I made my first dinner — homemade bread, Irish stew, and chocolate bourbon pecan pie, plus appetizers with handwritten notecards for the cheese and meat board — at the beginning of October of this year. I am less than a month from turning 44.
I read somewhere, I think it was Real Simple, that by her 30s, a woman ought to have a repertoire of signature dishes she can whip up for parties, tailgates, picnics, and potlucks. The same is true for a wardrobe, and also gifts. That is, she should have a signature style and know enough about her friends and family to be able to give them the perfect gift. At this point in time — the 30s — a woman has established herself in family and work life. She knows who she is and thus what to cook, what to wear, what to give are not things to explore and figure out — they’re already reflections of who she is.
At almost 44, I’m clinging to a statement made by Mary Lou Finney from Sharon Creech’s Absolutely Normal Chaos: “I’m not sure who I am. I’m still waiting to find out.” Mary Lou is eternally 14. I am not. Probably, I shouldn’t be hanging on to these words as much as I do.
The bread was no big deal, really. It’s an easy, but satisfying recipe. Time, proofed yeast, and the oven do most of the work. The pecan pie isn’t daunting, either. The buttermilk crust is tangy and easy to roll out, and the rest is just like making a pumpkin pie – I pour everything into a red scalloped pie pan I found at TJ Maxx on an autumn morning when Harper was still on my hip, and let it bake for about an hour, and then set it on the counter, and eventually in the fridge to cool.
I’d made two pies – one for our dinner guests and one for a friend who lately I’ve been calling my best friend. Writing that — admitting that — feels childish. Can an almost 44-year-old woman have a best friend? Should she? I can’t remember what Real Simple said about that, but this person feels like a best friend. It could be the night time bike rides, or the late night conversations on my front porch where one story leads to another, then leads to another, and before we know it, it’s one in the morning. She and I meet for lunch and promise to do our work after, but never do because we have too many things to tell each other.
It is not since Celena that I’ve had a friend like this, and maybe Mary Lou Finney is eternally 14, but my friend brings out something eternal in me (or maybe it’s that I want it to be eternal). And what is it? Youth? Spontaneity? Vibrancy? Hanging around her makes me believe I still have these things. I still am these things.
I made her a pie because I know she likes chocolate and bourbon and also prefers pie to cake, like me, and because this pie has always been a hit when I serve it, I made a second for the company we were having.
It was really the Irish Beef stew that was the biggest, and uncertain part of the meal. There is lots of washing and chopping. There is a lot of boiling and then simmering. There’s raw meat to contend with.
Our dinner guests were Jesse’s advisor from Notre Dame, and his wife. Jesse and I have never made an official statement, but this is a couple whom we aspire to be like. Both of them have been mentors to us on how to go about work, yes, but also, and perhaps more importantly, how to live. When we were in South Bend, they had us over for dinner frequently, and the dinners lasted hours — good food, good wine, and story after story. I don’t often have much to contribute to Jesse’s Fortran-speaking crew, but here, we talked books and philosophy, movies, and tales of growing up as the night grew darker and the candles flickered while the shadows on the walls grew longer and taller.
The wife and I had struck up a friendship over teaching. She and I were both finishing our degrees when we met. Teaching was a new career for her. She’d been an interior designer, and then stayed home with their two boys. Now that they were older, she’d wanted to give teaching a try. I was fresh out of college and anxious about having one career for the rest of my life. Getting to know her made me feel hopeful. I could change, I would change — and it’d be OK.
At one dinner a few years into our teaching careers (we both taught middle school), I brought some dishes into the kitchen and as we stood at the sink I complimented her on a salad she’d made. She’d told me she’d gone to the Farmer’s Market that morning to see what was fresh and came up with what to make accordingly.
The water in the sink stung my hands from its heat, but I scrubbed harder. Jesse and I were a 10 minute walk along the St. Joseph River from the Farmer’s Market. We knew when we arrived not because we saw it, but because we could hear the Blue Grass band picking and strumming on their banjos and singing of broken hearts and other stories that are true set to music that would help us all bear them. The Farmer’s Market was perfectly communal – a colorful celebration of cultivation and creativity and hard work, and an offering to those who came to taste and see. Jesse and I had only been a couple of times because I was always wrapped up in grading papers or planning lessons, but every Monday morning I vowed that the following weekend that wouldn’t happen, and we’d walk to the market.
“There’s just so much to do,” I said, drying off the dish I’d washed with an irrational fierceness.
“I know,” she said, and pivoted, then leaned a hip against the sink so she was facing me.
“I love teaching,” she began, “but if I can’t read the books I want to read, if I can’t take time for walks, and this,” she swept a hand to show her beautiful home, the friends that were in it, the remnants of the meal she made, the candles low and ready to drip, “then I’ll walk away.”
I was not yet 30 when she told me this – years from becoming a mother, and fully invested and in love with teaching, but when she said this, I felt something in me stir.
Maybe it was desire for that kind of confidence, or hope for the courage to walk away if and when the time came, but remembering this moment now, I realize that what she said hearkens back to Mary Lou Finney’s assuredness that it’s OK to wait to find out. It’s OK to not know everything about yourself. It’s OK to have more than one definition. Maybe it’s OK to not be defined at all.
This is unsettling, though. To experience this is not so much an unraveling, but more a loosening. I remember at the end of eighth grade, Celena and I used to walk the hallways with our arms wrapped around our stomachs in an attempt to capture those memories we made; fearful of what would happen if we let those memories — we called them butterflies because that’s how it felt — go.
Eighth grade is where we found each other. I was sitting on the soccer field just outside the boundary of the game, and I saw her shadow first. She’d blocked the sun and it was in that darkness she’d said, “Hey Callie, I’m Celena,” and of course we weren’t best friends immediately after that, but that’s how it felt. We just fit together. You drop a pat of butter into a heated pot, it swirls and sizzles, you drop the chopped onion and garlic, and then the sirloin you picked out all by yourself even though it shouldn’t be a big deal, you should’ve known how to do this decades ago, but here you are all the same now and it smells delicious and so you keep going, pouring in the beef broth, potatoes and rosemary, uncorking the wine, setting the table, slicing the bread, taking the pie out of the refrigerator so it’s at room temperature when you serve it, lighting the candles.
But it can’t stop there, with the smells and the color, the glasses and plates empty, two girls walking the hallways holding memories and themselves hostage. The meal must be eaten; those butterflies need to fly.
And fly she does, taking what she knows about the world and soil and sun and being coiled up in order to bust out — totally herself but different — into a new season.
My new friend — the one I anxiously call “best” — and I were talking about harmony the other day. “I love harmony,” she told me, though I knew that before she said it. Anytime she sings, she finds the harmony and sings it, and I hear something new about the song I thought I knew so well.
I remember my first time experiencing harmony. I was in a choir and one grueling Saturday practice, our director had separated us into three groups, each for the part we’d sing. We practiced our part over and over for what felt like hours until I thought I would die from boredom.
And then, she brought us together, lifted her conductor’s wand and with a slight flick of her wrist we sang, our parts intertwining with each other to make a perfect melody that otherwise would not have been created if it weren’t for the work each of us had done with no idea what it was we were about to experience.
I think that’s what our friends do for us — bring something out of us that we might not have the strength or courage to see if it weren’t for them. Perhaps “best” doesn’t describe it properly. Perhaps the right word is “true.” These friends bring out something true.
And those are the best friends to have.
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