Early Monday morning the College Kritter took off from Long Beach airport, joining a crowd of half-asleep college students dragging their turkey-stuffed bodies back to dorm rooms and bad cafeteria food. Perky, clean-shaven businessmen fell into the flying fold, hands gripping their third Starbucks of the day more protectively than their boarding passes.
Her purple suitcase really stands out on the baggage carousel, and likely an x-ray machine. It held items that rarely belong to a college student. The Styrofoam cooler box contained a pound of frozen raw, unpeeled shrimp, three individually packed salmon fillets, and a bag of leftover turkey. A new non-stick skillet with a glass lid served as a vessel for a container of Eurocream*, a box of rose-scented turkish delight, and a handful of Halloween candy her sisters generously donated to the worthy cause of feeding a perpetually hungry student. We bought her a sushi-making kit, resisting the urge to pack some sea-weed and a bag of Japanese rice, after all, she lives across the Bay from the best oriental food on the American continent. Curious to learn the secrets of preparing the feasts for people who once ruled the world, she borrowed Tito’s Cookbook, a compilation of stories and recipes written by the chef who prepared all the meals for the former president of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito.
Laid neatly on top was the Serbian folk attire, complete with the thinnest cotton undershirt, tightly pleated skirt, and hand-embroidered apron and stockings, on which Father spent a considerable amount of money. She is going to don it on the day of her final exam in Yugoslav Culture. It’s Berkeley. Nobody will give her a second glance.
She came into the house like a tornado, leaving behind a trail of debris. She usurped my spot on the love seat and buried the coffee table with her books. She gathered the eager Beasties and watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy, while we listened for nine hours to Howard Shore’s haunting soundtrack. She made me prepare the southern style bourbon-spiked sweet potato casserole I was trying to avoid, and made faces when she spied the Brussels sprouts intended for the vegetable roast. She took with her my Ipod earbuds which I do not use anyway. She coerced me into giving her a spring-form pan to make a cheesecake for her friends upon her return. She told me how she had lost her black, knee-length woolen coat, and all of a sudden I was reaching into the coat closet and giving her mine, without a moment of regret.
She planned her birthday meal on Sunday with the precision of a four-star chef. She went to our local Persian store to get the freshest salmon fillets. She chose baguettes and GruyÃ¨re for the French onion soup. She made creamed spinach and finished decorating the Torte Reforme, a classic Serbian chocolate cake made with four layers of cake and a smooth chocolate buttercream we made together the night before. She made sure I did not include peas in her favorite orzo risotto, but acquiesced to chopped mushrooms which she is learning to appreciate.
She made tea for both of us and we spent hours discussing her plans for the summer, for the next college year, and even for the summer after she graduates in less than three years. We talked about the books she had read and the movies that did and didn’t impress her. She urged me to watch the few episodes of Dexter that I have missed, promising that the latest one would be fantastic. I heard her exasperation about the manager of the cafeteria where she works part-time who cannot remember her name. I laughed when she recounted escapades with her friends. There are few occasions when tea tastes that good (and it has to be real tea, brewed properly, the leaves steeped for just right amount of time and strained, poured into the orange and navy tea cups). I cherish these magic moments when she breezes into our lives, bringing with her all the energy and indolence of her years, bursting with excitement and ambition. And I am grateful for when she allows me to hold her without scrunching up her face and pretending that it bothers her.
Every time she leaves, exuberant and impatient, she takes a tiny bit of my heart with her. I picked up the clothes she left on the floor and found a place for the “Cal” drinking glass and hairbrush she had forgotten. I put away all the card-playing paraphernalia, the notebook, the pen, and the double set of Piatnik cards she had bought for us as a present, smiling as I looked at the scribbled pages, remembering all the wonderful moments we spent playing whist for four nights. I was not rushing in my task of ridding the house of the clutter she made, finding her presence even in a purple barrette that had fallen under the coffee table, an empty deodorant bottle she was too lazy to throw away, and a half-opened jar of Serbian honey sitting on the counter. I was trying to keep alive as long as I could the smell of her hair and the feel of her smooth, cool cheek against mine as she was saying goodbye, already thinking of her classes and the fencing meet later that night.
I tried to overcome my usual modus operandi which is to wallow in sentimentality for two or three days, only because I knew that she would be home in three weeks, right after her finals. That is not too many days to count. As long as she wants me to be a part of her life, I will cry silently at night, as Mother had cried for me, but I will always encourage her to spread her wings and go as far away as her dreams can carry her.
But as brave as I was on Monday, I did not feel like cooking an inspirational meal. I found two turkey legs that she did not take with her back to Berkeley, and a container of leftover orzo risotto. I dragged Father from his spot on the couch, knowing he craved some action, gave him a knife, a vegetable peeler, and a bunch of vegetables to roughly chop. It took some time for his surgeon’s hands to get acceptable results from the medieval tools he was asked to wield, but when everything finally hit the pot, the kitchen was enveloped in the smell of comfort, security, warmth, and love. As the soup simmered on the stove, I bid farewell to November and sent my Kritter a big kiss. I know that it has to fight the fog of the Bay and the wind off the Pacific, but it will find her smooth, cool cheek one of these nights, and she will smile and, I fancy, think of me, even if just for that moment.
*Eurocrem is Serbian-Italian product similar to Nutella
LEFTOVER TURKEY SOUP (TO HEAL YOUR SOUL AFTER YOUR CHILD GOES BACK TO COLLEGE)
- 2 Tbsp sunflower oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 medium carrots, chopped
- 2 stalks celery, chopped
- 1 poblano pepper, de-stemmed, seeds and veins cut off, diced
- 1 turnip, peeled and chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 Tbsp tomato paste
- 5 cups chicken or turkey stock
- 1 cup tomato sauce
- 2 leftover turkey legs, roasted (or leftover chicken parts)
- any leftover roasted vegetables (Brussels sprouts, potatoes, sweet potatoes)
- ½ cup peas
- ½ cup frozen corn
- 1-2 tsp salt
- ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
- 1 cup leftover cooked pasta (I used orzo risotto)
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
Heat the oil in the soup pot on medium temperature. Add the onions, carrots, celery and poblano pepper and sautÃ© until soft and translucent, 8-10 minutes. Add the turnips and garlic and stir for another minute. Mix in the tomato paste and pour the chicken stock and the tomato sauce. Turn the heat on high, and when it boils, add the turkey legs and any leftover roasted vegetables. Turn the heat down and simmer for 45 minutes. Add the peas, the corn, the seasonings and pasta. Cook for another 15 minutes and serve sprinkled with chopped parsley.