About three weeks ago, a friend of mine passed away. We met in sixth grade and were friends instantly. He lived down the street, so I used to walk to his house, open the door to his huge, jumping, slobbery dog, and then we’d settle in to watch a movie or eat a snack or whatever else we could find to do that day. We always listened to our favorite music. At school, I remember most the long hours we spent agonizing over making our sixth grade graduation slideshow perfect. Middle school brought passing notes folded to tiny squares in the hallway. 10th grade saw us competing to have the best poem explication in the class. After that, we grew apart a bit.
(Nothing like trying to write it down to remind you that, in some ways, our moments with our people can seem like a long string of afternoons, the ones you spend buried on the couch and in conversation, not really doing anything, but accomplishing so much. Those afternoons that turn out to have built you.)
When he passed away, I spoke with friends from my neighborhood I hadn’t spoken to in months (and even years). Our lives carried, at once, a horrible commonality. We circled disbelief, staring it down, trying to come alongside it. This is what they mean when they say that kind of news takes time to sink in. We passed the time remembering our friend. The time we spent together came back as quickly as I lost the friend who filled it.
I don’t know a lot of things. I don’t understand how a friend I knew well could become a stranger as we grew older, how memories I mull over when something I see calls them back cannot be communicated with the person animating them. But I’ve been in the kitchen all summer, and I do know this.
What we eat during those growing-up, life-building moments matters.
I’ve lost all the actual things my friend and I did when we spent time together. I can’t tell you what we talked about, what we argued about, how we filled our time. But when I remember him, I remember what we ate. Where we ate. What the kitchen was like.
He taught me how to make Rotel dip. We’d sit between a big bag of tortilla chips with our bowl of cheese dip and talk. About nothing, everything–I don’t know. But I do remember how his family always had a stock of cans of Rotel in the cabinet. I remember we’d cut off a block of Velveeta and put it in a saucepan on the stove. I remember mixing in the tomatoes and green chiles. I remember, to the left of the stove, was the microwave, which was where his family kept bread, which I always found a little baffling (and now find delightful).
I remember the day his grandfather was out around town and brought us back Wendy’s for lunch. I remember they had gotten the order wrong, and I remember that meal as the only time I have eaten a triple cheeseburger. I remember it had mayonnaise on it–another error. I remember sitting at their kitchen table, the bread microwave in view, eating with his grandfather. He was quiet, so we were, too. I remember telling my friend that memory when his grandfather died this year. The comfort it brought him, and the comfort it brought me to know my memory had two homes.
I remember catching up with him during a trip home from college. We hadn’t spoken in years. For some reason, we ended up walking around the new Trader Joe’s in Lexington, talking about cookie butter. We picked up a jar to share, took it back to his house, and had some on the back screened-in patio. We talked about how it would make us both fat because it was too good not to eat.
I have a lot of memories of my friend involving music, too–there’s something to be said for songs that play in our minds when remembering a certain person or time of life–but it’s what we ate that brings my friend to me most. Maybe it’s the sensory aspect of it, the textures, smells, and tastes, but it seems like it’s something more than that.
I don’t know how what we eat as we’re becoming ourselves turns into selfhood, but it does. I only know that if my friend and I hadn’t come to the table, I wouldn’t have those memories. I wouldn’t have some form of my friend and our friendship waiting for me anytime I want to pull the right ingredients together.
Sometimes cooking and baking feels tedious–the dinner we have to get on the table, the dessert we have to bring to an event. But I do it because I believe it matters. What we eat forms us and our memories. What we find at the table gives us something to hang onto when those who would usually sit with us are gone.
So when it shocks me that the person I most want to share the little details of who we were when we were little isn’t there to talk, I will return to the kitchen for the parts of us that will always be there. The us that will survive.