Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Hollandaise Theory of Life

A little before Christmas, I came up from New York and helped move Dad from the hospital into a rehab facility. With his usual optimism and determination, he intended to do extra physical therapy in order to be home with Monique and good scotch sooner than predicted.
Upon discovering that his room came equipped with an actual television, he asked us to find the PBS News Hour. As it happens, the PBS news hour is not aired 24 hours a day.
What was showing on that wintry afternoon was a vintage cooking show. The most vintage and venerable cooking show of them all. Julia Child, wise Francophile giantess with the mid-Atlantic vowels and a fearless way with a whisk.
What you need to know about a proper hollandaise sauce, and what Dad and I learned that afternoon from Julia Child, is that an egg yolk can only absorb so much butter, and no more. If the sauce is too buttery, you must whisk in another golden egg yolk, and when the sauce is too eggy, you whisk in more butter. Julia continues this dialectic, this dance of the ingredients, until the sauce has reached the perfect consistency and flavor, and then, as she would say, Bon Appetit.

In other words, Julia cooked as Dad ate. Confronting a selection of stinky cheeses after a good meal, he needed the accompaniment of a good red wine. And then like Julia Child, he kept ratcheting upward in order to maintain the appropriate ratio of wine to cheese. He performed this balancing act with meat and gravy, with salad and salad dressing – he was the only person I know who finished off his salad dressing with a fork - with meringues and whipped cream, with sardines and beer. What mattered was ending the meal in harmony, where all the food was finished and all were satisfied.

Is it too much of a stretch to say that he sought and achieved the same balance, of taste and texture, of meat and gravy, of savory and sweet, in his life? His first eight decades were spent building up his textile waste company, seeking sources of raw material all over the world – often in the kinds of places where he would be served rabbit heads for dinner, and yes, he appeared to enjoy it all, even the eyes, a delicacy. He worked hard because he loved his work. There was no occasion too random that he could not steer the conversation to possible uses for recycled fibers, or the price of Rainforest coffee, or the sugar quota. He started each morning with a Cheery Good Morning that was famous on five continents, and pored over inventory spreadsheets with his first cup of coffee.

Then at 80 he suffered his first stroke, and once it appeared that he would survive it, he settled in and savored the yin of life. With his constant traveling curtailed, he stayed at his beloved Orchard, he went back to his beloved Harvard and became a ‘Learner in Retirement’. And back at Harvard he enjoyed weekly lunches with the succession of (mostly vegetarian!) grandchildren who followed in his footsteps there. In his 9th decade he even read a few, - admittedly only a few, admittedly only those written by a close relative - books of fiction.

After 8 decades as an omnivore who generally declined dessert, in his 9th decade Dad developed a sweet tooth. He came to enjoy the tip-of-the- tongue sweetness offered at the end of the meal. He savored pear tarts, Tres Leches in Nicaragua, Cata’s apple pie, fresh honeycomb, chocolate chip cookies and ice cream with crushed brandy snaps.

He balanced the meal.

Even his death was the balancing act, manifesting of the Platonic ideal of Moderation in All Things, including Moderation. Having decided with Monique and his children that he was sick and tired of crises that meant being rushed to the ER and being painfully prodded with needles, Philip came home for good. He spent a week in state in his old bedroom. All five of us were there, every day, reading him the OpEds from the Times and poems of Yeats and Kinnell. Carl, he of prodigious memory, recited Robert Service. Dad listened to Maria Callas singing Verdi and Brigitte singing hymns. On his last day on earth he was visited by his dear friends from Central America, who brought him blessings and love from the coffee farm he so loved; and that evening he peacefully passed away surrounded by all his children, one intrepid grandson, and his still beautiful wife of sixty-one years.
The life is done. His plate was clean.


Rebecca Rice said...

What a funny and touching tribute to your dad! How lucky he was to have such a very good death.


Anne said...

Beautiful. I defy any reader not to have a tear in their eye and a catch in their throat. Bravo, Mr. Lehner...and brava, Christine, for sharing this with us.

Anne said...

Beautiful. I defy any reader not to have a tear in their eye and a catch in their throat. Bravo, Mr. Lehner...and brava, Christine, for sharing this with us.

Ellie said...

Thank you for writing this, Christine. Isn't it odd that death is so often an occasion when the lives of people encircling us are opened up? I am very sorry for your loss--and it is a joy to meet your father, who is very much alive here.