Death is a funny thing. It’s so abrupt in so many ways, and yet it drags on in others. The protracted ups and downs of illness are followed by the sudden rock-hard knowledge that the person who dies is really, truly not going to be there any more, and that abrupt transition is counterbalanced by the endless tying up of loose ends. The ends are always frayed, and as we dig through the deceased’s belongings we veer back and forth between a weird prurience (as in “wow, I never knew she took that many prescriptions”); and breathtaking grief (as in, “when I gave her that for Christmas I never envisioned the day I would take it back”).
Death is such a certainty that in a way it feels trite to say aloud “I’m sad because my aunt died”. It seems even more trite to say “I’m sad because my Aunt Shirley died”, because according to a theory I have developed through Complex Scientific Methods, everyone in the world regardless of age, national origin, creed, or ethnicity has at least one Aunt Shirley, whether literal or figurative, and thus being sad because one’s Aunt Shirley has died is about as emotionally original as feeling a sense of ennui when gazing upon the autumn leaves, or crying at the end of Casablanca.
My personal Aunt Shirley was an artist, a lover of good food and drink, a lover of good company, a superb if occasionally irascible aunt, a part of this house, a part of this fork, a part of all of us in ways too complicated and juicy to relay. As you all are no doubt aware, she, my uncle Dick and my father all grew up in coastal Oregon, children of a lumberjack and a housewife-cum-dress shop saleswoman. Shirley sensibly got out of small-town Oregon and went to art school in San Francisco, where she began her distinguished career as a medical illustrator. Ten years older than my father, she was his de facto caregiver throughout much of his childhood, toting him along everywhere as a cheerful and compliant miniature sidekick, while their parents, Forrest and Margaret, worked (hard). Shirley urged my father to get out of Oregon too, to go to college somewhere—anywhere—else. Thus was Shirley instrumental in my father’s decision to attend MIT, which in turn led to his decision to marry my mother (a beautiful, roving Canadian whom he met in Boston), and then to sire a couple of offspring, including yours truly and my splendid brother Peter. So basically, I owe my existence to my Aunt Shirley. It's all her fault.
Aunt Shirley wound up in New York City (in the West Village, like any self-respecting artist in the 1960s), and in the early ‘70s she bought her little flag-shaped piece of property. Were you to fast-forward this narrative about three decades, anyone who didn’t know Shirley and all of us could be forgiven for wondering if my family were That Kind of Hamptons People. Obviously we—particularly Shirley—are indeed not TKoHP. When Shirley built this tiny, lovely, quirky, modern house, she was one of a bunch of artistic types who found the area to be cheap, remote, and conducive to the Artistic Lifestyle of the early 1970s.
I came on the scene in 1968, and since I was about four years old (slightly younger than my son currently is) I have been spending time in this house, which for all of us is as inseparable from Shirley in our minds as pork is from beans. This house is about as close to my heart as my own home, and my brain is similarly hardwired to its smells, sounds, sights and sensations. Which brings me to the subject of basil, garlic and tomatoes.
My brother and I always went off to Shirley’s in summertime for a week or two, and Shirley’s beautiful raised garden beds out back were always full of tomatoes, basil, and garlic (not to mention lemon cucumbers, asparagus, and a bunch of other stuff). Our summertime meals were often centered around these flavors, and in particular I remember frequently eating pasta tossed with obscenely ripe tomatoes, crushed with torn basil and perfumed with minced elephant garlic (I discovered yesterday from Shirley’s student Deb that Shirley’s students referred to this concoction as “Shirley’s Stuff”). It was—and is—so fragrant, so lush, so fresh, and so completely and utterly soldered in my brain to my wonderful, cantankerous Aunt, her lovely house, and every single memory contained herein.
So Shirley is gone. The exact timeline of her illness and death is too fussy and brutal to have committed to memory, but suffice to say some (namely and particularly my beloved dad and our extraordinary friends Athena and Marlene) went light years above and beyond the call of duty for the sake of all Shirley did and meant, moving heaven and earth to get her back into her house where she belonged, seated at her counter, sipping coffee and reading a novel, propped up on one elbow. Although she slipped away alone, I imagine it was exactly as she wanted: private, unfussy, matter-of-fact.
But now she is gone, and all the stuff must be dealt with. Reality dictates that the house must be sold and her belongings dispersed appropriately. Thus I find myself unexpectedly and heartbrokenly commencing the End of Days in this house, in my Aunt, and in a very rich and happy chapter of my life. My fantasies involved a future spent hanging out here with Aunt Shirley, older and more cantankerous than ever, a teenaged son, and a husband, spending long hot summer days lolling about the house, tracking in sand and nursing sunburns, being told to close the goddamn shower door and shut the goddamn garden gates so the goddamn dogs didn’t run away and get run over on the Montauk highway, and barely keeping up with the tomato and basil plants in the garden as they sprang forth baskets and bowls of produce. Now we stand poised to drop the keys into the hands of strangers, hoping that this outdated, run-down jewel, in its sparkling-green-yet-now-illegally-close-to-wetlands setting, will sell for a fraction of what we all indignantly feel it’s worth.
In this market, who knows how long it will take to close on the sale of the house. I’m willing to take a gamble—I can’t not—that it will be at least 65-70 days, which is how long the seed packet said it will take for the optimistically vast number basil seeds I planted to get to harvest. I cheated on the tomatoes, planting sturdy-looking varietals birthed by local growers: two San Marzanos, a Black Krin, a SunGold, an Arkansas Traveler, a Celebrity. I threw in some cilantro and parsley and marigolds for good measure, and formed seven small hummocks of earth, each planted with six lemon cucumber seeds, a weird, old-fashioned varietal stubbornly favored by my aunt and thus beloved by her nieces and nephews. Shirley’s eternally self-propagating bed of elephant garlic is already well on its way, helped by me only when I raked away the winter’s blanket of fallen leaves to expose the startled, crumpled, pale yellow sprouts to chill March sunlight.
So maybe we’ll get lucky (or unlucky) and get to see the garden through. Maybe we’ll hand our infant garden off to a family as eager to see it through as we are, or maybe it’ll fall prey to a family eager to pave it over so they can park their late-model BMW SUV. I am stoically resolved to all eventualities.
Should we be denied the pleasure of watching our garden grow, I suppose I can always glean what I can from King Kullen—the precious plastic clamshells of imported basil, the cottony and faintly-flavored tomatoes, the non-elephantine garlic—and hold fast to what diminished pungency of memory (or memory of pungency) I can find. But I do hope Aunt Shirley’s garden gets one last hurrah before we hand over the keys and the papers, and walk away from these forty-some-odd years.
Here’s a recipe I thought you all should know.
Three large, ripe tomatoes, hot from the sun, chopped coarsely
A mess of basil, swished off at the backyard faucet and torn up
However much elephant garlic you like/can stand, crushed or minced
Some olive oil, Kosher salt, and pepper
A box of linguine
Take the first four ingredients and combine into a soupy, sludgy sauce at the bottom of a big, wide wooden salad bowl. Boil the pasta until it’s just tender. Drain well in an old, banged up aluminum colander, and throw the drained pasta into the bowl with the sauce. Toss with abandon, and plop bowl down on a long wooden dining table surrounded by three-legged chairs. Festoon with freshly grated parmesan and feed to hungry children while it’s still hot enough to burn their tongues.
Here is the garden on June 28 (planted May 23 or so). What a difference a month makes...