  (This was before the industry tried to be politically correct by signing plus-size and older models.)

“But why, Mom?” her daughter asked plaintively from the backseat.

“Well, because the world needs to see older women more and know they have value. And someone has to pave the way.”

Her daughter was quiet for a moment.  Then in a small voice mixed with pride and embarrassment she asked, “Yes, but does it have to be you?”

Gwen used to ride her bike everywhere. Mind you, this was not a light, modern, multi-geared bike. It was a heavy, old-fashioned one, with a little metal basket attached to the handle bars and a rack over the rear tire for a saddle bag. The kind you could picture a sweet, older lady in a colorful sundress and straw hat riding, basket filled with wild flowers.  Gwen was heartbroken to find it gone one day. She couldn’t imagine someone would steal another person’s bike.

That is her downfall. She feels things deeply and, despite her cheerful outlook, this can send her spiraling to dark places. She always bounces back, but sometimes it takes a while.  That’s why I’m sure something is wrong.

I left the company  years ago and she retired and moved to the country, but we meet at least once a year for dinner. Last September, it struck me that we hadn’t seen each other in a while, so I emailed her to set a date. When I didn’t get an answer, I called her cell phone and left a message.  Again, no answer.  I tried a few more times but no luck.  This is not like her. I worry that she is sick or something has happened to her. Without contact information for either of her kids, though, I have reached a dead end.

Today, a year after my original email, I sent a new one. In it, I simply tell her that I understand if she no longer wants to stay in touch, but I just want to know if she is OK.  I miss my eccentric friend and I really hope to hear back from her this time.

There are some things even COVID can’t stop

There are some things even COVID can’t stop. Like rituals. And friendships. And rituals steeped in friendship. Labour Day Monday marked the tenth anniversary that our circle of friends spent a September day together making fresh tomato sauce. I have known these friends almost my entire life. Many of them are Italian and grew up helping their parents make homemade sauce. Never once did we imagine that all these years later, we would be doing it together. 

This year there was some debate about whether we would go ahead with our day, even though we always work outdoors. But since we have to live with the virus for a while, it became one of the 4Cs of the 2020 edition:  COVID, Cutting, Critics and Cooking.

CUTTING:

Let the “cutting” begin

In keeping with tradition, we started the “cutting” early.  We have become adept at coring the tomatoes, cutting them into quarters, squeezing the extra water into a container and tossing the meaty quarters into a pot to be cooked. Every year, there are suggestions on how to sit to avoid a sore back or how to wield a knife. without injury. An added health and safety measure this year: If we found ourselves closer together than we should be, out came the masks. So there, COVID.

 

EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

Someone always unofficially takes on the role of Critic. It’s expected and we all know it. This year it was Rocco.   Although he wasn’t even making sauce, the night before  he had helped to wash and dry our tomatoes. And this, he insisted, entitled him to three jars of sauce – one from each couple that was participating – and it gave him supervisor rights.

“I don’t think you’re doing that right, Benny. You should hold your knife the way Maria does.”

“That tomato has a blemish; throw it out, Manon.”

“Linda, speed it up. Everyone else is doing two tomatoes to your one.”

At this last comment, I looked up from my tomato-stained hands and said, “Who made you the Gordon Ramsay of tomato sauce?” We all laughed, Rocco the hardest. And that, as much as the sauce we make, is really what it’s all about. It’s a day spent outside talking, laughing and teasing as we work.

COOKING:

Patience is a virtue!

After the cutting comes the cooking of the tomatoes over hot burners. This is done by the “men folk” who stir the pot with a large, wooden paddle, waiting (not always patiently) for them to come to a boil.

 

Once they are perfectly cooked, the tomatoes are run through the food mill and quickly poured into sterilized Mason jars, each with one perfect, fragrant basil leaf sitting on the bottom. Caps and rings are  quickly applied, screwed on tightly and  we’re ready for the best part of the day! That’s when we sit back with a glass of wine to celebrate a job well-done. I can’t think of a better way to spend a day.

Raising our glasses and a little hell

The phone rang late Sunday afternoon and when I answered, I heard an exuberant voice say, “Linda!  C’est Lorraine!” The French words came with an English/American accent but there was no mistaking the voice of one of my oldest friends. She’s been in the States for years, but the miles and the years instantly melt away when we reconnect.

We met in high school and quickly became friends. To be more precise, we first met in ballet class when we were eight or nine, but didn’t get to know each other at the time. I noticed her, though, because even then she was confident and fearless. Add to that the  the luxuriously thick, wavy, honey-coloured hair that hung half-way down her back, and she was hard to miss.

I was the opposite – the timid, chubby kid with asthma at the back of the class. I only ended up in ballet because the tap class I really wanted was canceled. To my surprise, I liked ballet! Maybe it was because our teacher was a former winner of the Miss Montreal beauty pageant. Each week she brought her tiara to class. Toward the end of the hour she asked us, as a group, to perform a step we had practiced that day, like a relevé, arabesque or pirouette. The girl who best performed it would have the glittering tiara placed on her head. Then she would execute the step one more time while the rest of us watched. Guess who most often won the tiara? Lori may not have been the most graceful dancer (none of us were truly ballerina material), but she was fiercely competitive. She threw herself into whatever step was requested with a determination and energy that earned her that crown.

When we found ourselves in the same class in high school, I recognized her right away. To her credit, she remembered me too, although there had been nothing remarkable about me during our ballet days. But by then we had more in common. We were both athletic (I had outgrown my asthma and shed my baby fat) and joined the gymnastics team. Our talent was limited (extremely limited) but Lori dreamed of going to the Olympics and she made me believe we could do it. We didn’t, of course, but the hours we spent dreaming and talking about it were priceless.

She isn’t very tall but her determination, skill and competitive nature landed her a spot on the basketball team. I was happy to be part of the cheerleading squad, which was a much tamer activity than it is today.

She was definitely the leader and I her willing follower. We were still freshmen when Lori decided we should be part of the school talent show. It was really for seniors who would be leaving school at the end of the year to star on the stage of life. But Lori just didn’t see why we couldn’t be part of it. Rules, especially unwritten ones, were made to be broken sometimes, weren’t they?  We ended up with a short number in the show, but the best part of it was the rehearsals with the older crowd leading up to it.

We took different paths after high school, but stayed fast friends. Not long after she graduated from nursing school, she married and moved with her physician husband to the US.  We still see or call each other occasionally. Sometimes months or even a year pass where we don’t speak except through Facebook. It never matters because the second we reconnect, it’s like no time at all has gone by.

Lori is one of several friends I have had and cherished for a long time.  I know not everyone can say that and how lucky I am to be able to. So, no matter what’s in store for us in the years to come, I’d like to think we’ll still be raising our glasses and maybe even a little hell together.