Sweet Basil

Or, Belated letter, cont’d.

July 2, 2013

When I tell you that my dad is one of my heroes, you musn’t think that we had an easy relationship, or that we were one of those enviable father-daughter duos who hang out together enjoying similar things effortlessly, with giant smiles on our faces.  Not hardly.  We did love a lot  of the same things–dogs, horses, books, strawberries, sunshine, winter, farms, ideas, sciences, walks, camping, gardens, Mom, my siblings–but we fought about most of them almost endlessly.

My dad was an intense, difficult person.   Maybe so am I.  I was as a teenager and college kid, that’s for sure.  (Still am intense, probably less difficult; sometimes wish otherwise on both counts.)  I didn’t really realize how close my dad and I were for a lot of our shared time on earth together; I didn’t see for a long time how similar.  I loved him, yes; also he drove me to distraction.   I’m sure that went both ways.   Which is all to say that we were more like matches and gasoline put together than we were like bread and butter.

But as contentious and fraught as our relationship often was, he’s still one of my big heroes.  I was thinking about why for some character work that’s tumbling around  in my brain with all my other summer thoughts last night.  (Make a schedule w/ PM on split on Sunday; put in Sysco order; put in ice cream order; Lipari order due by 5; how long on that pizza?;  GET MORE FRIES!!; when will more fringed purses arrive?; FORGOT TO ORDER CHIPS, how could I????; what about credit cards?; Cole slaw goes with the fish baskets at table six; ask Laura if she reimbursed herself for those apples and walnuts; it’s so great Micah’s here and I love Espy; what time are those people coming for that cookie order tomorrow? water the plants, etc.)

He’s a hero a lot of reasons, I decided.  But a big one has to do with sweet basil.

Either I or my brother Mark introduced Dad to basil late in life, at a point when a lot of people might be done taking on new flavors and ideas; might have decided they already knew what foods they liked, what hobbies, what vegetables and flowers they wanted in which rows in their garden.  Not Dad.  At seventy-ish, with serious health problems, from a background that could easily have led him to take a narrow view of things in life but didn’t (not with him or his many brothers or sisters), Dad fell in love with basil.   He started growing it in his garden, the largest and healthiest basil plants I’ve ever seen anywhere, and started making his own pesto, getting Mom to bring home parmesan and olive oil and walnuts from the grocery store.  I can see him right now at the food processor in the farmhouse kitchen, pushing the start button, the basil leaves whirling away into puree.  I see his big square hands, his sinewy arms, very tanned, a giant smile on his face.  I smell pesto.  I hear wind chimes.  The tags on Millie’s collar jingle.  Mom’s nearby–doing the dishes or reading, maybe.  Dad’s having fun.  Serious fun with this new thing in the world he’s discovered.

I ran into a baby pot of basil when I was buying flowers for the diner a few weeks ag0.  Actually I ran into the smell before anything.  First the smell, then instantly the sense that my dad was near.  Papa, I thought.  Tears sprang into my eyes, the sense of all the best of him, the soaring aspects of his spirit, was so powerful and dear.

I bought the plant, of course.  Stuck it into an old metal mop bucket I bought for five bucks at a junk sale a decade ago or more and never had a use for until now.

It’s doing well.  Every time I walk buy it on my way out the door to the Post Office or grocery store, I smile and feel the tug of my own roots in soil. 

Hi, Dad, I think.

I want to tell my mom about it but keep forgetting.  So now I have written it down and maybe I’ll remember next time I phone her.

Category: Life 15 comments »

15 Responses to “Sweet Basil”

  1. Suzanne Tietjen

    Beautiful as always, Ellen. Your writing has always created pictures in my brain. Now you’re affecting my nose and taste buds too. Hope to head over your way this weekend, but of course you’ll be too busy to do anything but smile. We’ll understand (and enjoy the wonderful eats). Have a great Fourth!

  2. ellenair

    Thank you, Suzanne! Hope you are doing wonderfully. Thank you again for the note you sent in the mail. I think of it often.

  3. Sheri

    I have a perfect picture of Uncle Hank making pesto, thanks to your beautiful words!

  4. Pamela Grath

    Beautiful basil plant and beautiful story, Ellen.

  5. Barb Hendricks

    Thanks for another blog. I always enjoy your honesty, and clarity of ideas and images. Your writing transports me to the site of your subject. Last night I recommended Prairie Evers to my 75 yr. old friend who grew up on a farm a little northwest of Prairie’s home in NY. She now lives in Newburgh. I know she will love your book as I did.

  6. ellenair

    Thank you Pamela and Barb, and everyone!

  7. Carly Miller

    Beautiful Ellen. I can hear you in every word. Hope you are doing well, I think of you often, and send good vibes every night.

    Thank you, Carly. Right back at you in all of the above. Thank you for your email the other day, too. Write on.

  8. Jann Parks

    Really enjoyed your writing about your Dad. My age is about right for it as I am on the sunset side of 70.My Basil isn’t growing like I would like it to but reading about it helps.

    Thanks, Jann! Your saying that reading about it helps made me grin. It likes sun, good soil, and yeah, probably that weeding. : )

  9. Virginia Minor

    Ellen, I so enjoyed reading this excerpt from your book, “Sweet Basil.” You made me think of how I loved and got to understand my Dad, especially in looking back on the years of my childhood.
    I like your openness and, oh, my, your hectic multi-tasking by necessity.
    I’m glad Melissa sent me this email about your book, and now I want to buy some basil! :)

    Thank you , Virginia! I’m glad you liked the book, AND the white chocolate popcorn. : )

  10. David Ruby

    What a lovely memory and story Ellen. And I love your mop bucket planter! Sometime, take a look at the Northside FB page. There is a picture of our vertical herb planter made from a reclaimed pallet-complete with basil:)
    Scott and I are hoping to visit around the 15th. I look forward to seeing your smile and trying one of those chocolate chunk-orange cookies!

    David, Can’t wait to see you guys! And we have lots of pallets… Hmmm…. Thanks for the idea!

  11. mary

    Love the story and the picture. Your mom would love the picture. Cheryl and I went to see her Monday! She looked good and we were able to have a pretty decent conversation!

    Thank you, Mary! I’m glad you got to go visit Mom.

  12. Pam Gardner

    What a unique and fabulous tribute to your dad. I was always way closer to my mom before she died, last July 8th. She has been on my mind since she fell on the 4th of July and never made it home from the hospital.
    Now my Dad is an almost 92 yr. old widower. He is in excellent shape for his age and sharp as a tack. I always dreaded losing both parents but secretly hoped Dad would go first because I couldn’t imagine life without my mom and I do believe women usually fare better when left on their own.
    Bear with me as I know my story is a bit long…but I just have to share it. My dad and I have become extremely close since Mom died and have been making lots of memories together. I won’t list them here as they would take another page but I have come to the conclusion that when he dies I will be happy we made all these memories but it will be so very hard to lose him.
    One thing he did about 6 months ago was go back to oil painting, which he did as a hobby on and off for many years. He joined a class that meets every week and has loved it and learned new techniques. He was a good artist before, but now he is even better! He spends lots of time painting and has such a positive attitude about life. He is my hero. Ellen I hope there will be another book soon! You are a fantastic writer.

    Pam, Thank you for sharing your story. I think it’s great your dad is painting, and that he’s your hero.

  13. Matt Airgood

    This is so true about dad, he had an explorers spirit! Remember the hours he spent teaching himself Spanish
    he was probably 65 or so when he started. My favorite though was when he got the bread machine and started experimenting with all the different recipies ahh the smell of bread baking permeated the whole house and then the taste of fresh baked bread still hot from the machine Mmmh!

    Matt, Yeah, BREAD! That was great. And the Spanish, too. I still think, ‘Leche’ every time I pick up a gallon of milk. And ‘sofa’ when I sit on a couch.

  14. Jill Simmons

    This morning I read all of your posts. Through them you helped me to appreciate the small things in life and the importance of the big things, such as family and friends. Your writings make me feel like I am right there in Grand Marias, even though I am over 400 miles away. Thanks for your hard work and see you soon!

    Jill, I’m so glad you enjoy the posts. THank you!

  15. Nancy Culhane Hoag

    Hello cuz,
    I just read the last page of Praire Evers. I must say you have a gift for words. I know they say it’s a childrens book, but i’m thinking its a book that anyone can read and enjoy!
    The way you can take words and spread them out on to a page and make them into a wonderful book, is pure magic.
    I hope you never stop writing, you are truely blessed.
    I loved what you wrote about your Father and you. Great Father, wonderful Uncle, and a very special man.
    Love always,

    Thank you Nancy for your kind words! Love, Ellen

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