35: Life, Remodeled

35: Life, Remodeled

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Food and Love

Life, Remodeled

It takes a long time to grow an old friend.

~John Leonard

I made the first phone calls in July, attempting to reunite five old friends for dinner. We had been close during our somewhat carefree and unfettered young adulthood. Now in our sixties, we were balancing medical dilemmas and late career issues with grandparenting duties and other long-awaited pleasures. Finding common availability was a challenge. I functioned like a general contractor trying to coordinate the plumber, electrician, carpenter, and painter to arrive in perfect sequence. We finally set a date for the second Saturday in October. It was worth the effort — these are memory-rich relationships. It was also worth the wait — I hadn’t spent an entire evening with these folks in over twenty-five years. A lot had changed.

Though I don’t see these friends often, I nurture an emotional connection with them. We met in our early twenties, married from the same small pool, and remained close through our children’s grade school years. But circumstance pushed us in different directions, and we found fewer and fewer opportunities to be together.

With a date on the calendar at last, eager to begin planning our dinner I leafed through recipes to determine a menu. The meal had to be luscious, healthy, and uncomplicated to prepare and serve. Mike and I did not want to spend most of the evening in aprons, conversing with our guests while juggling whisks and wooden spoons. I polled a trio of girlfriends for ideas.

“Pork roast,” recommended one. “Just be really careful not to overcook it,” she said.

“Red potatoes,” said another, “basted in a blend of lemon juice and rosemary garlic butter every fifteen minutes while they bake, then sprinkled with lemon zest just before they’re done. But watch out,” she cautioned. “It’s easy to forget to add that grated lemon peel while you’re visiting with your company.”

“A baked root vegetable dish is great this time of year,” suggested the third. “And it can be slid into the oven and almost ignored. And oh, hot garlic bread would be perfect.”

How big do these people think my oven is?

Finally, I came up with a menu Mike and I could manage and still feel like we’d be part of the party and not a catering team. A salad of romaine lettuce, apple slices, dried cranberries, and Gorgonzola tossed with lime-cumin dressing. A warm loaf of ciabatta. Chicken breasts marinated in seasoned buttermilk and baked in a toasted sesame seed and breadcrumb crust. Orzo cooked in buttery chicken broth. Steamed green beans tossed with olive oil and chopped cashews. And for dessert, pumpkin pie custard topped with a crust of rich buttered crumbs and finished with whipped cream.

Some years back, these friends had spent so much time in my house they could have navigated the main floor blindfolded. But time passed quicker than the shelf life of a cream puff, and suddenly they hadn’t been over for decades. So the weekend before our party, Mike and I cleaned from basement to attic in case they asked for a tour of the house’s updates or just a hike down memory lane. I wanted to be prepared for whatever the evening would serve us.

Since their last visit the kitchen had been remodeled, and the only feature they’d recognize would be the curve of window seats and the round table they had routinely crowded around in years past. I hoped they’d like the bright whiteness of the room, and feel warmed by the golden oak floor. Room by room, contemporary furniture situated on luminous hardwood replaced what they’d known. I converted to the Tao of minimalism fifteen years ago, and tossed out the tchotchkes with which they were familiar. Gone were the trappings of raising children. Would they miss the comfort of that “lived in” look?

Outside, a graceful river birch thrived where the old maple lived and died, and we had recently planted a crab apple to shade the front door. The mature arborvitae trees that bookended the house had grown gangly and Mike removed them a few years ago. Recently added dormers perched on the roof might disorient our visitors if the landscaping didn’t. I reminded myself to have the front light fixed so our guests could read our address if they were thrown off by the unfamiliar. A lot of the recognizable features of the house were gone, both inside and out, but I anticipated approval by these venerable comrades.

The most significant update my friends would notice was that I had installed a new husband. This would not surprise them, since they’d all met Mike briefly at the occasional wedding, funeral, or chance encounter at the movies. But none of them actually knew him.

They’d soon observe that he was quite different from my former spouse. Two of them went to college with Husband Number One and still join him for a few rounds of golf every summer.

October tenth arrived. Candles were lit and the food almost ready when we opened the front door to our visitors. Roasting chicken seasoned with rosemary and thyme scented the air. The windows were fogged by steam from simmering green beans and pasta. Our guests squeezed into the window seats around the kitchen table just as they used to, while Mike tossed salad at the counter. As I darted between the microwave, refrigerator, and stove, I enjoyed hearing his laughter blend into the happy cacophony of long-familiar voices.

We filled our salad plates and moved into the dining room. The conversation jumped from nostalgia to hilarious nonsense to contemplation, and never lagged. My friends regaled Mike with adventures from the past that cast me in a far more charming light than I remember. We toasted the past and hailed the future.

Near midnight, we pushed ourselves out from the table and rose on stiffened legs. We reveled in a prolonged ritual of fond kisses and lingering hugs mingled with laughter. Our company trooped out and Mike closed the front door.

“I had fun getting to know your buddies,” he said. I grinned and gave him a kiss.

“Thanks for being you,” I replied, satisfied with the simplicity of the compliment. After we loaded and started the dishwasher we then climbed the stairs, leaving that humming and whirring beast alone in the dark to do its dirty work. I felt half exhilarated, half exhausted.

Once we snuggled into bed, Mike chortled and teased about the fresh rendering he’d seen of me in my younger years. After he dozed off I lay still and happy, reflecting. My friends had seen my current reality. They saw the changes I’d made to my house and to my life over these past few decades. Lots of bricks were shuffled around. Some were removed. I knew they liked my modifications, great and small, and that they still liked me.

I breathed in the same air my husband exhaled. Content, I closed my eyes under the protective roof of this sound home.

~Beverly A. Golberg

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