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maybe this wasn’t the best time for fried potato baskets

November 28, 2015

I haven’t spent a Thanksgiving with family in… oh, I can’t really remember how long it’s been. With two geriatric dogs traveling anywhere is nearly impossible, and driving to the deep South from the upper reaches of the Northeast–forget it.

After some deliberation, I decided that a visit was long-overdue and so I booked a solo flight to Hartsfield International airport for a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving.

This was going to be great! I would do all of the cooking and cleaning. Everyone would sip egg nog while relaxing to the smooth Christmas crooning of Johnny Mathis. An occasional gentle crackle would emanate from the fireplace while we’d reminisce about old times. After pumpkin pie we’d watch home movies and sing Christmas carols…

And so in preparation for this heavily romanticized vision, I planned an entire menu for a full day of evenly-spaced courses (because nothing is worse than cooking all day only to have 12 laborious dishes annihilated in 12 spastic minutes). I was going to bring my A game.

“Mom broke two ribs, so there’s a slight change in plans.”

Oh boy.

Five days before my visit my poor Mom slipped on a wet rock and fell face-forward severely fracturing two of her ribs rendering her unable to drive. No problem. Instead of cooking at my sister’s we would just plan on spending the entire visit at my Mom’s house. Easy.

I routinely experience an interesting phenomena whilst grocery shopping in the rural South; it has to be what a celebrity feels like shopping at Trader Joe’s.

A few days later my Mom had to have her dog, Minnie, put to sleep. Minnie was a portly Jack Russell Terrier rescue with a lot of issues, but she was a good sleeping partner (as long as it wasn’t thunder storming). Minnie had a good end-of-life thanks to my Mom, but letting go of a dog just plain sucks.

All I could think of at this time was how much I wanted to give my Mom a great big hug. This was still going to be a great time.

A day before I arrived my Mom’s husband had a seizure–soon revealed to be Glioblastoma, a rare and terminal brain cancer.

My sister picked me up from the airport and updated me on all of the things on the drive to my Mom’s house. My flight arrived too late to find prepared sustenance but not too late to procure wine, so our first stop was Publix. (Or as I call it Pubix.) I routinely experience an interesting phenomena whilst grocery shopping in the rural South; it has to be what a celebrity feels like shopping at Trader Joe’s. I swear to God… people stare at me like I’m from another planet. Planet Boston. And, it’s not a glare or stink-eye as you might imagine, but more of an acknowledgment that “clearly you’re not from these parts.” Employees and customers alike randomly tell me how nicely I’m dressed, say hello and/or ask how my day is going. Greetings from Planet Publix!

I digress.

Our first order of business was to do some moderate house cleaning since my Mom wouldn’t be returning from the hospital until the following afternoon–one less thing she would have to worry about. I like to think of my Mom’s home as “Virginia’s Athenæum of Curiosities and Natural Wonders”. It’s not cluttered with a bunch of random crap; it is, however, very artfully curated with a lot of unusual artifacts, books and ephemera. In particular, she really loves the stones. (Rocks, not the band.)


My Mom has three dogs, two cats and Gunars, her husband. In some weird way Gunars and the dogs are similar in both stature and behavior. His diet is also eerily similar to his canine brethren in that he is quite satisfied with a consistent menu of chicken and rice. Gunars tells everyone I am his son and that I am in charge of “all of Trader Joe’s”. (I am none of these things.) He also has good intentions which is obvious by the 78 dog beds forts he has constructed throughout my mom’s house.

The following day my sister and I drove to Atlanta to pick up Gunars and my Mom from Piedmont hospital in Atlanta. On the way back to Virginia’s Anthenæum Gunars requested that we make a stop at Pubix Publix for ciabatta rolls. No problem! They fucking love me there! With ciabatta in hand and some tertiary pre-thanksgiving ingredients we were on our way.

My Mom has three dogs, two cats and Gunars, her husband. In some weird way Gunars and the dogs are similar in both stature and behavior.

I don’t know what I was thinking. At this point I should have maybe grabbed a clue that this wasn’t a practical circumstance for a gigantic elaborate dinner. Maybe ordering a pizza was the way to go. No one was hungry. Everyone was stressed. The dogs were confused as to why they (suspiciously) no longer had 78 dog beds forts. My sister doesn’t really drink. My Mom couldn’t drink because she was on broken-rib-strength pain killers. Yet there I was with a glass of wine in one hand and metal strainers in the other (that I packed into my carry-on) ready to make fried potato baskets. Maybe. Just maybe, this wasn’t the best time for fried potato baskets.

This is the stupid determination that has plagued my entire life. I have an uncanny ability to grip onto a romantic construct so tight it’s nearly impossible to let go. One wee example: I drove to countless Wal-Marts, Publixessess and Krogers searching for two pumpkins for my planned roasted pumpkin coconut curry soup… but to no avail. Apparently after Halloween pumpkins are not to be had. Instead I had to opt for another standby, roasted cauliflower soup. It was just as well. I don’t think anyone was disappointed that I wasn’t making a gigantic mess roasting whole pumpkins and pumpkin seeds. I continued the absurdity with preparations for the following day–fried potato baskets.

I mean–this is nonsense on my part, right? It gets worse.

I began my morning with another trip to Planet Publix (and much-needed Starbucks) for the day ahead. Game on! Time to rock the Anthenæum!

Up first, a Gluten Free breakfast pizza. I don’t know what it is about cooking in someone else’s kitchen. It’s the equivalent of not sleeping in one’s own bed. Nothing I made turned out exactly right including the breakfast pizza. It was dry, crumbly and despite my numerous previous successes perfecting gluten free pizza crust, this incarnation was exactly what one would expect when told “this has no gluten.” All of my go-to in-the-bag recipes failed me somehow. Normally I would chalk this up to the anxious wont to impress; but this was just a solid weekend of culinary-fail. Chicken thighs in a cast iron skillet… this is usually 100% pure succulence. Forgettable. Potato baskets with garlic mashed potatoes… meh.

No one can possibly be reading this, but if you are, the rest of the menu included: arugula salad with a vermouth lemon vinaigrette (forgot the honey), pistachio maple bourbon sweet potatoes (too much), Grand Marnier cranberries (note the booze trend here). Fail!


The next morning my sister was not feeling particularly well. My mom told me she was up at 2 A.M. with stomach problems (on top of her broken rib discomfort). Jesus, I poisoned my entire family with butter.

Much like Gunar’s dog forts, my meal planning was too much–but not without good intention.

I’ve been thinking about cancer quite a bit lately. I haven’t really known anyone close to me have to bear the rigors of cancer–the shock of it all, the grueling treatments, the psychological drain, the uncertainty, the exhaustion.

We all know we are going to die. Aside from birth and some basic genome traits it’s one of the few absolutely-for-certain things we all share in common. It’s going to happen. Rich or poor. Famous or not. But no one thinks tomorrow will be the day. Or the next. With cancer I guess that fate becomes a little more real.

So it’s strange. I guess no one really calculates their final days until they have to. And maybe that’s the difference between the uncertainty of life and the uncertainty of cancer.

I’ve been thinking about how I would handle cancer. Would I fight it? Would I want to? Would I try and continue to compete in an Ironman? Would I let go of the constant metering and evaluation of what I did and didn’t accomplish with my life? Would I struggle to find a shred of beauty on this decaying planet?

I guess no one really calculates their final days until they have to. And maybe that’s the difference between the uncertainty of life and the uncertainty of cancer.

I recently watched one of my favorite films of all time, American Beauty. I won’t waste your time recounting the arc of the narrative (if you haven’t already seen this cinematic masterpiece, please do), but the last line of the film is narrated by a character whom is already dead:

“I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn’t a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time… For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars… And yellow leaves, from the maple trees, that lined our street… Or my grandmother’s hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper… And the first time I saw my cousin Tony’s brand new Firebird… And Janie… And Janie… And… Carolyn. I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday.”

It’s compelling prose and gives me a little hope for someday.

I guess I would hope that someday I will feel an enormous sense that everything will be ok–and that this wasn’t for nothing. I would hope that someday my friends will remember me for my most absurd behavior. I would hope that someday there will be endless visions of Christmas trees, fresh cut grass, pumpkin goo, uncontrollable laughter, the dizzying high of seeing a first love for the first time, the smell of swing-set rust hands and chlorine-blue stained skin. But most importantly, I would hope that my someday will be weightless, unencumbered and light as love.

And last, I would hope that someday all of the dogs have all of the dog forts they could ever want. And maybe a fried potato basket.


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  • Avatar
    Reply Larry January 3, 2016 at 12:58 am

    I mistakenly read “Gunar’s dog forts” as “Gunar’s dog farts” and giggled like an 8-year old every time they were mentioned.

    But great story nonetheless David. Like me, you’re a hopeless romantic for whom the fresh-cut future, the swing-set past, the first-love high, the perfect Thanksgiving, and the “someday” will always remain unattainable. It has to.


    • Avatar
      Reply davidtornado January 3, 2016 at 1:19 am

      Getting a little misty in here Larry. 🙂

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