He was a man with a big intellect and heart, my cousin JW. Rugged, strong and principled. We lost him much too early. How do you go on when there is such an empty place at the table? He was one of a kind. Everyone who knows JW would say this about him.
Many holidays of my childhood were spent with three cousins and JW was the youngest. There was a routine to how holidays went. Extended family and food which, hopefully, included my grandmother’s strudel. Then my family moved to a different part of the country and we didn’t see our extended family often. In our new home we learned that friends are family and they were for us, truly, those friendships sustained us. But the childhood memories of how holidays worked, what the equation was, who the players were (cousins, grandmother and aunts and uncles) stayed with me. When I moved away from home, this time for college, I was in a city where I knew no one. I was alone, trying to figure it out. Some holidays, I realized, were big but not so big that one would get on a plane and go home for. On those holidays if you didn’t have family to have dinner with, it could be … quiet.
When JW moved to Baltimore, I was grateful and excited. I’d have family nearby! We already knew each other, that work had been done long ago, so it would be seamless. He was moving to be closer to his fiancé which good news to me, another person to add to the circle of family and friendship. I loved knowing that I had family nearby. Someone I could drop in on with just a moment’s notice (or no notice) or ask for help if I had a seemingly unsolvable problem (like a flat tire). Someone to have a weeknight dinner with which was something I could not do with family who lived 1,500+ miles away.
Weeknight dinners with my cousin JW … I didn’t expect to learn anything hugely new about life or cooking. But I did. He taught me about the magical combination of garlic + olive oil. This was how every meal started that JW cooked, he sautéed garlic in olive oil. He would explain to me, in quite a bit of detail, the perfection of this combination. In his tough exterior he delighted and marveled in the combination of garlic cooked in olive oil. The first several times I nodded in agreement, yes, yes of course I agree it is perfection and by the way how was your day? But then I started to hear him. I had not thought about how delicious garlic sautéed in olive oil was, how it transforms every dish it is part of, it leaves a person feeling satisfied and better about life when one didn’t even know one wasn’t feeling too chipper about things, it fills in the cracks one didn’t even know were there. Garlic sautéed in olive oil … such a seemingly small thing. I realized that perhaps I took this and other things for granted and maybe I wasn’t really listening to my cousin. I started to listen to JW on all sorts of things. Like how beautiful the river was that I passed on the way to the dentist. I thought I had plenty of time to hear everything JW had to say … foolish me.
I think of JW often. Live in the present and notice life that I might easily miss. Listen to those around me. The few times I don’t add garlic to the pan when I’m heating up olive oil, I realize I’m doing it wrong. JW was right about a lot. Into the pan the garlic it goes and it’s going to be delicious. Thank you JW, am eternally grateful.