by Judith Newton
From The Joys of Cooking: A Love Story
On a January morning, a month-and-a-half after my gay ex-husband’s death, I entered his tidy, book-lined study to deal with his effects. Sitting on the floor, surrounded by files and papers I had taken out to sort, I came upon his journals and began to read them. Except for entries declaring his love for me, I found the journals hard to take. Should I even be reading them, I asked myself. Was it right for anyone to know this much about another, even when that other had been their everything?
I was prepared for the tormented entries about Ed. In the draft of a letter to Ed, Dick had written:
I’ve been out of my mind with grief and anger—for years. Maybe I tried to “ease” out of your life because I didn’t want to tell you how angry I was. I really don’t know. . . . I don’t know if it’s love that won’t let me let go of you in my heart—or just anger.
What I was not prepared for were the entries about our marriage; Dick’s expressions of discouragement and despair as I broke down, becoming more and more rigid, less and less capable of sex: “I am a child, disappointed, so disappointed that Judy has turned out too to be a child.” It had never occurred to me to think of Dick as someone dependent on me. In my neediness, in my desire to feel at home, it had always seemed the other way around. Is this what Dick meant when he wrote that he was more aware of our relation than I?
After we’d separated, Dick had recorded his sexual adventures: his ambivalence about his sexual identity, his sense that he was heterosexual at base, that being with men was different but not better than being with a woman. When he was alive I hadn’t wanted to know much about his sexual explorations, had turned a blind eye to the keys hanging from his back pocket (part of a code among gay men that signaled sexual tastes.) Now I longed to have the conversations we never had. I especially wanted to tell him, “I never hated you,” as he sometimes wrote I did. I’d pulled away during our marriage and my breakdown because I’d been so profoundly merged with him that I couldn’t feel like a whole person—until we’d separated and come back together again, as roommates, potential co-parents, extended family, souls tied together.
The dreams began; the dreams of loss and longing. I enter the sea to find Dick in the world of spirits. He’s there, below surface, but I can’t see him, can’t find him in the water. In another dream Dick comes back to life and I’m filled with joy. I try to convince him that “You didn’t just disappear when you died. I knew you were there all the time.” But he leaves again. I dream that my eyes burst from the force of my tears. I dream that I’m far from home and that the road back is filled with danger. And in losing Dick I did lose home, home as a sense of safety and a feeling of being cared for in the world. I’d lost home so many times. I’d lost myself, my mother, Jesus, and now Dick. And this loss was overlaid with remorse and guilt. If I had stayed to work things out, if we hadn’t separated, Dick might never have been exposed to AIDS, might still be living. Regret hung over me like a smothering blanket.
Yet, Dick was with me—at my left shoulder. I talked to him, I cried in his presence, I lifted my hand to my shoulder as if I could rest it in his. I shared jokes with him because Dick loved a good joke. Shortly after his death, I picked up his ashes at the crematorium. I said to the crematorium worker, an older man with a half circle of red hair, “I’m afraid my urn may be too small to hold his ashes.” He looked at me for a moment, then, replied:
“Who told you that, Miss?”
“Told me what?”
“That they were ashes. They aren’t ashes you know.”
“What are they?”
“Bones. He handed me the bag he was holding.
“They have the weight of bones,” I said, trying to be polite. I looked in the bag. I was holding shards of bone. How do people scatter these, I wondered.
“Do you pulverize them?” I asked.
“We smash them up. He had a lot of bone.” The conversation was becoming so macabre and anatomical that as I walked away I said silently to Dick, “I hope you’re enjoying this.” In my desire to keep Dick with me I decided that I would try to perpetuate his wit.
I began to write poetry about Dick, about the pleasures of his company, about the generous, life-affirming way he chose to die. Writing poetry was like speaking in voices. It was as if Dick, who wrote poetry all his life, were composing through me. I counted and recounted the poems I’d written about his life and death, as if I’d been collecting diamonds. At some point, I sorted through Dick’s collection of LP records. His range of knowledge about music had seemed vast. Sometime in the year before his death we attended a concert with friends. “Poor Handel,” Dick had said after the concert. I had no idea what that meant, but I admired him, thinking he knew so much that he could say “Poor Handel.”
In the last months of his life, Dick had stopped listening to his music. “It makes me want to live too much,” he’d said. I vowed to listen to his whole collection and in so doing take another part of him and make it live. I play those records still, the yearning Adagio from Dittersdorf’s “The Rescue of Andromeda by Perseus,” the Elizabethan and Jacobean melodies that take me to a long-lost world, a world that had been Dick’s. What I cannot listen to are Beethoven’s Last Quartets. They were Dick’s favorites, but they’re too tragic for me. They’re his loss in music.
The cards and letters from our friends were comforting because they, too, brought back the man I’d loved so much. Two of his colleagues wrote that “he was a graceful, warm, and handsome man” who “had a gift for friendship” and gave “elegant shape” to committee meetings. “He wrote poetry, made a wonderful spinach dip, and was a great listener.” He thought of “the common good, and had a sense of proportion that came from his wit and humor.”
“Dick joked as long as he could speak,” another friend wrote. Once Dick had told him, “I feel as though I’m waiting to die and I don’t mind it—only it’s rather boring.” Jake wrote me that “Dick had felt despair at Berkeley. He had even reveled in it, but after he was with you, he had a zest for life that he never lost.” Another of Dick’s colleagues told me that “Dick’s face lit up when he was asked about you and Anna.” That was also what I desired in losing him, an affirmation that the love was mutual, that it would be kept alive not just in my own memories—where doubts and regrets often crowded the scene—but in the memories of those who witnessed the relationship.
Still sitting on the floor in Dick’s airy, third-floor study, I came across a file marked “Parties.” In it I found guest lists, menus, recipe cards, and notes on how various dinners and celebrations had gone. I uncovered two recipes for chicken breasts: one with parsley and butter, another with sherry, lemon, orange juice, and tarragon. I unearthed two recipes for pork chops: one with tomatoes and parsley, another with sherry. A recipe for Tom and Jerrys called for eggs, sugar, cinnamon, clove, and rum. Dick had recopied the recipe for Dickens’ Punch. Of one dinner he wrote, “The chocolate mousse was too light, the green beans too numerous.” The beef stroganoff, which he had taken from a 1979 issue of Food and Wine, had been “excellent,” but “I used too many mushrooms and not quite enough sour cream . . . a half-teaspoon of Dijon mustard was too much.” On the same three-by-five card Dick noted that the stroganoff recipe from a well-known cookbook had been “ghastly.” Dick had done without my rating system, my minuses, checks, and stars, but I was pleased that in making notes on food, he’d taken on a trace of me. Now I strove to take him in—through writing poetry, listening to his music, and continuing his wit. My life was going on as his could not. It was the only way I knew not to lose him entirely.
(Adapted from Epicurious.com)
1 2 ½ lb piece beef tenderloin, well trimmed, meat cut into 2x1x1/2 inch strips
2 T vegetable oil
6 T (3/4 stick) butter
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
1 lb small button mushrooms, thickly sliced
1 c canned beef broth
2 T Cognac
3/4 c crème fraîche or whipping cream
1 T Dijon mustard
1 T chopped fresh dill
12 oz wide egg noodles
1 T paprika
1. Pat beef dry with paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
2. Heat oil in heavy skillet over high heat until very hot. Working in batches, add meat in single layer and brown, one minute per side. Transfer to rimmed baking sheet.
3. Melt 2 T butter in same skillet over medium-high heat. Add shallots and sauté until tender, scraping up browned bits, about 2 minutes.
4. Add mushrooms. Sprinkle with pepper and sauté until liquid evaporates, about 12 minutes.
5. Add beef broth, then Cognac. Simmer until liquid thickens and just coats mushrooms, about 14 minutes.
6. Stir in crème fraîche and mustard. Add meat and any accumulated juices from baking sheet. Simmer over medium-low heat until beef is heated through but still medium-rare, about 2 minutes.
7. Stir in dill. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
8. In the meantime, cook noodles in large pot of boiling salted water until tender, about 8 minutes.
9. Drain. Transfer to bowl. Add remaining 4 tablespoons butter and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Divide noodles among plates. Top with beef and sauce. Sprinkle generously with paprika.