July 16

I feel guilty about this, but July 16 passed this year without me remembering it as the anniversary of Grandpa’s death. I think that’s the first time that has ever happened.

Nineteen years.

***

I was studying in Bath, England that summer, my senior year at Ohio State. It was the most exciting thing to ever happen to me up to that point. Grandpa had been to London once, and I couldn’t wait to share my experience with him. He was so excited when I got accepted into the program.

The year before, he had a stroke. At least, that’s what we thought at the time. In hindsight, we now believe it was a brain tumor. The stroke diagnosis was the beginning of his decline. He was hospitalized only a few weeks before my scheduled departure date (from a fall, if I remember), and I was apprehensive about going. I didn’t want to miss a once in a lifetime opportunity, but what if something happened while I was gone?

Life is full of risks.

Mom and Grandma urged me to go. My staying wasn’t going to make a difference, and Grandpa wouldn’t want me to give up this chance for his sake. So, off to England I went – the first time I had ever been outside the U.S.

It was the best summer of my life to date. And also the worst.

Despite the day trips, classes, and pub crawls that filled my days, I made frequent calls home. Grandma and Grandpa both seemed in good spirits. Nothing seemed amiss until just a week or so after my arrival in England. That’s when Grandpa was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

Four days later, he died.

It’s strange, but I don’t remember the conversation that I’m sure I must have had with my mom after his diagnosis. I remember knowing that things were bad, but I held out hope that we had time and I would see him again when I got back. I’m not sure the concept of terminal really registered.

My world came crashing down on a Friday afternoon. I went to the computer lab to check my email and ran out of the room in tears a few minutes later. I remember the message that upset me so much:

“Your grandpa took a turn for the worse and we don’t expect him to make it through the weekend.”

This isn’t news you want to receive in any fashion, let alone in email, but it was a bit difficult for family to reach me by phone.

When something tragic happens, you have these odd moments that stand out in perfect clarity within the fog of grief. I vividly remember a dove flying low in front of me as I ran out of the computer lab. In fact, I had to stop suddenly to avoid colliding with it. Let me be clear that it was a dove, not a pigeon (of which there are plenty in Bath).

My only thought was getting to a phone. Calling overseas with a prepaid calling card was tedious at best under normal circumstances. This time, it was excruciating. But after pressing what felt like a million numbers, my grandparents’ line was ringing.

One of my cousins answered. She told me that just about everyone was at the nursing home, and she gave me her stepdad’s cellphone number because he was with Grandpa. I had to go through the process all over again. But I finally got him on the line and he handed the phone to my mom.

“Sweetie,” she said, “he just passed away about 10 minutes ago.”

At first, I was numb. I announced the news very calmly to the girls who shared my floor in the dorm.  They escorted me to our kitchen, where they immediately sat me down at the table and started making tea. (How very British.) Another classmate informed our advisor, who began making phone calls to other faculty.

A lot of details in the immediate aftermath are murky now and were probably so even then with the emotional state I was in. None of what was happening felt real.

Another moment of clarity happened that evening when a few of my classmates insisted that I walk into town with them to Starbucks. The weather was lovely – so out of harmony with my emotions. We grabbed a table outside to sip our drinks. At that moment, church bells began to chime the hour.

“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” one of my classmates said.

The dam finally broke.

***

In case you’re wondering, I made it back to England after the funeral to finish out the program. Grandpa would have wanted that.

Fruit Forward

The Craigslist ad beckoned to me – pouring and selling wine as an independent contractor around Southern Maryland? I’ve never been much of a salesperson, but how hard can that be? Wine practically sells itself. All I had to do was invite people to taste.

I responded to the ad and received a request days later for a Skype interview. Weird, but I did it, and the job was mine.

I had to buy some supplies before my first assignment: an ice bucket, plastic sample-sized cups, and a particular type of corkscrew – they were very particular about the corkscrew, and it wasn’t the type I normally used. I had to dress a certain way: all black, professional. And I needed to learn more about wine, so I bought a massive book detailing all the wine regions, vintages, terminology, etc.

I never gave much thought before to descriptors such as fruit forward, mouthfeel, soft tannins, hints of leather, buttery finish. I had to learn all this stuff so I could talk about the wines that I poured in a way that made people feel that I knew what I was doing, a true professional.

My first tasting was on an October evening at a liquor store in Prince Frederick. Italian wines. I was unfamiliar with the winery, and I absolutely had never heard of Montepulciano. I remember looking it up on Wikipedia so I could listen to a recording on the pronunciation.

Then there was the day, shortly before Christmas, when I was sent to a specialty grocery store in Waldorf to sell Amarula, which isn’t even wine. It’s a liqueur, similar to Irish cream in flavor, that’s made from the Amarula fruit that grows in Africa. That was my best sales day. Even better, I had a nearly full bottle afterwards that I took home with me.

Whatever I was selling, I never had much of a problem making the quota. Sure, there were people who were only interested in the samples. They would sip, thank me, throw away their cup, and leave. I’ve done my fair share of that, too. And even I didn’t completely love all the wine I sold. (I was encouraged to take the first tastes from each bottle to make sure they didn’t have cork taint.) But there is an audience for every wine, and I never had a problem finding my audience.

One night, at a liquor store in Dunkirk, I was featuring Chilean wines. The very first customer bought an entire case. Later that same night, two women walked in, already drunk, and made a beeline for my display.

“What are you pouring?” One asked.

“Wine from Chile,” I responded. “Would you like to try some?”

“Oooooh! I love chili cheese fries!” She said. She looked at her friend, and they laughed hysterically.

Naturally, I tried to convince her that wine from Chile was absolutely made to go with chili cheese fries. Anything to make a sale.

I remember the woman who complained that I was pouring wine from the wrong country. “I won’t buy your wine,” she said. “It’s not from California.” And then there was the guy who tried to correct my pronunciation of “Chee-leh,” insisting that it is “Chill-ee.”

Wine people can be the best people, but they can also be kind of weird.

My short-lived career in wine sales ended about six months after it began, after a night that yielded zero sales. That was a first, and it was the company’s policy that a night of no sales resulted in termination. Had I been determined to keep doing it, I would have bought a couple of bottles myself to make the quota.

So, I said goodbye to being on the pouring side of the tasting table. It’s more fun being the taster, anyway.

The Accidental Gardener

We closed on our house two years ago today, and with the house came a decent-sized vegetable garden. It was all a bit intimidating. I had only been a homeowner once before and never got around to doing much in the way of gardening. Throughout Lance’s military career, we lived in a lot of rental homes. I had container plants – mostly flowers. Two years ago, before we moved, I grew grape tomatoes and mini eggplant in containers, but that was about it. I didn’t even have a lot of experience with houseplants.

Could I do this?

I mean, you can lay sod over a garden, I suppose, if you didn’t want to make that kind of commitment. However, our garden plot is enclosed by a wall made of brick and wrought-iron fencing (the previous homeowner was a professional landscaper). Removing it would be somewhat difficult and require a lot of work.

So, I was resigned to learn how to garden, even though I wasn’t sure how interested I was in it.

We moved in early in August, when it was too late to do anything about the garden. But it did give me some gifts in those first few months. The previous owners had neglected it for some time, and it was essentially a compost heap with various tomato plants and zucchini running amok. Some of the zucchini was monstrous, several weeks past the time it should have been picked. A lot of the tomatoes rotted on the vine, but I harvested what I could. We had purple and yellow onions. Sunflowers stood tall and cheerful along one side. We had a raspberry bush in one corner. I ended up with gourds as well, which decorated the fireplace in the fall. And then there was another plant in another corner that friends later identified as asparagus.

When the garden was done for the season, Lance pulled up the asparagus (or so he thought) and tilled everything over. The raspberry bush was severely pruned back, ready for next spring. During the colder months, my stepdad and I made plans for what we would plant and where.

April 2017: Ready to plant!

bare canvas

Spring came early the following year. I noticed a tall, thick asparagus shoot before we even planted anything. We yanked that out and planted strawberries, 12 tomato plants, carrots, two blueberry bushes, two more raspberry bushes, and onions. Given how fertile the soil was from all the compost the previous year, everything did just fine with very little help from me. I watered and weeded. I did my best to manage pests (damn Japanese beetles!).

The strawberry plants, still young, spread out but yielded little fruit. Asparagus continued to shoot up through the soil within the strawberry plants. The raspberry bushes filled out nicely but didn’t provide as many berries as I’d hoped.  I got a few blueberries, but those need a few years to really get going.

The tomatoes, though. Good God.

Remember I said 12 tomato plants? That’s about 10 too many. The plants grew as tall as me and merged into one giant plant.

Exhibit A:

killer tomatoes

I spent the summer making and freezing tomato soup and sauce. My stepdad canned some – a task, I admit, that I have no desire to undertake. I took endless boxes of tomatoes to work to give away. (One friend, who probably took more tomatoes than anyone, gave me some walleye that her husband caught. I consider that a fair trade.)

The onions did great and the carrots did, too. But 2017 will always be the year of the killer tomatoes.

It was a relief when the garden was done for the year.

The cold season came again, and it was time to plan this year’s garden. Obviously, we were keeping the strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. However, I insisted on zucchini and fewer tomato plants. I talked my stepdad down to six this year (still too many) because he wanted to do more canning. I wanted carrots and onions again, too.

Spring came late, and planting took place several weeks later than the year before. That didn’t matter. The soil is still fertile, and in early June, I had an abundance of strawberries. Then the strawberries stopped for several weeks, but they just started coming back again. The damn asparagus is still coming up, one spear at a time. The zucchini is out of control (and I bought three plants – the minimum amount). The raspberries did not do well and I think the blueberries are dead. And something keeps eating my tomatoes before I can pick them, so I don’t have as many as I should. I sprinkled animal repellent around the garden today, so let’s see if that helps.

The carrots have been in the ground much longer than they are supposed to be, but I picked one about a week ago – puny. I don’t have high hopes for them this year. The onions and garlic are doing great.

After two years of tending this garden, I’m learning a few things.

For starters, a weed-free garden is utterly impossible, which clashes with my perfectionist tendencies. I do the best I can, but the important thing is that I’m able to grow food. I have to let the idea of a perfect, pristine garden go. Besides, pulling weeds can be a great stress reliever. There is something deeply satisfying about digging in the soil with my CobraHead tool and ripping them out by the root.

Try a tomato other than Better Boy. Not that Better Boy isn’t delicious, but a little variety never killed anyone, and Better Boy has been the tomato of choice these past two years.

Allow more spacing between plants.

Plant more carrots.

There is a limit to how much zucchini I can tolerate. I have zucchini bread in the freezer and I’ve eaten more zoodles than I care to think about it. I also have a gallon-sized bag of diced zucchini in the freezer to throw into soups this winter. And I’ve given away more zucchini than I’ve actually used.

Finally, I love gardening. It’s a lot of hard work, yes, but it is so very rewarding to be able to go a few steps out your back door and pick things that you can eat. You know exactly where it came from and what’s been done (or not done) to it (all organic for me).

In the winter, you can pull some homemade sauce out of your freezer or add a jar of home-canned tomatoes to your chili, and it gives you that fresh summer taste to help make those cold, short days more bearable. Knowing that you grew that yourself – well, for me, at least, I get a true sense of accomplishment from that.

Plus, it’s fun to share your bounty with friends and family.

I take a lot of pride in what I’ve done in just a couple of years. I may have had my reservations at first about having this garden to care for, but now I’m so grateful for it. If we bought a house that didn’t already come with a garden, I’m not sure I’d be doing this. And I would never know what I was missing.

Sheep Shit Shirt: An Oktoberfest Story

As I glanced at the empty seat next to me on the luxury coach and then gazed out the window, I knew without a doubt that the man exiting the hotel was going to be my seatmate. The first thing I noticed was his t-shirt, which advertised sheep manure. A minute later, he slid into the seat next to me and introduced himself in a thick southern drawl.

He was chatty. I was not. I had, in fact, wanted to peacefully contemplate the Bavarian landscape out the window as the bus rolled toward Munich. Our destination was Oktoberfest, not one of my bucket list items. But my two traveling companions – who sat together in the row in front of me – decided rather last minute that they wanted to take this tour. The hotel happened to have exactly three tickets left. It was a sign that we had to go.

Hey, when in Bavaria during Oktoberfest…

I don’t remember much of what my seatmate said that day, other than his t-shirt was his talisman against becoming a sloppy drunk. When he could no longer say “sheep shit shirt” without slurring, that was his cue to stop drinking.

In the row ahead of me, I heard snickering.

The rest of the journey is a bit of a blur. He rambled on and on, and it seemed endless.

Finally, we arrived! Oktoberfest! Despite my reluctance to go, I felt ecstatic to be there.

Our bus driver gave us a stern warning about returning to the bus throwing up drunk. There would be consequences, he said. On that charming note, we disembarked, everyone going their separate ways.

***

Several hours later, exhausted and sunburned, we were back on the bus. It had been a terrible day. Excessive heat, an endless parade, and not one seat to be found in any of the beer tents. This was Oktoberfest, and not one of our trio had a beer. We were all unimpressed with the experience.

Little by little, everyone returned to the bus. Everyone, that is, except Sheep Shit Shirt guy. I said a silent prayer, hoping he got lost and we would leave him behind.

Finally, he arrived. Staggering drunk. Oh, no.

He joked that he had enough beer for both of us, then promptly dozed off.

Or… not.

He suddenly sat bolt upright, leapt out of his seat, and ran off the bus to vomit.

Moments later, he returned with a plastic bag that the driver gave him, assuring me that he was done. I was neither comforted nor convinced by this assessment.

The driver, satisfied that everyone was accounted for, began the drive back to Garmisch. I curled up against the window, trying to make myself smaller and create as much distance between us as possible. Sheep Shit Shirt man fell asleep. His head lolled onto my shoulder.

Worst trip ever. I hated Oktoberfest. I hated everything.

As I succumbed to misery, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. A teenage girl sitting behind me told me that she made room for me in the back of the bus.

Hallelujah! Sweet rescue!