This story might almost fit into my "St. Augustine sounds like a very cool place" series (thank you, Just Eat It, for the inspiration on THAT) or into other serial recollections of mine, but it's probably at home in any "wonderful things/small towns" category. However catalogued, here's a small, bright recollection that came to me this evening in such vivid color and immediacy that I couldn't put it into words past unexpected tears. It seems like a bridge between the now-archaic and the ever-changing present, and between a generation nearly gone and one still finding its identity.
I must have blabbed to everyone in the WORLD, all those years ago, about our wedding plans. In hindsight more people than I could have imagined were breathtakingly generous and kind to us, and we didn't expect it. In fact it was one of the reasons we chose to marry in a quiet, non-traditional way (we had lived together, we had un-traditional families, we had ye olde religious differences, etc. We didn't send wedding invitations because I didn't want people to feel compelled to give gifts. What an idiot I was, and how stupid about the grace with which humans bless each other, but never mind that, for now.) Invitations or no, people knew we were getting married and were kind beyond measure. In some cases we were overwhelmed by the kindness right up front but some things matured into beauty like wines preserved a century in careful cellars.
Eileen Ronan was a someone who turned up now and then at the Booksmith, and attended Mass at the Cathedral. I knew her peripherally. I thought of her as a nice lady. I had no idea she took any interest in my getting married, especially since I wasn't being married in a traditional way at the Cathderal where I sang every week. She must have been in her late 70s when I knew her and her mind was still like the edge of a knife. By her voice and her manners, I knew to be a non-native Southerner, though my guess was she'd lived in St. Augustine for a long number of years. I had the idea she'd been married to a diplomat; she made reference to having traveled in the course of her husband's work. By the time I knew her, it was clear he'd been dead for some time. It was equally clear that she loved him no less and would love him no less as long as she drew breath.
About a month before our wedding, she left a gift for us at the Booksmith. It was a copy of Southern Sideboards, a cookbook produced by the Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi. The gift of a cookbook wasn't surprising, but I did work in a bookstore, and this was NOT a book that could be bought in our store; she had gone to some trouble to acquire this gift. Since then, I've bought the same book as a wedding gift, passing along the kindness and gentle magic. But brides mostly haven't had any context for the gift beyond the convention - however passe it might be - of a cookbook as a fine gift for a new bride. (And sometimes the more practical gift of a check has been an alternative.) In some cases, I have tried to include an inscription more or less capturing Mrs. Ronan's sensibilities, almost certainly without success.
Tonight my dear old person and I were in the kitchen together and I happened to pull the book into our midst. I read aloud to him, and now share with you, the words Mrs. Ronan typed - with a typewriter! - and included with her gift. The typewritten page is folded into a plan white envelope and has been kept in the cookbook these long, happy years. This is what it says.
"Dear Angie & Rodney,
I wish you all the joys of a lifelong friendship and love and I know you will have them.
I know Angie is probably a splendid cook but I could only make chocolate cake and fudge when I was married. 'No problem,' I thought -- ' I'll just get a cookbook and follow the recipes.' But the cookbook doesn't tell you all the little nuances.
And of course I had to pick out the hardest recipe-- chicken cacciatore to start with. The recipe book said "Heat the oil' and I heated it to smoking. Then it told me to put in the garlic and of course it splattered all over the kitchen and me. 'Boil the chicken.' I boiled it fast and furiously and the more I boiled it the tougher it got.
But my dear husband insisted on eating it and pronounced it 'not bad'. That's true love.
Love and prayers,
As mentioned, I found myself unable to read the words out loud without tears breaking my voice. I hope "all the little nuances" touch your heart. As I consider the thing from the distance 20 years or more can provide, Eat Here would never have come into being without Mrs. Ronan and her gift and gracious willingness to bare her limitations as a cook and her clear-eyed passion for communications. In the understated style of the time she didn't say much about her husband, but in conversation her face lit from within when she spoke of him. So does the carefully typewritten page dwell inside the pages of my battered copy of Southern Sideboards.
What are your stories of unexpected kindness and open hearts? Do tell.