The wine bottles seemed to stare at John as if daring him to pick the wrong one. Choosing the right wine was always a challenge for him. That's why he normally left this chore for his wife, Claire. But it was tricky when he was preparing a meal for her. Then it was left to him to make the choice.
But John was prepared this time. He knew what wines Claire liked and he just needed to see which ones matched the meal he was preparing. He heard the liquor store door chime as another customer came in. This was a busy store, that irritating "ding" kept breaking his concentration. But this last sound actually gave him an idea.
Rather than make the wine match the meal, why not do the reverse? John would choose her favorite wine, then prepare a meal that fits it to a tee. He smiled at his ingenuity. His wife loved her wine. He recalled an evening long ago. They were seated out on the deck after one of her fantastic meals. They sipped their wine and she said, "I love you. I couldn't live without you."
He joked, "Is that you or the wine talking?"
She looked at him lovingly and replied, "It's me...talking to the wine." They both laughed and that became their inside joke. John felt that a couple that had inside jokes had a stronger bond. He remembered telling his daughter, Macy, that when she approached him about her first serious boyfriend. "Couples should have certain things," he had told her, "certain things that are just between them. Like an inside joke or something."
Macy retorted, "So there are things you two keep from me?" She seemed genuinely surprised, or was she teasing him? That was so long ago. John couldn't recall her intention, but he was sure of his answer. It would be the same today as it was then. "The best parents always have secrets from their children. But since you're serious about this young man, I'll tell you the biggest one. Good parents always remember they are 'husband and wife' before they are 'Mom and Dad.'" She had listened to that counsel. Macy always listened and respected her father even now.
But now, John would have to listen to her. He could not remember his wife’s favorite wine. Some people like sweet wines, some like dry wines. Claire liked all wines. She never overindulged and her interest was not excessive. But if you wanted the right wine for a meal, she was the one to go to for advice.
Again, it made his job difficult when the meal was in her honor and he can't rely on her expertise. So, John would do the next best thing. He turned from the shelf of wine bottles and walked out of the liquor store. The door chimed as he exited empty-handed. He would talk to Macy; she would know the answer.
2 The Visit
Macy was working in her garden out back when she heard the car pull into her driveway. She couldn't see the vehicle, but she recognized the sound of her dad's Range Rover. Macy had so many memories of taking trips in that truck. When the door slammed, she called out, "I'm back here, Dad." She wanted to save him the trouble of going up the few stairs to the front door.
"This garden is really beautiful." John began, "I never saw the benefit of a garden without vegetables. You can't eat flowers." He finished.
Macy smiled, "See, I told you the flowers would all bloom and fill out to dress up this side of the house." Her father had been with her when she purchased this place. There was not a lot of landscaping done at the time, but Macy saw the potential. She was glad that he was now seeing the results. "What brings you by today?" She asked this because her dad was not the type to visit for no reason.
She never doubted that her dad loved her, but he was not the visiting type. He loved having people over to the house. Her childhood was full of visitors. She may have been an only child, but she was never lonely. She was always having some kind of sleepover with her friends. Or her parents were opening their home to those needing temporary housing. So, to have her dad come out of his comfort zone, out of his mancave, and brave the traffic, something must be on his mind.
"You know me too well." John smiled. "I'm planning a meal for your mother tonight." He stopped to let that sink in.
Macy looked at him for a long moment and nodded as she said, "That's a good idea." She rose from her kneeling position and greeted him with a hug. She then walked her dad over to the backyard chairs. They both sat and stared at the flowers for a bit. Macy spoke first, "It would be good for you to have some friends over again. Growing up, the place was always full of guests and noise. And meals were always a big part of that."
John shook his head, "No, this will be for your mother and me, no one else. I'm all for a big group and all that. But first, I want to do it this way." He folded his hands in his lap in the way that Macy knew meant this was not a discussion but a declaration.
She remembered the first time she recognized that pose. That folding of his hands in his lap was final. She was eight years old when she first recognized it. She had decided that even though her parents had got her the exact bike she wanted; she wasn't going to ride it. It was too hard to balance it without the training wheels like her old one.
Macy remembered her father sitting on the porch next to her and folding his hands in his lap. He looked at her and said, "What will happen if you quit everything that's hard? You'll never accomplish anything in this life. Trying and failing doesn't make you a failure. It's when you quit trying that you become a failure. And no daughter of mine is a failure."
That was all it took to get her back on that bicycle. And by the end of the weekend, she was riding it along with the rest of the kids in the neighborhood! The wind in the trees brought Macy back to the present, she asked "So how can I help?"
"I can't remember your mother's favorite wine." He began again, "It hasn't even been a year since her... since she's passed, and I can't remember her favorite wine!" There was frustration in his voice as he stared at the garden.
"It's ok, Dad." Macy soothed, "it's understandable that some things don't stand out in your memory. The doctor even said you will experience that more and more..." She trailed off on this last part.
She was glad her father wasn't looking at her now. She wrung her hands in quiet desperation. The thought of her once strong and powerful dad being reduced to this. Losing his wife of over 40 years was unbearable. Now with the early onset of dementia, she knew it would only be a matter of time before he would move in with her.
That's why she wanted his opinion on buying this house so much. Macy sensed that he knew that. He focused on the fact that it was a one-story ranch without a steep driveway, "Easier for me to climb," he had said. This would soon be his home too. This special meal for his wife may be the last he prepares on his own.
3 The Dinner
Macy reminded John that her mother loved chardonnay. So, on his way home, he returned to the liquor store and purchased two bottles of expensive white wine. The clerk smiled as he welcomed him back to the store. "So, you found which brand you wanted, huh? You'd be surprised the number of customers do like you did and have to come back." The clerk said with an air of confidence.
The young man smacked his gum as he rang up the two bottles on the register. "You know, the chardonnay is the most popular white wine in America." He stated this as if he was answering the final Jeopardy question. "What are you pairing it with?" He asked with a jerk of his head.
Now it was John's turn to show his knowledge of wines. Actually, it was a test of his memory of Claire's knowledge of wines. It's funny, most of the time, every place reminded him of his wife. He recalled the restaurant where they had their first date and the cabin they went to when Macy was a teenager. All the sights and especially the smells flooded his mind with nostalgia and sadness.
But recently he's been having a hard time with the details. He wasn't sure if this was all bad. Sometimes his grief was so overwhelming that he couldn't control himself. His doctor had explained that Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia. And that he could expect things to get worse as time went on, but not today.
"White wines pair best with light-intensity meats, like fish or chicken." He could hear his wife's voice in his ear coaching him along on which bottle to choose. Was that only last year? It seems like a thousand years ago. He shook himself back to the present. "Yes, I'm having it with Szechuan chicken over rice- my wife's favorite."
The clerk gave him back his change and said brashly, "Let's hope the old lady appreciates you putting in the time to fix something she likes." When the old man smiled and exited the store with no response, the clerk realized his mistake. The old man must be a widower. The clerk frowned and shook his head at his own insensitivity, no longer feeling so smug.
John saw the path the young man was heading down. But he didn't have the energy today to apologize for someone else's ignorance. This will be a lesson in empathy for the cocky clerk.
He drove home listening to his wife's favorite song on the radio. So far, he could still find his way home. He hadn't gotten lost anymore since that first time. Still, Macy now insists he calls her once he gets home. Which he did and now it was time to prepare dinner.
He followed the recipe to the letter. John did not consider himself a whiz in the kitchen, but he could follow a recipe. He placed the chicken and cornstarch in a bowl and tossed each piece until they were coated. He heated the oil in the large wok over medium-high heat. He looked at the large pan and remembered asking Claire, "Why do we need a wok anyway and where are you going to store it?"
She had smiled and replied, "Right above the coats and boots. I've always wanted a 'Wok in closet'" This was another of their inside jokes and he smiled thinking of it as he cooked.
He then fried the chicken pieces and garlic. He stirred constantly until it was all the color of cinnamon. He then added the soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and water. He covered it, and let it cook for about 4 minutes until the chicken pieces were no longer pink inside.
Finally, he stirred in the green onion, cayenne pepper. He allowed it to cook uncovered for about 2 more minutes. The white rice was already prepared. The entire kitchen was thick with the aroma of the garlic as he brought the dish to the table. It was a simple setting. Two place settings with chopsticks, two glasses alongside the wine. And there was a single framed photograph of Claire.
John had carefully selected which photograph for this occasion. They had accumulated shoeboxes full of pictures. Macy had a plan to transfer them all to a digital format or store them in the cloud, whatever that meant. He had selected for this meal one of their wedding pictures.
The photographer had wanted a picture of the bride by herself, looking off into the distance. He wanted her looking ahead hopefully to an uncertain future. Claire had nailed it. She was naturally photogenic, and he always remembered that smile.
What a life they had shared together. John smiled as he reminisced over the decades. He said a prayer for the food. Took a sip of the chardonnay. He had picked the right one. Claire would be pleased. He looked longingly at her picture, that look she had of an uncertain future. He smiled, closed his eyes, and looked ahead to a “certain future.”