I have always wondered about wakes and funerals, death in general, and how so many people seem to eat and drink so much during these affairs. At least they do in tv and film. Who can forget the great scene from the first season of True Blood with Anna Paquin’s house being filled with the whole town and their dubiously prepared “comfort food?” Everyone wanting to condole but really just desirous to see the murder scene, to see her grieving…what would Sookie do? Oooooo! And then she flipped out because someone was eating GRAN’S PIE!!!! It made for great television! I was on a short-lived tv show for a few episodes called “The Black Donnelly’s,” and the very first day I shot, the scene was a traditional Irish wake. In a bar, naturally. I had never been to a wake, but luckily I take direction well. To be honest, the only funeral I can remember is my stepfather’s when I was a kid, which I talk about in https://gratuitousgrub.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/i-would-like-the-disaster-please-with-a-bottle-of-sancerre/
I know I went to more. Hmmm….My Jr. High guidance counselor, I guess. A good excuse perhaps to how I have turned out, my guidance counselor bit it early on. And then there was my Dad’s great friend and colleague from the college. That was sad. Honestly I couldn’t wait for the damn thing to be over. I hate all that stifled crying and stiff upper-lip shit. If we are having a proper lamenting of the passing of the dead, why not throw yourself around wailing, like you know you want to do, inside. That would have made me much more comfortable. But then, it wasn’t about me. I remember grabbing a bottle of wine from the open bar and high tailing out to the side door with my mom and and my husband. None of us wanted to do the whole “talking to people” thing. Not without some liquid courage at least. Some of those people I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, mostly faculty that taught with my dad. A bunch of college professors I had known since birth, milling about mumbling kind words and memories, pretending they felt just enough to care but not enough to shed a tear. It was horrifying. In a sadistic turn of events, the funeral was held, no joke, RIGHT NEXT DOOR to the house my dead stepfather’s parents lived in. We stood, my mom and I, in the grove between the two forest-enclosed memory factories, clutching our open bar cabernet, staring in dismay at the situation and then could not contain our laughter. It was ridiculous. Life was ridiculous. Death, though, was even more so. Or at least the traditions that surround it are.
You may wonder why I am waxing nostalgic about funerals and such. Whilst I do admit that this subject comes up on occasion, here at Gratuitous Grub, I do however have a purpose and intention for my dismal edge. You see, my Grammie just died.
The story of her demise and the journey I traveled to attend this macabre event can, in itself, be told in the food. And the drink. Lots of the drink. I received my mom’s phone call that my beloved Grandmother had had a stroke at an ungodly hour in morning. Like 8am or something. I knew before I answered that it was bad news because if anyone knows not to call me before noon, it is my mother. There is something so amusing though about how the stroke went down that I smile just thinking of it now. You see my Grammie loved Chinese food, and she had cajoled my mom and stepfather into taking her to brunch at the China Buffet up on the hill between Prescott and Prescott, Valley. Grammie loved food, but she was feisty and discerning and a buffet suited her nicely. As a woman raised during the Great Depression the concept of “All you can eat” was deliciously thrilling. I remember being at a buffet with her once as a kid. She had brought an extra purse. I wondered why she carried two purses…well made me carry one…but then she started stuffing rolls and butter packets into her bag. Anything that wouldn’t soil her handbag she wrapped in napkins and tucked away. This was a particularly good lesson I learned and used later in my life when I was literally a starving actress in New York City.
So Grammie had gorged herself on the buffet. Interestingly, I was given her handbag by my mother, later in the week. It was full of tissues and lipstick but no spring rolls wrapped in napkins. This was to be her last meal. Perhaps, somehow, she knew this. In the Walgreens parking lot she suffered a severe stroke and luckily they were just two minutes from the hospital.
And so it came to pass that I scrambled to get “emergency orders” from the military. Although we are civilians we qualify for this luxury and after a kind but honest discussion with the nurse over the phone I knew it was only a matter of time. Amazingly, I was booked a flight, or rather several of them, within 48 hours of my mom’s phone call and before I could say “can you pour me another glass of wine please?” I was off to Tokyo. On to LA and finally landed in Phoenix where I was met by my incredible father whom I had not seen since I had moved to Japan five years prior! It was a hug like no other and our usual rapport picked up where it always does, on the phone or Skype, but now it was in person! And he had a lovely surprise for me lined up.
Carlos O’Brian’s Mexican Restaurant!
As a kid through my teenage years Dad and I would drive down to this splendid cantina before going to the independent movie theatre to watch foreign or obscure films that weren’t shown in the duplex of my hometown.
Every time, EVERY time we would order the “A Little Bit of Everything in Miniature” sharing platter which gave us each a mini version of tacos, flautas, tamales, enchiladas etc. I think we were both excited about it. It was heaven. Just me and my dad, talking’ ’bout movies, eating mexican food, drinking margaritas, enjoying the camaraderie and love that is special only to us. I was truly happy.
The further we drove north, toward my dying grandmother, the more that happiness evolved into a nervous dread. I was gagging for a glass of wine somewhere around Cortes Junction. By the time I was at my mother’s house and in her arms I was trying to control my tears. Tears of joy to be with the ones I loved, tears of exhaustion from my 24 hour journey, tears of dread to have to sleep in my Grammie’s room, and tears of mourning for a person who has not even died yet. And yet to my surprise my blessed mother and my stepdad, Ben, pulled out a lovely bottle of wine and told me just to sit. Drink. Hug. Ok? Ok.
I spent a glorious hour with my Grammie the next day. I fought back the tears, I sang songs to her, she was so happy to see me even though she couldn’t say so as she was on a breathing tube that was keeping her alive. That and a bag of water-looking nutrients jammed into her paper like skin. “That was her breakfast,” I thought. “Mom made me turmeric eggs and tomatoes, but this is what Grammie eats. Nothing but fluid she can’t even taste.” I immediately ran to the bathroom and threw up. When I returned I had a few brief moments of lucidity with her. I told her I loved her for the umpteenth time and she squeezed my hand and looked into my eyes and nodded. Then the doctors came and interrupted us and I saw her Grammie-ness slip away. She had held on for me to come. She was done. Still alive technically, but done.
For the first time since I was in college, I think, my mother, father and I sat down to meal together. We Genovese’s Italian, sweet little cafe that had been around since I was in high school. My mom and I had frequented it then and it was hilariously obvious that she still made it a regular stop in her week when the very attractive, strapping (no really that is a good word for him) young guy came by and said “Hey Connie, red wine?”
This began a week of eating and drinking, drinking and eating that I will remember for the rest of my life. I ordered prosecco. Two splits. Mom had a few red wines. Dad made fun of us, saying “Jesus you guys drink a lot of wine.” He sipped his sparkling water and I had a distinct feeling that there was a subconscious, slight envy that had settled in the back of his brain. Grammie’s situation reminded him of his own mother and his own mortality. He could have indulged as we did, but he is always put together, my father. I swear he should have been born an upper class Englishman in the Victorian era. He would have excelled at it. Mom and I are a little more splashy with our lives. We tend to do what we want to when we can, and at that moment, I could and would have me another prosecco.
Dad popped off to his friend’s house after that leaving my mom and I to discuss the inevitable. The “pulling of the plug,” as they say. I knew this was something that my mother did not want to deal with but I had made up my mind that Grammie was gone. So I dragged mom (oh sure, kicking and screaming, you know) up to the old bar that used to be a brothel, The Jersey Lilly. Named after Lilly Langtry, one of the most famous actresses of the old west, and one of my personal heroes, I had spent a lot of time in this bar every time I came home. It has a devastating view of the courthouse square and easy going bartenders. As I plied her with wine we came to the consensus that tomorrow was the day. Wine had never tasted so bitter. And so appropriate. I was beginning to understand this whole “wake” thing. We were already grieving. We started our wake.
That morning I woke up with the terrible anxiety of what was about to occur. It was 2am. I poured some wine and sat in my mother’s living room, trembling with anticipation. This was to be the worst of it, I told myself, as I sipped at the fabulous glass of my favorite wine Arizona Stronghold’s “Tazi.” Eventually my mother awoke and eventually we put on clothes. Eventually we walked out the door and eventually we signed the papers, said goodbye to a shell of my Grammie and walked away.
And the worst WAS over. We went to The Gurley Street Grill and sat in a dark booth with our wine and gluten free burgers. The food was so divine but I could barely eat. The next day we decided to do an official “wake” which to us meant brunch at the Peacock Room at the Hassayampa Hotel. We both had eggs Benedict and mimosas. I was beginning to see a theme here. Throughout the week my friends took me out, stuffed me with food, got me drunk on cocktails, mead and shots.
One friend, Valerie, whom I hadn’t seen since JR. HIGH SCHOOL took me on a crawl of all the cool new, trendy bars that had blossomed in my little hometown in my five year absence, including an amazing place run by her husband called The Point that made cocktails that made my head nearly float into the ether. If I had been able to down more I might have actually run into Grammie up there! And a little group put together by my dear, majestic friend Rachel at El Gato Azul…well what can I say? I was pretty spiffed by that time, but the music, which was her husband’s band, was amazing and I am assuming everything we imbibed was tremendous considering I don’t quite recall the ride home. No matter. It was beautiful, glorious life that greeted me in each of these establishments and even in my mother’s own home! Friends lifted my spirits (and my family’s as well) through song and laughter and happy memories of our living lives. We ate, we drank, we made merry ourselves, as Dickens would say. There was nothing for it but to do so. People didn’t care if I had to unbutton my jeans because I had had too many tapas or if I stumbled a bit when I went up the stairs. We were celebrating life. And there I found my community coming in during a death, but unlike Sookie Stackhouse in True Blood, I don’t think anyone was there to see the freak. Well, they were there to see the freak, but because they loved her. Me.
Food and Drink are a manner of expression. My Grammie didn’t have a funeral because she didn’t want one. She probably felt the way that I do, that funerals are forced, unnatural. She wouldn’t want my mom and I wearing pantyhose and black dresses and some fuss made by some preacher she didn’t know. She knew better and that is why she put it in her will. She was 91 years old. She had been through many deaths. She knew what was needed. What one really wants to do is drown their sorrows a bit and remember all the good times. So we ate out just about every meal and toasted every damn drink to her name. She would have loved it.
In the obits they always say people who have kicked the bucket are “survived” by their relatives. I think this is an insulting thing to say about the dead person, as if they did something wrong, they tortured their loved ones. It also demonizes death as something to be survived, as if we, my mom and I, had to claw tooth and nail to get out of the clutches of the grim reaper as it swooped down and hovered around Grammie in the last few days of her life. Perhaps it felt like that at the time, but it doesn’t now. In fact I would like to say that she is “thrived” by her family instead, for that is what we endeavored, without even knowing it, to do once she had gone from our lives. We went out there and took a giant bite out of life, chewing slowly, swallowing glutinously and asking for more. More food, more wine, more LIFE. As “Auntie Mame” says in the film “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” And Grammie certainly never starved at life’s banquet.
A BIG THANK YOU to the following establishments who’s food and beverages, atmosphere and hospitality helped my family THRIVE during this time of loss. If you are in Arizona please take time to enjoy these wonderful places!
Carlos Obrien’s in Phoenix http://www.carlosobriens.com
Genovese’s Italian Restaurant Prescott http://www.genovesesrestaurant.com
The Point Bar and Lounge Prescott https://www.facebook.com/thepointprescott
El Gato Azul Prescott http://www.elgatoazulprescott.com
The Jersey Lilly Saloon Prescott http://www.jerseylillysaloon.com
The Gurley Street Grill Prescott https://www.facebook.com/pages/Gurley-Street-Grill/190965994271565
The Hassayampa Prescott http://www.hassayampainn.com/default-en.html
Arizona Stronghold (I didn’t go to a location, just bought a case of their amazing wine!) http://www.azstronghold.com
And a GIANT THANK YOU to the United States Air Force for getting me “home” to be there for all of this!