Here we go, Dear Readers. Serious thoughts ahead. You’ve been warned …
To give you an idea of how my mind has been operating recently, I had an idea for a blog post over a month ago. It was going to be called “On Midlife Crises and the Persistence of Real and Imagined Memories.” I know that was going to be the title because I knew that those words would slip out of my mind unless I wrote them down, so that’s what I did. The post was mostly going to be about several guys who I knew in my 20’s who recently contacted me out of the blue within a few months of each other, over twenty years since I last saw them. The other inspiration for that post was going to be how I’d recently been reflecting on the memory of an experience I’d shared with my best friend when I was in college (and which I was about to share with the world on a podcast episode). I was feeling melancholy and reflective, wondering why all of these 20-year-old memories were bubbling up to the surface, and thinking about how much our memories of people might not reflect the reality of who they are now … or even of who they were at that time.
That was going to be the main focus of the post, but if I had the time and patience I could have fleshed out those thoughts even further by expanding the scope of “real and imagined memories” to include several notable instances within my own family in which someone (my mother, my grandmother) spends a lot of time in her retirement thinking back to events that took place decades earlier and reinterpreting history to reflect the way they WISHED things would have happened. And then I have a conversation with that person in which I end up giving responses of, “No, I don’t remember that taking place because I was two months old at the time” or, “No, that’s not the way that happened at all. I remember exactly what you said, and what you said had such an impact on me that I’m going to remember that statement for the rest of my life. But what you’re saying now is the total opposite of what you said then.”
I was also going to write about how hard it is for me to fall asleep at night unless I’m listening to people talking, because otherwise my mind tends to re-create old conversations that I had months or years earlier and I can’t fall asleep because I’m getting so emotionally caught up in conversations THAT ALREADY HAPPENED. I re-imagine, I re-think, I come up with new things to say that DON’T FRIGGING MATTER BECAUSE IT’S TOO LATE TO CHANGE ANYTHING. I used to get so caught up in these imaginary conversations that I would end up lying awake in bed for hours until I cried myself to sleep. So as a defense mechanism I’ve spent years listening to people talk as I fall asleep. When I lived with my family, I would put on side 2 of George Carlin’s Class Clown album before I went to bed (for those of you who don’t happen to have the LP on hand, side 2 started with “I Used to Be Irish Catholic.”). After I moved out, I would leave the TV on and set the sleep timer, or listen to talk radio, or listen to podcasts. All to give my brain something to focus on other than memories of my own past.
Like I said, I was feeling melancholy and reflective. I was building up these thoughts in my mind so that I could formulate them into a blog post. And then just before I was about to record that anecdote about my best friend (who, full disclosure, is no longer my best friend since our relationship broke apart in college), I found out that two people I’d known for decades had suddenly died within a few days of each other. And suddenly my melancholy mood deepened, and my previous deep thoughts seemed mundane in comparison.
So let’s talk about death, grief, and comfort food. Which are new deep thoughts that are still connected to my old deep thoughts.
Well, death and grief are obvious topics. I can go for years without going to a single funeral or memorial service, and then suddenly I was going to several services in one week. It was also the first time I’d ever been to a funeral for someone who wasn’t a member of my own family (the way it works in my family, anyone could come to a memorial service but only family members went to funerals). I spent the time that my boyfriend and I were driving to and from the church and the cemetery keeping silent rather than speaking the thoughts that were fighting for space inside my head:
- Jeez, you’d better cry when *I* die!
- If you die first, I’m going to be absolutely devastated.
- You know, it would probably be better if we both died at the same time so that neither of us would have to live without the other one.
- If I say that thought out loud you’re going to accuse me of jinxing you and then we’re going to plow into a tree.
- So I’m not going to say anything.
I’m sorry, Honey, but that’s what I was thinking while I was staring out the car window.
I felt like a rug had been ripped out from under me, and I spent weeks talking to friends and coworkers who felt the same way. I spent a lot of time tuning out my own thoughts so that I wouldn’t burst into tears while I was at work.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the things I’d done in the past to help me get through periods of grief in my life, like my parents’ divorce, several breakups, and the death of my last cat. Some of my methods involved my brain — I would watch marathons of TV shows that would usually make me laugh out loud (the Mary Tyler Moore show for big breakup #1 and Mystery Science Theater 3000 for big breakup #2). While I wasn’t up to laughing yet, these shows would chip away at the numbness that was wrapping itself around my head and my heart, and start to thaw me out one degree at a time. I would talk to my boyfriend (when I had one) and my friends. I would go on long walks and look at beautiful scenery. I would try to occupy my mind so I wouldn’t spend all my time wallowing in a state of depression.
My other method for dealing with grief involved food. Making food, buying food, and (quite frankly) devouring food. Back in the day, Baskin Robbins had a specialty flavor called Cappucino Chip, and that flavor was my undoing. When I still lived with my parents (or later, with my mother) and things got tough, I would walk to my local Baskin Robbins store, buy a pint of Cappucino Chip, and come home to eat the whole thing in one sitting. Years later, after I’d left home and moved in with my then-boyfriend, when he was at one of his lowest points and I was finally seeing the full depth of his anger (he had just put his fist through a wall), I walked out of the apartment and kept walking until I found a Baskin Robbins. I ordered a chocolate ice cream soda and finished it, crying, in front of the bewildered staff.
I don’t mean for this post to be one big plug for Baskin Robbins, and I’m not saying that eating ice cream when you’re upset is the RIGHT thing to do. I’m just saying that sometimes when your soul needs comfort, your body’s response is to hunt down some comfort food to try to fill the void of unhappiness with things that satisfy your primal brain, like fat and salt. When I’m sad I find myself buying chocolate, ice cream, Doritos, bacon, chicken and stuffing, turkey meatloaf smothered in gravy, etc., etc., etc. …
After we spent that week going to funeral/memorial services, my boyfriend came back from a shopping trip and mentioned that he’d bought me some heavy cream for my coffee. Which stopped me in my tracks. Because while it’s true that I need half-and-half in my coffee on a regular basis, I only have heavy cream in my coffee when there’s some left over from a recipe. The only reason he would buy it just for me, just for my coffee, is to try to comfort me. To try to ease the pain in my soul by treating my body to a rare indulgence.
When I told my boyfriend that I was going to write a post called, “On Death, Grief, and Comfort Food,” he replied, “That sounds like that play we saw.” Which was a more charitable interpretation than “that play you dragged me to,” because Love, Loss, and What I Wore was definitely written with a female audience in mind (there were only TEN guys in the audience the night we saw the show). But yes, it’s a similar principle. Food, like clothes, can bring back specific memories and can turn back the clock so that we can transport ourselves back to a happier time.
At least in our minds, at least for a little while.