I’ve just lit a fire in the Victorian fireplace in our house: possibly the last of the season, although August and even early September can bring cold nights still in this Southern hemisphere and in Johannesburg in particular. I’m sitting at the dining room table, the warmth of the fire to my left slowly filling the room. From here I can see the lounge, lit in low lamplight, and from where Billy Holiday‘s idiosyncratic voice fills the air all around. To my left, the dining room is open to the kitchen, where I shall cook a solitary meal later. Nothing fancy. Lamb chops brushed with sumac and other spices, and a simple chopped salad with a lemon, garlic and olive oil dressing. No wine tonight. No bread either. I am, dare I say it? on a bit of a diet. Not something I have done in years and years. Luckily the Paleo fad serves my palate well: in the nearly two weeks I’ve been cutting down, I have yet to feel deprived. Difficult to give up wine and bread though. But here I am. By myself on a Friday evening, herbal tea at my right elbow, a fluted clear crystal vase of purple irises just opening further right on this table: feeling slightly whimsical.
My husband is playing the oboe tonight in an ad hoc orchestra at a classical recital by the world class South African soprano Pretty Yende: I saw her sing about two weeks ago and elected to stay home tonight. I had fantasies about tidying up my wardrobe, and doing some much-needed admin, but ended up sitting here, “thinking deep thoughts”: our in-speak about contemplating life. He will be home much later, looking rather smart and solemn even, in his dress suit and white shirt. His bow-tie will already be off and stuffed into the jacket pocket. I’ll be in bed.
Earlier I unpacked, from a pretty carry bag, a new pestle and mortar. I bought it at a quaint shop at 44 Stanley Road where I had lunch today with my oldest son. New but antique looking in style, it’s bigger than the other three which I have. As soon as I saw it there, I imagined goopy green pesto in it: basil, hand mashed and pounded, picked from my garden this coming summer. I am planning to have a lush green veggie and herb garden this year. I had moderate success with last summer’s crop, but have redesigned the space to incorporate a new raised bed for herbs and climbing roses. And four olive trees.
This is the house that I will probably grow old in. Maybe this realisation is partly the cause of the whimsy. That I, for the first time in my grown up life, am investing time and money and energy into designing and growing a proper vegetable and herb garden. I’ve always had pots of herbs, and smallish, and temporary veggie patches, which would I would tend for a season or two in previous houses and in previous relationships. It’s interesting when I think back: that my enthusiasm for cooking and gardening always started to wane as the relationships soured in the past. And I would gain weight. Not very much. I am hardly obese, but always carry about 5 or so extra kilograms. But when I am unhappy, that number creeps up.
Until I really thought about it, the fact that I am more than those 5 kgs overweight at the moment is strange, seeing that I have been really happy and satisfied with my life lately. When we went to France for my 50th almost two years ago, I gained weight from eating (and drinking) my way through Paris. I tried foie gras in every restaurant. My increasingly expanding bottom did not distress me too much. I thought that I would lose it all being back home, eating and drinking normal quantities.
But then my dad died. I was sitting in a really good restaurant with my then fiancée and two Parisian friends, having ordered the speciality of the day: a slab of rare rib of beef served with a good lengthways cut of bone with unctuous marrow and a butter sauce for the thick cut frites, when I got a sms from my brother saying that my dad was in hospital with organ failure. I don’t think I quite grasped the seriousness of that news. We had one full day left in Paris, and I decided to not fly out immediately, having spoken to my dad’s fiancée the next morning. She was optimistic and upbeat, which reassured me a little. Just two days before, I had sent him an sms from the bank of the Seine, telling him about the picnic we were having, drinking red wine and eating the best baguette ever, and ripe Camembert. She had replied, not saying a word about him being in hospital. He did not want anyone to tell me. My brother eventually smsed, knowing that I needed to know.
That last day in Paris was as grey as my mood: I felt listless as we walked across the famous bridge with thousands of lovers’ locks: Pont de l’Archeveche. When we walked across it the first time, we decided that we would go back there and make a romantic wish for us with a lock too, but I could not bring myself to. I wasn’t hungry either. Not very much. And the day after we arrived back, he died. I don’t know if my fervent whisperings were heard: he was unconscious and fever ridden when I eventually saw him, straight from the airport. I wish I could believe that he did hear me. At his funeral I spoke about how I had a sense that he would never hold in his hands the vintage copy of “The Old Man and the Sea” which I bought for him at Shakespeare and Co., and which I cannot look at on the shelf without crying.
I realised two weeks ago that I have been quite depressed since then. Even though I had in the mean time bought this house together with my beloved, and got married last year, and have entertained friends and family here at this table: all wonderfully happy events, I have been walking around with deep heartache: my body growing heavier with the weight of extra kilograms as I grieved. Eating too much, drinking too much wine per occasion: unconsciously trying, I think, to create a bodily bulwark against death. I was rather slow in this realisation(for the shrink that I am).
In a month it will be two full years since his death day. And in a month from now I should be back to my normal weight. And maybe then I shall be back fully in my life, a little more mindful of eating enough but not too much, having that health-promoting glass of red without finishing half the bottle as I cook before dinner time, which had become habit lately.
The Billie Holiday cd has run its course. The fire needs tending. I need another cup of that herbal tea. And a meal for one waits to be cooked. I feel lighter already. Almost unbearably so.