It has been 9 years since I have seen her, though I heard her voice just the other day. I actually hear her voice and feel her guidance often. When she died, my friend Sharon left me a lifetime’s worth of advice, connections, and community. As I maneuver through life decisions, disappointments, and celebrations, I often feel Sharon’s presence. But then I am not the only one who feels the echoes of Sharon’s love; she has had a lasting effect on everyone she touched during her life.
AN INTRODUCTION TO SHARON
Before her 3-year battle with ALS, Sharon danced through life creating community in her various worlds. She was a voracious volunteer, but everyone knew that Sharon’s family was her front and center. And the kitchen was the hub of her activity. Her home smelled of cookies, baked fresh for the after school ‘crowd’. Dinners featured family favorite recipes. Holidays were colorfully decorated festive food-filled events. You get the picture.
After she began to lose physical function, Sharon made many difficult decisions. Figuring out how to sustain certain family traditions was on the top of her list. Sharon’s priority was to continue filling her home with its usual energy. Replicating her home’s everyday kitchen aromas, sounds, energy, and tastes to capture memories for her sons was her most important goal.
CREATING FOOD MEMORIES
Sharon’s focus on her home’s ‘hub’ makes a lot of sense. Food memories have a strong influence on us not only because they involve all five of our senses but more because the context of the memories include our basic need for nourishment and our deepest emotional need for connection or satisfying our hunger-to-belong. Sharon had an innate understanding of the power and importance of food memories.
To achieve her goal, using both her tenacious spirit and her talent for bringing people together Sharon created an informal cooking club to imitate the hustle and bustle of her kitchen.
THE FAB 5
Our cooking club, coined the Fab 5*, worked something like this: We met twice a week, perhaps a bit more some weeks. Sharon picked out recipes that were family favorites. Sharon’s husband Wade capably and quietly controlled the ingredient inventory. With several recipes in the queue for each visit our best strategy was to divide and conquer. But at times, we shared the labor, one recipe at a time. Either way, the air was lively with endless chatter, and Sharon held court the entire time. From her wheelchair in the thick of the action, Sharon remained head chef. Using her boogie board tablet and a buzzer strapped to her wheelchair, Sharon did not hesitate to stop us in our tracks when necessary. There were specific mixing bowls to use for this or that. There were particular platters to use for plating the prepared food. Our dear friend knew what she wanted, and we were there to make sure she got it.
That is not to say, the Fab 5 didn’t question her at times. I clearly remember a question about whether we really needed to use a butter cutter. Sharon’s insistence that this is the only way that cut butter was going on her dinner table won that debate. There was also some serious questioning, given the complexity of the recipe, over the need to have anadama rolls at a holiday meal. You can be sure the rolls made it to the table. And there was a rather heated discussion about how to wash potatoes. “You wash with soap?” “Really, you don’t use a brush?” Unfortunately, the discussion about whether potato peels belong in a garbage disposal was a bit delayed and the garbage disposal choked. I also vaguely recall someone opening a bottle of wine – at Sharon’s suggestion – only later realizing the bottle chosen was a bit over the price range suitable for our cooking club. The bottom line is that Sharon’s goal of recreating the aromas of her home was met and she, in turn, gave an invaluable gift to each of the members of The Fab 5 – a community to satisfy our hunger-to-belong.
LEAVING A LEGACY
A legacy gives us the opportunity to live with purpose and intention. Sharon’s legacy has preserved long lasting food memories (and more) for her family. This was Sharon’s primary goal and she certainly acted with purpose and intention to reach it. Did she have a similar goal for our cooking group – or was that an inadvertent outcome? Sharon is not here to ask, but my bet is that she was intentional in her actions. We may never know what she was thinking but before our cooking club, the members of the Fab 5 were disparate friends pulled from different spheres of Sharon’s life. Now armed with our food memories from our time in Sharon’s kitchen, we remain connected nine years later.
I am honored to have been a small part of Sharon’s ALS journey. Despite the physical destruction this disease caused, my strongest memories of Sharon are not of someone who was incapacitated. She was a force of nature in life and throughout her illness.
Sharon once shared with me that she feared being forgotten. In my opinion, to be forgotten was never Sharon’s destiny, but her purposeful and intentional actions harnessing the power of food was her insurance.
Sharon’s legacy includes long lasting food memories for her family and many of her friends. The Fab 5 is one example of one community where Sharon’s impact will last a lifetime. We now know each other apart from Sharon so when the Fab 5 gets together we catch up on our individual lives. But we also inevitably end up talking about Sharon and the gift of time in her kitchen. Memories of Sharon, food and otherwise, are embedded in the fabric of our community.
*The cooking club had five members. Another friend that Sharon relied on heavily during this time could not attend our cooking sessions so became an honorary member. To be totally accurate, the name of our community has evolved into the Fab 5 plus 1.
Postscript: Many thanks go to Wade Appelman who took the time to talk with me about Sharon, his memories of The Fab 5 plus 1 and of Sharon’s dedication to keeping their home running ‘normally’ for as long as possible during her illness.