Small Things

small-things“Remember to use one green one and one red,” Bonnie said as she glanced at the peppers in the colander, “they taste different. If you don’t, it won’t be the same.” She gently rinsed them. Her blue eyes looked up, twinkled, and paused on mine. As if by habit from her work as a Long Island nurse, she spoke as though she wanted to remind me to take all of my meds, not to skip doses out of convenience. “You’ve got to have the right ingredients to make macaroni salad for Fire Island,” she cautioned, smiling.

Bonnie seemed healthy today. As she set up the cutting boards, her lively movements never revealed her body’s historic battles. To date, she had beaten cancers that afflicted her pancreas and liver.

In 1983, doctors told her that people with Stage IV pancreatic and liver cancer survive only 4% of the time, “maybe a couple of years.” Bonnie told them that she had four children who needed to be raised, by her. She promptly dismissed their stats.

To the surprise of those doctors, Bonnie went into remission—a medical miracle. But in 1997, breast cancer separately arrived. With children in college or working, she underwent chemotherapy again and joined a women’s cancer survivor group that took fishing trips together. Today was a good day, several years before another prognosis would arrive, the fatal one.

Bonnie’s son and I had planned a week-long vacation on Fire Island. He and I dated long distance, so we flew from Boston to Florida and back, Florida to New York, and Boston to New York, regularly. Bonnie was forever picking one of us up at an airport or train station, so that we could spend time together. Her son had requested that we make his favorite island dish, so it was time for me to learn how to make macaroni salad.

Bonnie held up the green pepper in her hand before placing it on the cutting board. Glossy and plump, it was familiar to me but never made it onto my grocery lists. Between mergers and acquisitions in my life as an attorney, I ate mainly at the building’s catered cafeteria, high end restaurants in downtown Boston, and out of a cupboard in my Cambridge condo filled with cans of ‘healthy’ soups.

There had never been time to notice that a red pepper tasted different from a green.

While Bonnie and I cut open the peppers, we heard sounds of rushing water from hoses and shouts of directions from father to son. The men were cleaning off the boat at the edge of the property in a channel boathouse. The next day would be the season’s launch, the first crossing of the channel from Bay Shore to Fire Island.

Bonnie looked to the distance as if to an uncertain future, but reflected on her past. She said, “my family had a corner store and deli on Fire Island when I was growing up, and I made macaroni salad every day, pounds of it! We always ran out.” Bonnie carried the recipe in her head. It was versatile as a meal or snack, quick to make, and inexpensive.

Although macaroni salad might seem ordinary with jarred ingredients commonly found in Depression-era recipes, somehow, the tang and lightness of the salad raised it up out of its origins. Instead, this recipe celebrated summer— outdoor barbecue side dishes and quick meals between walks to the beach. Any time we ate it, wherever we were, her son and I could picture Fire Island and almost feel the sand beneath us.

Without the noise of traffic or Times Square, Fire Island offered visitors peace. Each ferry’s arrival at Fair Harbor released a deluge of passengers whose delight always eased over their faces like the hues of maritime dusk reflecting calmly on the bay’s rippled waters.

Systematically, people emptied the ferry and loaded luggage more accustomed to taxi rides and trains onto a multitude of red wagons meant for children.

The very act of wheeling a red wagon converted the bit-chomping, forward movement of these Manhattanites into the light cantor of their flip flops clapping against boardwalks in mid-day sun. As passengers continued to their homes, they dispersed as if ending a neighborhood Fourth of July parade.

Bonnie cut the red pepper in half, sliced a section, and handed me a sliver. A burst of watermelon and flower petals gushed from the first bite, crisp, and juicy. The flesh was sweet and firm; the peel, smooth and thin, clung to the edge of my teeth as I bit down. The substance of it comforted me, and the difference in flavor between peppers revealed itself.

Bonnie spent Fire Island summers with her children in the Cedar Walk home of her youth, now a place she rented. Those days meant everything to her. Magic whispered softly in the beach winds seducing still waters to rolling white caps.

Walks amidst seashells and jellyfish tossed about by tidal waters transformed her before my eyes to a child searching for shells. She finished many an afternoon’s journey with fishing at the end of a pier, facing a sunset. In these moments, she kicked her feet back and forth enjoying the freedom of bare feet and cool air.

Bonnie smiled and confided in me as she handed me the rest of the pepper and red onion to dice, “the secret ingredient to my macaroni salad is “Jane’s Krazy Mixed-Up Salt.” After, we boiled and drained the pasta, and collected ingredients into a bowl with Miracle Whip and spatula standing at the ready. I felt like a proud 50’s homemaker, the antithesis of the weekend warrior I usually was at work.

Bonnie sprinkled the mixed-up salt into the bowl, “It’s not plain salt. It’s a small difference—but see the spices in with the salt?”

I nodded. “Where did you get the “Crazy Jane’s mixed-up salt?” I imagined a young woman, not much older than myself named ‘Crazy Jane,’ furiously mixing salt. In my corporate life in Boston, I sometimes felt like the Crazy Jane I pictured, constantly mixing salt, too busy to appreciate a red pepper.

She laughed at my confusion over the name. “Oh, anywhere and everywhere.”

Bonnie was right about a lot of things—how to appreciate the taste of a red pepper or a small snapper, the tiny bluefish that hung at the end of her fishing pole, how to support the ones you love, and how to make time for important things even if you don’t know whether you have much time left. Bonnie’s world became increasingly complex in matters of health and life, but she kept it simple. She paid attention to small things that fed her soul.

I felt a great loss when Bonnie died in 2007.
I hadn’t seen her in years after her son and I broke up. She and I kept in touch periodically via email, more regularly and by phone when my mother faced an early stage of breast cancer. Bonnie offered support, the knowledge of a nurse, and the knowledge of a patient who survived breast cancer.

I had known Bonnie was sick, but by the time she had received the last prognosis of Stage IV esophageal cancer, my ex had new girlfriends who did not want me to visit. Although we had vowed to stay friends, it wasn’t until Bonnie’s memorial that we saw each other again.

In our mutual sorrow and reminiscing about her, we found ways to rebuild our friendship, and once again, Bonnie supported a relationship between cities.

Bonnie died with grace and with enough time to enjoy the family beach house no longer rented, but owned by her son. She had willed time’s extension to see him out of school and thriving in business. He bought it to bring her as much joy as could fill her final years.

In the final two year battle against cancer, Bonnie made time to write down her son’s favorite recipes, the ones she no longer had time to teach him. Several years later when I flipped through the cookbook and saw her hand-written recipes, they read more like love notes. I recalled the lesson in macaroni salad, and my heart held the memory tighter.

Bonnie said that her secret ingredient was a special salt, but really, it was always her way of appreciating small things— time spent with one another, a walk on the beach, finding a small grass snake to hold in her palm, or a hunt for a certain bird in Peterson’s ornithology book.

She lived well and rested in peace in the end.

The craziness of life never overwhelmed Bonnie. In retrospect, that container of Jane’s Crazy Mixed-Up Salt made of onion and garlic powders, pepper and other spices, contained the flavors that made up Bonnie’s life. Her life had been pungent with bitter things like cancer, tough relationships, and family crisis along the way. For her and others around her bedside, it was salty with tears over losses, changes, and not enough time. But, life is also spicy with surprises, like enough time to celebrate and appreciate the upcoming birth of a first grandchild. For Bonnie, small things always made the difference in the mix of life.

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