It was spring or summer of 1981; I lived in a white, turn-of-the-century, two-story house on the corner of Rockwell and Linwood in Jackson, Michigan. I was playing on the sidewalk by my front yard when I saw another little girl–just my size–with brown pigtails, brown eyes, and a great big smile. Neither of us was allowed to cross the street on our own, so we shouted our introductions to each other. She swung around the smooth silver painted street sign pole and I did my best to swing around the uneven, slightly rusty STOP sign post.
The little girl’s name was Edwina; and she had recently moved in two doors down with her mama and baby sister. Her papa was a fine chef in a far-away place called Saudi Arabia, but he would come visit with them soon.
In the coming days and weeks, Edwina and I became great friends. And as her baby sister, Christine, got bigger, the three of us played together constantly. We did EVERYTHING together as much as we could. We became part of each other’s families. At that time, my four siblings had not yet been born–Edwina and Christine were my sisters. We ate grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for lunch on their little back porch. We watched Smurfs together on TV. We made forts out of couch cushions and took naps together in the afternoon. (Well, I wasn’t much of a nap-taker, but I TRIED to be quiet as we lay there in Edwina’s twin bed together, in the little room that Edwina and Christine shared.) When we had sleepovers, their mama, Trish, would give us Yoplait or slices of cheese before bed and read us the most wonderful bedtime stories.
As the days and weeks became months and years, our adventures and our love for each other grew. Their papa, Daniel, came to visit every few months until they all left for Saudi Arabia for about two years. Edwina sent me a postcard with camels on it. I read it over and over. When they came back, it was like they had never left; and then the adventures really took off.
We cross-country skied, we camped, we canoed, we fished and ate good food, enjoyed great music, talked and laughed. Daniel was from France and had a wonderful, thick French accent that made the most wonderful conversations even more memorable.
One time during dinner at their home when I couldn’t have been more than four or five, the conversation turned to God; and Daniel was trying to tell us about His Essence. He was explaining that God was like a Being, but not a human being. I couldn’t understand because the way he said Being sounded like “bean”. I was so confused. Imagining God super-imposed onto a green bean was all that my young mind could picture: The Great Bean in the Sky. He saw my confusion and explained it away, but I’ll never forget that moment when I wondered what kind of religion could equate God with the food on my plate. It still makes me giggle to this day.
As we got older, he told us “Dad jokes” and they were sufficiently bawdy to throw us into fits of laughter. I wish I could insert a sound file of him telling this one, “Your breath smells so nice; what kind of teethpaste do you use?” Because it sounded just like, “Your breasts smell so nice, what kind of tits-paste do you use?” My other favorite was, “A woman does not need a man to bring her happiness.” Which came out as, “A woman does not need a man to bring her a penis.” We laughed so hard we nearly fell to the floor.
Camping was so much fun. Daniel, like my own dad, was an expert in “roughing it” and for the rest of my life, I will carry with me the lessons about the woods he taught us. He taught us, his girls, how to use the gifts of nature responsibly and with respect. He was quite good with a simple bow and arrow and amazing with a fishing rod. Trout and venison and rabbit really are delicious. We would add foraged raspberries or vegetables and fungus to our meals–wild water cress and mushrooms made such delightful side dishes. Puffballs tasted amazing fried in a little oil–and morels–oh good Lord! One time up in Cheboygan, Michigan, we were mushroom hunting around some evergreen trees and the call went up as though he had just found El Dorado, “Trish, Trish! Zee Morels! Zee Morels!” Up until the time he gave me fried freshly foraged mushrooms, I thought they were disgusting. After that, I loved them for the amazing delicacies they are. He possessed such expertise (and a really good mushroom book) that I never worried about eating a toadstool as long as he was around.
As we girls entered into young adulthood (well, maybe late adolescence), Daniel taught us to appreciate good wine (French wine was the best, but Michigan wines were pretty good too) and even the simplest meals that he and Trish prepared were absolutely magnificent. Once I was old enough to purchase wine myself, I’d always stop by the St. Julian store he managed in Parma, Michigan and ask his impeccable advice. For my wedding, all the wine was St. Julian.
A year or two after I got married, Edwina called me up with the frightening news. Daniel had kidney cancer. The oncologist told him he had probably six months to live. It was a horrible shock; but Daniel seemed to take the news in stride, and he fought it valiantly for 10 years–ironically outliving his oncologist. In and out of remission, his spirit was always bright. He embodied joie de vivre as much as anyone else I’ve ever known.
When he and Trish moved to Florida, I was sad that I couldn’t pop in and see them anytime like I always had when I went home to Michigan, but we kept in touch periodically. This last June, when Edwina and Dean (a fantastic man!) celebrated their wedding reception at their home in New Jersey, it was wonderful to spend time with my other family. It felt just like old times.
At the wedding reception in New Jersey:
A few weeks ago, I got another call from my dear friend. Daniel’s cancer had returned and had metastasized into his bones. He was in terrible pain. It was only a matter of time. I wanted to go down to Florida to say goodbye; but as soon as I was able, it was already too late. He was in hospice care and only his family could be there with him. And they were. They sat with him, and prayed with and for him. I said my goodbyes over the phone. I believe he heard me, though he could not speak. Two days later, Wednesday, January 20, 2016, he went home to be with the Great Bean in the Sky.
In the Orthodox Church, when someone dies, we pray, “May his memory be eternal.” Daniel lived life so fully, so richly, so well. He touched so many lives that there is no doubt that his memory could be anything but eternal.
Rest in Peace, dear Daniel, dear Papa. We will do our best to continue your legacy in loving each other, delighting in the natural world, and living life to the fullest.