The kitchen smells of minced garlic toasting in olive oil on the stove. I chop the artichoke stems very fine. From the garden, I salvaged a few sage leaves that survived the early frost and they are crisping in the oil as well. I know what Cam would say if I phoned her. I can easily hear her voice.
“Lea! How’re you doin’?”
“Great! I’m making stuffed artichokes.”
“No kiddin’. What’re you putting in the filling?”
“I’ve got some sage from the garden, toasted garlic and breadcrumbs.”
“Oooooo. I always put in a bit of salt and pepper, as well.”
“Yep. I’ve added them along with the stems.”
When Cam talks about food, it’s as if she could taste it. The words roll languorously about on her tongue, zesty as lemon, smoky as slow-cooked sauce. She relishes each ingredient, the aromas, and the textures. No surprise, as much of her life was spent in the kitchen, cooking for her parents, her brothers, and for all of us.
I come close to reaching for the telephone, but Cam won’t be there to answer; she passed away last week.
She was ninety-two and hadn’t been cooking much lately. Over the past year, her forgetfulness led to smoke alarms a few times too many. Sausages browned to black on the stove as she went to the bathroom; hamburger charred when she was drawn into a TV show. Like Cam, her neighbors at Heritage Village were elderly, most in their eighties. Much as they loved her, they were frustrated about standing in the cold or rain while awaiting the firemen’s “All clear.” It was not just inconvenient; they were worried - about her as well as themselves.
At Heritage Village, the policy is three strikes and you’re out. Luckily, not really out, but forbidden to use the stove. She certainly didn’t cook with as much enthusiasm as she used to anyway; she was tired. But still, she missed the smells and fresh food.
When Cam joined us for Christmas last year, she made up for lost cooking time; a full day was spent preparing homemade lasagna and squid. Dave and his aunty rolled mounds of dough thin, then sliced them into strips. Casey, Tucker and I helped layer the pasta with creamy ricotta cheese, sautéed vegetables and rich tomato sauce. Stuffing the squid, or porkies, as Cam called them, was a messy business, leaving her crooked fingers caked with stuffing and her apron dusted with flour. Christmas carols played on the stereo, the same songs Cam listened to when her brothers were at war, the songs we’d heard as children, and that Tucker and Casey had grown up singing. Sometimes Cam and Dave would swing into a dance or croon along with Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
Cam’s greatest pleasure, other than time spent with family, was playing Bingo. Whenever Dave called his aunt, his first question was whether she’d won at Bingo that week. If she answered in the negative, he’d tease her about dishonoring the family name. “You dingweed!” he’d say, and she would laugh like a school girl. She got a kick out of the nickname; maybe the silliness appealed, or perhaps its youthful ring. Whatever the reason, Cam took teasing well. She could always laugh at herself.
Cam worried constantly about family members, from the time that all three brothers served overseas during World War II, to the time that she quit her job to take care of her parents. Then Uncle Jack got cancer, and Dave’s father, Tony, had a stroke. Often, therefore, her worries were well-founded. But she also worried unnecessarily if Dave didn’t call every day, or if she couldn’t find a phone number, or bill. Dave would mimic Cam’s wail, feed it right back to her, when she moaned about some small insignificance. And she got the joke; her groaning would give way to laughter.
Timmy the van driver and Cam’s friend, Theresa, found her. They had come to pick her up for Bingo, just like always. Usually, Cam was waiting outside when the van pulled up. She’d be wearing a beige knit jacket and matching pants; her white hair would be neatly coiffed following her weekly trip to the hairdresser. She’d have her bulky handbag clutched to her body with both hands. This time, Cam wasn’t out front so Timmy was anxious. She waited a bit, then decided to go up to Cam’s apartment. Theresa agreed to accompany her, just in case.
They found her on the bedroom floor, dressed and ready to go.
Dressed and ready to go. That describes Cam pretty well. She relished life in the same way she relished mussels in garlic and wine, scraping each shell clean and sopping up the juice with a nice chunk of fresh bread. She’d stay up until 1:00 am to watch her great-nephews, Trevor and Christopher, perform. Well into her eighties, she once went out on a boat night-shrimping in Florida with her niece, Peggy, and her beloved, Paul. It was dark on the water and the chill numbed their hands, but Cam never complained. In fact, when Peggy asked how she was doing, she laughed with delight and said, “I’m enjoying myself!”
When Peggy’s daughter, Jenny, gave birth to a little girl, Cam found a new love. Now four years old, Victoria is cute, smart, and funny, and her parents are conscientious about keeping Cam up-to-date with photographs.
Cam kept Dave company during his daily commute from work. He’d call her as he sat in traffic on the Merritt Parkway and they’d chat about his day, about her latest Bingo game, about Victoria’s most recent accomplishment. Cam told him when Cousin Jackie fell ill, and when Johnny Talbot called. She told him when Jenny’s sister, Lisa, started her own business as a personal chef. “Isn’t that somethin’?” said Cam. But she never wanted to impose, “I won’t take any more of your time….” she'd say, and Dave had to beg her, “Don’t hang up! Don’t hang up!”
As I run cold water into the pot, I wish I could call her. I know Cam would love these artichokes. She would have eaten every leaf with gusto, starting close to the pricker-sharp point, then working her teeth to the stem end.
Loving every last morsel.