It's one of those fall days that, thanks to climate change, come too rarely these days, even in the mountains. The air is crisp. The sky's a brilliant, almost piercing blue. The clouds are not only puffy, but actually white. The still-copious leaves on the copper beeches at the top of the ridge glow in the sun like points of flame. It's the kind of day that makes it hard to go inside to the office and write. It's especially the kind of day when it seems particularly cruel to think of death.
Her name was Jeri, and she was my mother's first cousin. We never met, so I did not know her in the way one knows those encountered face to face. From phone conversations, however, it was clear she was a woman of grace, courage, and strong opinions. Now, months after the event, I have discovered that she died. I knew she'd been ill with one thing or another for years, but the news was still a shock.
Both my maternal grandparents had several siblings, so there were many cousins, some of whom lived nowhere near, several of whom were the offspring of much older or younger siblings with whom my grandparents were not especially close. Jeri fell into both those categories. In fact, I'd never even heard of her until long after my mother's death, when another cousin, met through Ancestry, mentioned her and provided a phone number. When I called, Jeri was appropriately cautious, but we discovered shared interests - family history, politics, and (most importantly) food.
All the cousins in Mother's generation seem to have shared two traits: beauty and cookery skills, and Jeri was no exception. The beauty part was clear from photographs we exchanged. As for the cookery? When she learned Robert and I enjoy afternoon tea on special occasions, Jeri began to send us sizable boxes of homemade treats. Poppy-seed cakes. Cookies of various kinds. Chocolate-covered cherries. Each box would hold enough for several teas, and everything she sent was fresh and of professional quality. Over time, I learned that Jeri loved to bake, in fact viewed it as one of her life's most important missions to share her kitchen's output. Like many prolific bakers, she had more than one stove, each serving the needs of different types of food. From her crowded kitchen she supplied food to the Scout troops of her children as they grew up, the various women's committees of her church, her husband's business entertainments, political fundraisers, and fellow volunteers with whom she worked on community projects. Sitting here, thinking about it, it seems to me that, over the decades, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people ate Jeri's cakes, pies, cookies, candies. Her talents touched many people, and she never stopped using her abilities to benefit others, even when she had to nurse two of her adult children who, one after the other, suffered lengthy, ultimately fatal illnesses, even when her body at last began to give way to a combination of ailments.
Now, her warm heart is stopped, and the hands that measured, kneaded, sliced, chopped, mixed, shaped, and performed all the other tasks necessary to make the unending parade of food that she produced are stilled.
That loss of individual capabilties has always seemed to me the biggest waste represented by death. Each of us not only has unique skills but performs them in unique ways to produce unique results. No one else has ever shaped a pie crust's lattice in just that way, or peeled an apple so carefully that light can be seen through the skin.
Now, Jeri's skills are gone too, dust to dust, as they say. There will be no more of the special chocolate-covered cherries, for no one else will ever again be able to do exactly what she did. Given the limitations of our acquaintanceship, that disturbs me to a surprising degree.