Thursday, April 16, 2015

Leslie's Spaghetti

The last few days Emma’s aunt Lauren (Leslie’s sister) has been messaging her things like, “what’s something that made you smile today?” or “what was one positive thing you remember from today?”  I sort of love that little interaction.  Lauren was Leslie’s “go to guy” for advice and really valued her outlook on life and her big brain.  I love that Lauren is keeping things positive for Emma.  And that she’s pushing herself a little more into Emma’s life because…well…obviously there’s a big hole there to fill.

I’ve been doing sort of the…well…not really opposite…same thing from a different angle.  Every night at bed time I ask her what made her sad today.  And then I tell her what made me sad.  We talk about why it made us sad and I think, sharing it, it makes us a little less sad, and sort of puts us in a big “shared experiences boat.”  One of the reasons I’m doing it is because I have a tendency to put on a brave face, and I want Emma to know that however brave a face I put on, I still think about her mother all the time.  I want her to know that I don’t take this loss the same way I might brush off a bad recipe or a lost dollar bill.  Her life mattered to me.  It made a big impact on me.  I’m grieving the loss.  I don’t want her to ever think that her mom never mattered no matter how brave a front I put on for “company”. 

Last night as we were lying in bed I asked her if anything at school made her sad.  Her science teacher had actually emailed me previously to say this:  “We were discussing ‘learning’ vs. instinctual behaviors.  One of the learning methods is imprinting – which most examples involve children and their moms.  As I was explaining situations like how the sound of a mother’s voice imprints on a baby while she’s in the womb, meaning the baby will always recognize its mother’s voice I could tell Emma was reflecting on it and getting sad.”  He went on to explain how he tried to modify the lesson toward “dads” but didn’t want to halt it because he didn’t want to draw attention to it in front of the class.  He said she handled it, but wanted to let me know. 

So Emma said, “It was in second period.”

“What’s your second period class?

“Science.  We were talking about how baby zebras scan (and I think I’m getting this partially wrong here) their mothers’ faces and imprint them so they can recognize individual facial patterns in the herd and find their mother.  And (insert kid’s name) said, “I couldn’t do that.” And I said, “I could,” but as soon as I said it I remembered and I thought to myself, “not anymore, I can’t,” and I was sad for a while.”

I was glad that her teacher had emailed me, because it prompted me to ask that question specifically, but I think it’s something I’m going to share with Emma at bedtime nightly.  I think it’s…helpful.  I gave her a squeeze and said, “you know what made me sad today?”


“Tomato sauce...” and then I explained.

Back to our story

We lived in the cottage house for four years, and had so many memorable adventures, but I need to move forward with Leslie’s story.  Maybe I’ll share some here or there as they crop up.  This one doesn’t necessarily advance our story together, but it’s worth noting because today in the store the tomato sauce aisle made me so sad…

Spaghetti sauce is this strange sauce as life metaphor…it is both unifying and discriminating.  I think almost every kid loves his mom’s spaghetti sauce.  But…every mom’s spaghetti sauce is different so almost every kid doesn't like some other kid's mom's sauce.  Maybe that's nothing like life.  I don't know.  Bottom line...spaghetti sauce is mysterious.  I remember loving my mom’s spaghetti sauce, but hating the idea of having spaghetti at a friend’s house because…well…it wasn’t the right sauce.  

Leslie started cooking her spaghetti sauce in the cottage house.  I had my mom’s recipe.  She cooked it.  For her it was okay, but Leslie was a much pickier eater back when we first started dating (the list of ‘don’t likes’ included peppers, onions, beans, tomatoes, chunks in sauce, etc…my mom’s spaghetti sauce had 4/5 things included).  For Leslie, it was her mom’s sauce.  She cooked that for me and for me it was okay, but it didn’t have as much zip.  We had dinner with my sister and her husband one night and he made spaghetti sauce that she liked.  She asked him for his recipe.  He’s very much the “throw a bunch of shit in a pot until it’s right” kind of cook, daring, but recipeless, though he did give her a couple tips.

Leslie, using her knowledge of my likes and her own, his tips, and a starting point of her mom’s recipe, created something that worked well for both of us.  There were probably four iterations before she got it perfected.  One was too spicy/chunky (it was my favorite, but not hers), one was bland, one was good, one was better…and she went with it. 

Fast forwarding to the present...both kids eat my wife’s sauce.  This is noteworthy.  Autistics are often famously picky-eaters, but Emma is possibly more picky still.  But both eat my wife’s sauce.  This is huge, because I can make dinner for the whole family, not mini dinners for each kid and another for me.  It has the sausage and wine in it and that gives it a little tang and spice.  It's not so spicy or zippy that it offends Emma, who as a much younger child cried the hard cry because "I got a spice on my tongue", and who, when making her own pizza waves the pizza sauce over her crust (like a drunk waves vermouth over his martini shaker so as not to dilute the vodka...shut up, I don't mean ME), imparting pizza sauce flavoring via air molecules because any more than that is "too much sauce".  And it has some magical quality that remains unnamed because Lily says, "I want mommy's spaghetti."

So yesterday as I was driving my shopping cart through the Giant Eagle, killing time while the pharmacy prepared my strep prescription and I glanced down to see the large Contadina tomato sauce cans and was instantly pole-axed.  I don’t have my wife’s sauce recipe.  She had it in her head.  Oh my god…we’ll never have her spaghetti sauce again.  It was such a stupid comical sense of finality to have hit me over a friggin’ can of tomato sauce, but I was instantly sad.

This morning I texted my former brother-in-law and asked him for his ‘recipe’.  I’ll talk to my mother-in-law tonight. 

I will recreate that fucking recipe if it kills me.  I know 5 cans of tomato sauce.  I know one pound of Italian sausage links.  I know a half cup (or more) red wine.  I know the spices.  I have the meatball recipe (thank GOD I have the fucking meatball recipe). 

So yesterday as I was thinking about returning for the next installment of Leslie’s story, I was thinking about all the cooking we did in that little carriage house, and of spaghetti sauce, and of how much I’ll miss it and her.

More later…(sorry no pics.  I’m at work.  On lunch break)


  1. Sounds like you have a decent start and moral support to get there.

  2. This post crushed me. Those little things that aren't so little are so important. Youll get the recipe, I feel sure of it.

    I'm so glad you're talking to your kids about her too. I lost my dad when I was seven (very different circumstances) and my family talked so infrequently about him that I don't even know what words to use to talk about him.

  3. We are working with a man who has experienced many significant losses in his life recently and someone told him not to sweat the small stuff. He replied, "But it is the small stuff. It is the small stuff that guts me. And it all accumulates." I am so impressed and in awe of how you are moving through this, because you are moving through it. You aren't avoiding it, glossing it over or hiding away. You are bravely facing each day with all the unknown that it brings and you are helping guide your children along with you. There is no easy way out of this except to keep going with all the inconvenient and overwhelming and perhaps even comforting feelings that come with it.

  4. It will be seemingly strange stuff like this that will take you around, over and over for a while. And that is ok. Thoughts for you and your family.