The goose, Steph's essay, and the mess

Long before we met, Stephanie was once bitten by a goose. I don't remember whether she was camping with her family, or on a field trip with her school, but in my memory of her telling me the story, she's quite young. She was feeding geese, and one came closer and closer, and Steph thought, "Well, this must be an extra friendly goose," so she held out a piece of bread. The goose snatched the bread in its beak, along with Stephanie's finger, and it wouldn't let go.

Steph didn't go into the details of how she got her finger back, but hearing the story many years later, you got the impression there'd been a battle and some blood. When she told me about it, she held her finger as if it still hurt, and added the moral of the story, "Geese look nice, but they're mean. Really, really mean."

* * * * * * * * * *

Going through some of her childhood mementos, I see that Stephanie won the "Music in our Schools Week" essay contest, according to a newspaper clipping that's undated and doesn't mention what grade she was in. For all the other listed winners, though, the clipping lists the students as 1st grade through 5th grade, so let's assume this was from elementary school.

Here's Stephanie's winning essay:

Music, by Stephanie Webb

Music is the singing of toads in a pond.
Music is the sound of a breeze through the trees.
Music is the one language that can be understood by all nations.
Music is a song that all the world can sing.
Music isn't notes.
Music isn't instruments.
Music isn't a song book.
It's much, much more than that.
Music is a way of life.
Music is a way of feeling.
Music is a sweet thing.
Music is a beautiful world.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sometimes I briefly wonder whether Stephanie would be mad at me for sharing such things, but I don't think she would mind. I hope she'd be proud, and I think her ode to music is quite good, especially for a little kid.

Other times I ask myself whether Stephanie would like this website, and honestly, I think she'd love it. We'd long ago lost the letters we'd exchanged after we fell in love, between her visit to San Francisco and moving there, but every time I wrote her a note — "Honey, working late tonight, I love you and I'll bring us Wendy's" — the note remained on her nightstand for months. So, yeah, I think she'd like reading all about herself and how much I love her, and that's what the website is.

I'm not sure whether she'd approve of the Shrine, though — that's the growing collection of the things she cherished, on shelves which now dominate the living room of our apartment. From the Afrin for her allergies to the unopened bottle of her favorite wine, the rack with all her favorite clothes, and her t-shirts and shopping bags tacked to the wall, there's nothing in the Shrine that isn't part of Stephanie's story. But I wonder sometimes whether she'd think it's a little too much. Kind of creepy, even? Hard to say.

To me, the Shrine is where my memories of Stephanie are stored. If that's creepy, well, she's not here to tell me it's creepy, so I'll never know. To me it's just sweet, like she was. There's a fairly large picture of her in the corner, clearly visible from my chair in the living room, and I look over at that picture often. It makes me feel better when I'm blue.

Some days I spend an hour standing at the Shrine, looking through the stuff on the shelves and remembering why each little item is there … but most days it's just five or ten minutes as I'm going to work or before dinner. It helps, so the Shrine will be there for as long as I'm alive. Like the rest of our apartment, though, it's not as tidy as it should be. Maybe that just adds to its authenticity, as neither of us was ever terribly tidy.

* * * * * * * * * *

On a vacation with some college friends, Stephanie once went to Memphis, where she saw Graceland but not the Grand Ol' Opry, since that's in Nashville. She told me several stories about her trip to Tennessee, and the one I remember clearest is that she was walking down the sidewalk with her friends when a drunken Rod Stewart impersonator burst out of a bar, in full Rod Stewart regalia. He briefly danced with one of Steph's friends on the sidewalk, before going back into the bar, presumably to continue the show. Who knew there were Rod Stewart impersonators? And isn't Rod Stewart a little too rock'n'roll for Memphis?

She also told me she'd visited the Pink Palace in Memphis, so of course I asked, what's the Pink Palace?

"It's the mansion where the founder of Piggly Wiggly lived." So of course I asked, what's Piggly Wiggly? I thought she was kidding or stoned, but no, Piggly Wiggly is a chain of grocery stores all over the Midwest and South. Being new to the Midwest, I knew nothing of Piggly Wiggly, but Steph educated me. It was the first grocery store where you could stroll the aisles shopping, instead of handing your shopping list to the grocer and waiting while he gathered everything.

And still, every time I drive by or shop at a Piggly Wiggly, I remember thinking Steph was pulling my leg. But no, the place is really called Piggly Wiggly. And it was founded in Memphis, and their piggy mascot is pink, so when Piggly Wiggly made its founder a millionaire, he built a Pink Palace in Memphis. You can't make this stuff up.

* * * * * * * * * *

In San Francisco, Steph was a bit surprised that Italian restaurants were expensive, because she'd grown up in Racine, a town where, she said, there were numerous Italian restaurants with good food at affordable prices. She took me to dinner at an Italian spot near the west end of the Sunset Tunnel; she'd heard that this place was good, and it was easy to get to on the N Judah streetcar, so we went, but her eyes widened when she saw the prices on the menu — they were double what she'd expected, more than we could afford, but we'd already waited and been seated, so we stayed and paid.

Racine is a smallish city, so I asked why it would have so many Italian restaurants, and she said, "The mob was pretty big in Racine." And at that, it was my turn to widen my eyes. Politically incorrect? Racial stereotypes? Or was she right? Years later, living in Wisconsin, we visited Racine often, because her parents still live there, and a few times Steph mentioned again that some of Racine's Italian restaurants had been known or widely believed to have been more about money laundering than fine dining. When I asked which restaurants and suggested we make reservations at one, she said this was long ago, and the places that she'd heard were Mafia-linked had all been closed for many years.

Steph said it, so it's either true or Steph believed it to be true, that organized crime once had a stronghold in Racine County. But curiosity compelled me to spend half an hour Googling to see what I could find about Racine's links to organized crime, and not much popped up on-line. No gory accounts of long-ago shootouts between cops and mobsters, or crooks on the lam who holed up in Racine. There are a few reports of old-time gang operations in Racine County, and a few from neighboring Kenosha County, but nothing particularly notorious. Maybe she was mistaken, but I can say this seriously, no sarcasm intended: She was rarely wrong about much of anything. So Google or no Google, I'd still wager she was right about Racine and the Mob.

* * * * * * * * * *

She liked reading newspapers, back when newspapers were still a thing. You'd put some coins into a mechanical contraption on the sidewalk, lift the lid, and take out a newspaper, and read it. That sounds hopelessly retro nowadays, but that's how people knew what was going on in America.

We read at least one newspaper, pretty much front-to-back, every day. Some days, we read two papers. If we were passing through a city, big or small, we always bought a paper and read it. When we lived in San Francisco, we bought and shared a Chronicle or an Examiner almost every day, and we frequently made a date of it — at a restaurant, at the beach, or at the park across the street, Steph and I would trade sections, sip some coffee or soda, and talk about the news as we were reading. It took an hour, maybe longer, and when you were done you were honest-to-goodness better-informed than before you'd read the paper.

We continued reading newspapers after we moved to Kansas City (The Star) and Madison (The Capital Times), but our subscription to the daily paper ended when the Cap Times switched to weekly publication some years back.

There's now just one daily paper in Madison, The Wisconsin State Journal, and it's a ten-minute read all the way through, with a conservative spin in a very liberal city. We don't subscribe, and rarely glance at it. Sometimes but not often, Stephanie or I would buy a copy of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which seems to still be worth the cover price, and we would share it at a restaurant or at the park.

Reading the news in a newspaper was better, I think — more informative than reading snippets from twenty different sources on-line, the way more and more people get their news nowadays. A newspaper tried, and a good newspaper succeeded, in giving you the news that matters. The internet gives everyone thousands of choices for getting the news, so newspapers are starving for ad money, laying off staff, reducing coverage, losing pages, and soon most of them will be gone. Meanwhile, more and more Americans are getting their news from shallow TV broadcasts or politically-slanted websites, leaving Americans less and less informed about what's going on.

* * * * * * * * * *

A few days ago, I rearranged some furniture for the first time since Steph died (unless you count shifting the shelves to create her shrine), and everything was kind of a mess. If it's OK to print things that might embarrass Stephanie, I can embarrass myself as well: this was the first time I'd touched the vacuum cleaner since Stephanie was here, and there was so much dust and accumulated floor-gristle that the vacuum made a loud boom and stank of melted rubber. It was a minimum of $120 to get it fixed, or $50 to buy a new one, so I ordered a new one from Amazon.

The new vacuum cleaner came yesterday, and I vacuumed today, and it's nice having the carpet a bit cleaner. Maybe I should vacuum more often. Maybe I should vacuum every couple of weeks, or once a month. Whatever normal people do.

Anyway, I'm tidying up for the first time since Stephanie went into the hospital last summer, and maybe this is the beginning of … "moving on." That's what everyone says I'm supposed to do, eventually, though I really don't want to and there's no hurry.

No happy endings

If this was fiction, I'd write it with a happier ending, but there was no happy ending for Stephanie and I. We were pretty dang happy all along the way, though — almost to the end. That's what matters, I think.

If Stephanie had lived even a year longer, I think the ending would have been a bit happier. I'd be able to tell you that she'd battled the prosthetics company, and forced them to finally build her a leg she could walk with; that without the crippling pain of her misfit prosthetic she'd been able to resume practicing with her new improved leg, down the hall, then around the block, then around the park, and finally all around the city, until she'd left her wheelchair at home and walked everywhere. I'd be able to tell you that we'd gone dancing to celebrate her leggy liberation. Can't tell you any of that, though, since that's not at all what happened.

In real life, the bad guys won. The prosthetics-makers were paid thousands of dollars for building a leg Stephanie couldn't stand on, let alone walk on, and Steph spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair. The kidney crew that regularly subjected her to inhumane, degrading, and dangerous medical care were completely immune from criticism and consequence, and Stephanie ended up dead.

Of course, we all know that there are no happy endings in life. Any time there's a happy ending, even in novels or movies where some couple kisses and marries and lives happily ever after, that's only the moment where the author decided to stop the story. We close the book, but if the story continued then the people would grow old with aches and pains and one would die and the other would be devastated, or maybe one would develop kidney disease and never have a chance to grow old. Either way everyone's dead at the end. That's the human condition. There are no happy endings here on Earth.

If you're lucky, though — and Stephanie and I were very, very lucky — you can find some happiness before the end. That's what we did. All our happiness came before the story ended, but there's no denying that Stephanie and I were happy together, very happy, for a very long time. Yeah, that's what matters. She had less happiness than she deserved and I had more, but there were huge amounts of happiness for both of us. We had a pretty good run. And then we had an ending that was anything but happy. Same as everyone else.

Stephanie's cheesy potatoes

This morning was just an ordinary shopping trip, and in my mind Stephanie was with me, which is also ordinary. She's with me everywhere I go.

Walking into the store, I grab a cart. In our early years she led the way, and when walking became difficult, she let me shop alone, or if she came with me she'd handle the cart; it gave her some additional steadiness on her feet. In the wheelchair era, I usually did the shopping alone.

Today I walked past the fresh leeks, and thought of her. Nowadays I never buy leeks, as I just have no use for them, but Steph added leeks to the shopping list on a regular basis. They're a key ingredient in her potato & leek soup, which was always quite good. And I'm thinking, I'm such a big dumb boy — I didn't compliments her on that soup as much as I should have, because a recipe full of potatoes was also full of calories.

What was I thinking? Stephanie liked her potato & leek soup perhaps more than I did, but it was good, and Stephanie made it, and she might have made it more often if I'd complimented it more enthusiastically. Mostly, though, I just said, "Thanks, honey, that was really good." She deserved better than that.

Still in the produce section, I walked past a giant bin of corn-on-the-cob, which was Stephanie's favorite vegetable. Corn in a can was a weak substitute for the winter months, but genuine corn was on the cob. Any time I wanted to put a smile on her face, all I had to do was pull an ear of corn out of the shopping bag and put it on the kitchen counter.

She had high standards for corn, and knew how to peel back the husk and evaluate the kernels to select the best corn in the store. When I started doing all the shopping, she taught me her skill as a corn whisperer, and the corn I brought home usually met with her approval. I so much miss her approval. If she was here, I would've bought four ears today (two for each of us), and Steph would've cooked them to perfection — she knew exactly how long to boil them at exactly the right setting.

She had me switch brands of butter, because she thought the generic butter didn't fully flatter the corn. To be honest, I was skeptical, but after a few ears there was no denying that she was right about the butter. She would serve the corn in our little plastic cob-shaped bowls with cob-shaped handles stuck into the ends of the ears, but today I didn't buy any. Haven't bought any corn since Steph went away, and I'll probably never buy corn-on-the-cob again.

Midway through the aisles, a little box of spaghetti stared at me. When I was a kid my family ate spaghetti often, but my mom wasn't really a great cook, and her spaghetti was never something to look forward to. I'd never had lip-smackin' good spaghetti until Stephanie made it for us — many, many times. Whenever I tried prepping a spaghetti dinner for us, lots of advice from Stephanie was needed on when exactly it was done cooking. Without her advice I'd never get it right, so without her, spaghetti is never on the shopping list.

Further down the same aisle, there's the macaroni and cheese — one of the few things Steph tried to make from scratch, and felt she'd failed. After several attempts using several different recipes, she concluded that she honestly preferred the processed, pre-packaged macaroni and cheese over any recipe. She liked Kraft and Annie's and Trader Joe's, and especially liked the "deluxe" packages that come with pre-mixed cheesy sauce in a tin-foil tube. Mac and cheese became a serious staple in our kitchen, because when Stephanie's appetite faded as it sometimes did, she could almost always eat and enjoy at least half a bowl of macaroni and cheese from a box.

In the "ethnic aisle," where the store stocks its selection of Mexican and Asian and Kosher foods, Steph frequently wanted Thai noodles. Along with some shrimp and some Asian spices and oils, she could turn those noodles into shrimp noodles — that's what the recipe card said, though we always called them scrimpy noodles. They got the "scrimpy" nickname from several years when we were dirt-poor, and Steph used only half the shrimp that the recipe called for. As our finances got marginally better, the scrimpy noodles got less scrimpy and more shrimpy.

The store carries two brands and four different styles of Thai noodles, and a couple of times I brought home the wrong noodles. The first time Steph said not to worry, but she thought the resulting bowl of scrimpy noodles wasn't quite as good as usual. Still, she blamed herself, not my noodle-selection. The second time I just marched right back to the store and traded the wrong noodles for the correct noodles. A dinner of Steph's scrimpy noodles was always a treat, but the recipe is complicated, and experience has taught that with any complicated recipe I'll screw something up. So I usually skip that aisle altogether.

In the frozen food section, Steph was with me today as I walked past the pre-packaged potatoes O'Brien, key ingredient in her cheesy potatoes. It's the same story as the potato & leek soup, only more so — we both absolutely loved Steph's cheesy potatoes, yet we didn't have that dish as often as Steph would've liked. While I was dieting (which was the last several years of Stephanie's life) we cut down on Steph's cheesy potatoes, from 2-3 times per month to 2-3 times per year. She wanted to support me in my weight loss, and even made a few batches with cauliflower instead of potatoes — a lot fewer calories and a little less flavor.

To be clear, I never asked Steph to make cheesy potatoes less often, or to make cheesy cauliflower instead; she volunteered it. Just as clearly, though, I should've insisted that we have cheesy potatoes as often as ever, as often as she'd like, and made with potatoes, not cauliflower. Going without helped me lose weight, sure, and at the time I appreciated Steph's kind gesture, but now the idea of Stephanie depriving herself just to be supportive of me, seems sad and short-sighted and stupid and wrong. Why should she limit her cheesy potato pleasure, just for me?

Waiting at the cash register, there are candy bars for impulse buyers, and a wide selection of refrigerated soda pops. Snickers was her favorite candy, and a Cherry Coke was her favorite soda, but after the diabetes diagnosis the candy bars weren't allowed, and Steph tried the Diet Cherry Coke but thought it tasted weird and wrong. "I'd rather have no Cherry Coke than Diet Cherry Coke."

I pay at the register. They bag the groceries. I push the cart to the car, put the bags in the back seat, and wish I was holding Steph's wheelchair for stability, as she slid into the passenger seat for riding shotgun. On the drive home from the store, I wonder what clever things she'd say. Back at the apartment, in the early years she'd help carry groceries into the kitchen, and in the later years she'd apologize for being unable to help, no matter how many times I told her that she had nothing to apologize for.

Always, Stephanie is with me, at least in my head. And always, I'm glad.

* * * * * * * * * *

1½ pounds frozen potatoes O'Brien (thawed)
1 cup chopped onions
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
½ teaspoon pepper
16 ounces sour cream
1 ½ can cream of chicken soup
¼ cup melted butter

Preheat the oven to 350°. Use the butter to grease a glass baking dish. Mix everything else together, thoroughly, and bake for an hour, or until the top is golden brown.

At the bottom of the recipe card, there's an additional note Steph wrote to herself, starting with the word "Hint:". Then there's a big blank spot where her handwriting has faded away from time and handling and grease, but enough words remain that her intent is still clear — she's saying that you can quick-thaw the potatoes O'Brien by pouring them into a big colander in the sink, and running warm water over the potatoes for 5-10 minutes.