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Brown rice

Every Thanksgiving for all the years of their marriage, my parents would get up very early to wrestle an enormous turkey into the oven so it’d be cooked before the sun set. They filled our holidays and every day of our lives with an abundance of food as though it was nothing – as though it was truly their greatest pleasure.

Mostly he shopped and she cooked, but they each did both. My parents loved feeding their daughters — and anybody else who dropped by our house. My mother made dinner every single day, never a night off, never a “fend for yourself kids.” My father knew good fruits and vegetables and drove miles to get chickens or chuck roast on special, keeping our freezer full.
From the time I had my first apartment in college, my father would try to send me back to school with a case of tuna fish, even though I’d fight him off. And for years after I left home, my mother would regularly tell me how to roast a chicken.
“Joni, you know how to make a roast chicken, right?” she’d start, and although I’d impatiently snap, “Yes, Mom,” she’d continue right on instructing me.
It was always roast chicken, which must have been because chickens were cheap, simple to bake, and a great source of protein: if I could make a chicken, I’d always have something good to eat.
I guess she didn’t know what else she could do to care for me off on my own in a world beyond her reach.
I understand that now.
Food can speak volumes.
It was the only language I had one day last summer, when out of the blue, my first, serious, post-college boyfriend came to my house in Hull to have dinner with my husband and me.
When I got his phone message, I didn’t recognize his voice. But he’d said his name and the area code on the caller I.D. matched where he lives. I had followed his life from afar through a mutual friend, and knew that he’d suffered an unspeakable loss a while earlier. I knew that he’d left his law practice, bought a boat, and was on a month-long sail with a pal.
I called the number he left.
Our conversation was brief. He said he was on the North Shore on route to Hingham where some of his wife’s relatives lived. He said that if the wind was good, maybe we could have a cookout at their house that evening.
“Or, we could have it here,” I said, without thinking at all. We left it vague and hung up.
It was a Saturday, and my husband and I had just returned from a trip. I’d planned on doing very little that day, and suddenly I was maybe going to make dinner for a bunch of people.
But I couldn’t mobilize. I could not get myself to go to the store for food, even though I’d (sort of) offered to cook. I didn’t believe he was actually going to make it all that way (through the years or the nautical miles?) and be here for dinner. Besides, I thought, his relatives would most likely invite us over. He probably hadn’t even registered my faint invitation.
The only thing I was able to do as I waited to see if he was really coming, was make a big pot of brown rice.
Years before, when Sailor and I were together, we were vegetarians and ate lots of brown rice.
Do you know brown rice? Good, nourishing, full of fiber and B vitamins brown rice? It still occupies a central position as a basic staple in my world: sort of like, air, water, and brown rice.
I shucked several ears of corn and thought about how close we’d once been. How sweet and smart he was: how hurried I’d been to find my way to something big and important.
I broke a head of garlic apart and slowly minced a large pile of it, as I’d been doing for decades. I finely chopped carrots and thought about Sailor’s recent life. I couldn’t understand how people live through some of what we live through.
I stripped the kernels from the corn and sautéed them with the garlic and carrots, then added the mixture to the rice. With some soy sauce and toasted sesame oil for flavor, it was my old brown rice salad.
At five p.m., when I still hadn’t heard a thing I was so relieved — figuring that the evening was off. Then, at six, the sailor’s sister-in-law called from Hingham and somehow it ended up that everyone was headed to our house.
I raced to the store, got chicken (!), mesclun, and a watermelon, somehow managing to get everything together for grilling by the time I picked up the sailor and his mate at the A Street dock.
The relatives, my husband, and the sailor’s friend were a fun, talkative group that made any awkwardness easy. Sailor was as handsome as ever and seemed well — if somewhat dreamy and off on his own as though the sea had soothed a part of him away. He was hungry and ate a lot. Covertly, I watched his every mouthful, which included two big helpings of rice.
The food wasn’t great, but the brown rice, my delicious brown rice salad, saved me from feeling embarrassed by the otherwise mediocre meal. And it also served in another way, there in the center of the table. It was like a stand-in for Sailor and me, a stabilizing force, a ballast: holding who we were, what we’d become, and the present moment all in a big wooden bowl.
The rice was my mother’s roasting instructions, my father’s cases of tuna fish. I was helpless to stop life from hurting my old friend, but I could feed him.
I offered brown rice instead of the heart full of words I couldn’t utter – my sympathy over his daughter’s recent death.
I offered brown rice.
I offered brown rice.