Pieces of You
Photographs and memories
All the love you gave to me
Somehow it just can’t be true
That’s all I’ve left of you
In the midst of meal prep, sorting through items while seeking the right tool in a kitchen drawer, I saw a blackened, overused kitchen fork. It immediately took me to the last time I saw my husband, Dan, using it. A kitchen moment that sent me on a memory hunt.
The hot dog fork
Have you ever noticed how food connected with our childhood will sometimes bring an unexpected comfort? For Dan, one of these foods was a good old fashioned hot dog cooked on an open flame.
The blackened, overused fork was his preferred tool for holding a hot dog over the stove flame that served as a makeshift campfire. When it was cooked through just right he would dip the dog in catsup or mustard before each bite. In the beginning, I tried to clean the blackened edge of the fork, located on either side of where the hot dog sat, but no luck! The heat required to cook the dog was high enough to burn the fork, and the burned section, over and over, making it a permanent burn mark on the steel tines.
Does the object itself evoke the memory? Or does the memory sit just beneath the surface awaiting interaction with the object? Perhaps a bit of both.
Dan’s Cowboy Hat
Making Dan’s cowboy hat large on the page reflects the place it held in his life. For many years it was the only hat he would wear. Before the cowboy hat he wore a yellow metal hard-hat. His peers at the volunteer fire department used to accuse of him of sleeping in it since he was rarely seen without it. The cowboy hat was the next iteration, followed eventually by a collection of ball caps featuring the various work places and interests of our family. Whatever the style, Dan Neff was a hat guy.
Work crews always called him Cowboy Dan because of the white cowboy hat he wore to work each day. For many years you rarely saw him without it. His boss even got him a hard hat that was shaped like a cowboy hat. The black hat, featured here, was his dress hat and he looked quite sharp when he wore it with a tuxedo.
If he wanted to keep people at a distance, he would pull the hat down low with his eyes barely visible. When he was feeling relaxed and open, he took the hat off and placed it out of the way to avoid any mishaps. When he was in the zone for getting things done, he put on his hat, stepped into the task and mastered it. Need to know who is in charge on the construction site? That guy with the cowboy hat, that’s him.
The Cast Iron Omelette Pan
A fantastic omelette maker, Dan enjoyed cooking omelettes. His omelettes offered an array of options: onions, olives, cheese, bell peppers, bacon or sausage, tomatoes, potatoes, avocados, artichokes . . . you name it. Cooking for groups was common. I’m thinking of the time when he regaled our guests from Australia, making personalized omelettes for them that they still talk about. If you were lucky to get a Dan Neff omelette it was something to remember.
I learned to cook a great omelette from Dan; how to whip air into the eggs by lifting them high with a fork and beating them thoroughly; how to wait for the egg to be just right before turning it; and how to fold it just so. At family brunch recently I enjoyed a tender moment showing our daughter, Denise, how to put his special touches into the omelette. I know he was watching and saw how beautifully she created her first “Dad Omelette.”
“Snookie” – Our First Baby
This photograph features the next “item” that made me think of Dan. It was a happy/sad moment when I was thinking about how much I love our 5-month-old Labrador pup, Indy, and immediately felt sad because I know he would have enjoyed her so much. Dan and I have loved many dogs throughout our 51+ years together and this photograph shows him holding the first: Snookie. Our first “baby.” My father-in-law called her “Five Dollar Dog” because he loaned me the 5 bucks it took to buy her from the dog pound.
Dan told many stories about how Snookie could catch a ball. He told how she would sometimes run over to where the neighbor kids were playing baseball and steal the ball. This, of course, resulted in a line of kids at our back door asking us to make her give their ball back to them. I think of this when Indy fetches over and over again and how Dan would have enjoyed her love of playing catch—just like Snookie.
Tools From a Montana Meat Market
Dan hailed from a long line of “butchers” who honed their skills in the Neff Meat Market in Montana, run by Dan’s grandfather. Although Dan’s dad was not a butcher by trade, he was skilled enough to carve out bear steaks and antelope ribs when needed. Dan’s carving skills came out daily since before he would use a steel carving knife he would sharpen it; every.single.time. Watching him confidently sliding the knife across the steel of the long, gray sharpener is a strong memory; the smooth sound of metal on metal. His flair with a knife was similar to his flair in cooking. If he poured something, he held it high and raised and lowered it as if moving to hidden music in his mind. I see this talent in our son, Michael, a 25-year master bartender, mimicking the flair of his old man.
Since all the knives are now dull, I gave it a try the other day. I picked up the rather heavy steel sharpener and then picked up a knife and tried to remember his rhythm. It took some concentration to match the edge of the knife to the steel in a way that would enhance the blade edge rather than going against it. I managed okay, but without the confidence and flair that Dan exhibited. In the end, the carrot gave way to the blade so I counted it as mission accomplished.
Circa 1952 O’Keefe & Merritt Range
With one exception, Dan and I have cooked on an O’Keefe & Merritt range for all of our years together. The heavy duty, smartly designed stovetops and ovens were a favorite of ours and during the pandemic one became available in the usual way; grandma passed away and the family preferred a modern range.
It might have been a really dumb idea to take on an old stove while Dan was ill, but the current one was going on three years with a broken oven door. Our daughter Debi found it, our son, David, seconded it, and into our home it came. A dear friend, and our son, Danny, helped to amend the cabinet in our kitchen to allow the stove, which was larger than our previous O&M, to fit in our kitchen. The project became a safe place for me to distract myself from the serious illness that was our whole life at that time. In spite of all we were facing, the stove provided tasks that were menial and non-thinking. I hung wall paper behind where it would sit and arranged via a Neighborhood online site for someone to take our broken-door stove. When you love these stoves, who cares if the door is broken? Three women showed up at the appointed time and loaded the old stove on a trailer and off they went.
My favorite memory came after the stove was in place and I was standing near it sharing with Michele and her husband Michael about other O’Keefe & Merritt’s we’d owned. Dan’s energy had been failing and he was mostly in his recliner in the next room. When he heard the story I was telling, he got up and came into the kitchen to join the storytelling. Later that evening, we were surprised to see him pull out a pan and fry an egg on the stove. The stove project took energy but it provided precious memories as well.
Photographs and Memories
It must have been near our anniversary, or maybe a month or more prior to it, when our daughter, Danielle, came to our house and stole the picture box. In cahoots with her siblings, the box was needed for a secret siblings-only photo album party. Each made their own album from the treasure trove photo box and later presented them to us ceremoniously. It seems fitting to close the post with these albums that hold the stories of our lives.
Entering the Memories
As widows and widowers we each have our own memories of our special person. Our own stories. Perhaps taking a walk through their belongings could be a way of connecting with them through the memories and stories that are contained within those objects.
For me, the object provided a “kite string” to pull in one or more memories that came to mind as I looked at, thought about, or touched the object. Each was a doorway into memories and feelings. Some brought sadness and others offered joy.
The memory hunt invited a combination of happy and sad tears in celebration of Dan’s life.
In celebration of our love.
As the superhero, Vision, says in WandaVision,
What is grief if not love persevering?
Long Live Love.