Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. This essay by Denise Frame Harlan on navigating a season of illness was originally featured in Lost Magazine.
She loves apples. Though other foods come and go from favor, this has not changed over the last year. Organic Fuji apples, Haagen-Dazs ice cream, and red meat, served as rare as possible. Sometimes she loves whole milk yogurt, drizzled with maple syrup. Last week I enticed her with carrots, sautéed and sauced with ginger plum jam and a squeeze of citrus. But today her stomach is bothering her, and she wants only apples. Fuji. Organic.
I brace myself and phone Karen from the supermarket aisle, to report that there are no Fuji apples today. I hear a long silence and a bit of a whimper like a disappointed child. “I see beautiful Braeburns, Granny Smiths, and translucent yellow ones, let’s see… yes, Golden Delicious.”
“No Fuji. No Ginger Gold? Did you ask?”
“I asked. Braeburns, Grannies, Goldens.”
“Okay,” she says, followed by a long pause. “Four Goldens.”
“The Grannies look good.”
“And two Granny Smiths.”
“Be there soon, Karen. Bye.”
I pull up to Karen’s door to find the bottled water delivery has been abandoned at the base of the stairs. I take the apples to the sink, then make five return trips up the stairs with loads of spring water.
She has just woken, she tells me. The smell of cigarette smoke permeates the bedroom, and she is embarrassed. In warmer months she restricts her smoking to her patio, but today is damp. She keeps the windows open and fans running, so the smoke smell never grows stale.
I rearrange the water supply, then empty first the small dish rack and then the dishwasher. I check the cat’s dishes and the trash cans and the laundry. I carefully wash my hands and wash the apples, start the coffee pot then check the refrigerator. She needs apples, now, and there is only one blue porcelain dish of thin-sliced apples, with a half of a juiced lime stored in the bowl. I pour her a cup of fresh coffee, add a drop of maple syrup, and carry the chilled dish of apples to Karen’s bedroom. “Sustenance!” I announce.
“Such sustenance! I’ll be a few minutes.” She apologizes, a woman recovering from so many things, she still feels responsible to be a good hostess in her own home.
I return and calculate what Karen will need for lunch and dinner. I carefully wash the apples, and set a bin for compost beside the cutting board. I roll the lime on the counter with a bit of pressure to release the juices, cut it in half and squeeze it into the next porcelain dish. Quarter the apples, peel and core the quarters, and slice each quarter into three or four thin slices. I cut them as if I were feeding the apples to toddlers I don’t want to choke. And I roll the slices in lime, just the way she likes them. The Granny Smith apple is pale green on the inside, just as the Golden is a pale yellow. As I peel the Golden Delicious slices, I see one peel go into the compost and then I ask myself what I am thinking! I peel the other slices and stack all the peels on the side of the cutting board. When I’ve rolled the last of the slices in lime and placed the dish in the refrigerator, I toss the lime into my water glass and snack on the delicate peels.
That’s enough apples for overnight.
Karen walks carefully into the kitchen with her empty bowl. I can see that walking is painful for her, and she seems unsteady. Still she is thanking me graciously, and I try to convince her to let me make her breakfast. Nothing tastes good, she says. She wants a shower. As she goes, she turns to say, on second thought, could I make her a hamburger? I am such a mom about these things, so excited to find something Karen will eat.
“How would you like it?”
“If it’s not too much trouble, could you sauté some finely chopped red onion and garlic and mix it with the organic burger? Lots of onions and garlic.”
“Lots of those, too. And rare — bloody rare. Just introduce the burger to the pan and embarrass him a little in front of his friends.”
I love all these little instructions that remind me she used to be a chef. She can coach me through a dish, and the food seems to come out exactly as she wants it. I heat extra virgin olive oil in the cast iron skillet while I slice a red onion paper thin and rough it up a little, then mash the garlic under the flat side of the knife, with the bang of a fist.
“Karen, it’s cooked barely enough to hold the burger together. Is that the way you like it?”
“That sounds perfect. Can we heat up the sweet potato fries?”
I set the table for two and pour myself a cup of coffee. I grab salad fixings for myself, and leave room for a few of the fries on the side of the plate. Floral plates, napkins from India, a little vase of flowers from Karen’s regular assistant.
And we sit, and we talk, and she is so pleased with her hamburger and fries. Her eyes close and she hums a little with contentment.
“Exactly as I wanted it, dear.” And she is just as hungry for my company, for conversation. We linger over our plates.
After lunch she heads for the shower, after all. I begin to tidy up dishes and pans and I glance at the list of chores I saw earlier on the kitchen table, written in very large hand so Karen can check it over. Number one read, “Slice apples,” and she has scrawled something above it with a bold permanent pen. So now it reads “Slice FUJI apples.” I smile and shake my head. Next time, I say to myself, next time I will go to as many stores as it takes, if I have to go to every grocery in town. Organic Fuji apples, peeled and tossed in lime, next time.
Postscript from the author: “Karen, the amazing almost-blind woman, died of health complications in late 2007. I passed her favorite Cambridge restaurant today, after eight years, and it broke my heart again.”