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Crab Soup




Had it not been for Covid-19 forcing everyone inside, I’m not sure my plan would have worked but looking back, I'm glad I acted on that little nudge from the Universe that said, this will be fun, let’s do it. It was a time of thoughts and prayers, heartbreak, and heartache and we were resentful that we had to endure any of it.

It was the worst of times. The only consolation offered, if consolations were offered at all, was that we got to endure it together.


Dad was proudly from the South. He was from a small town along the Chesapeake Bay that no one ever heard of. He met my mother while stationed at a nearby air force base, and after the war, he returned to another small town, this time in Massachusetts.

Dad thought nothing of his giant belt buckles, cowboy boots, and handlebar mustache. Over the years his Southern drawl began to fade, against his will, so he took on a twangy New England accent instead, a sort of Southern fusion.


When Covid-19 hit I was grateful that we lived together, both learning how to start over, him after mom died and me after a difficult breakup. Together we processed our grief and learned to find even the tiniest bits of happiness in life’s small offerings.


We spent the first months of being shuttered in learning about the many different birds that enjoyed our feeders and the various types of flowers that grew along the fence but eventually, the weather turned from warm to cool to cold, and even with heavy coats and blankets, we were forced to retreat back inside.


The bungalow-style house was lovely. Its bones held every wonderful memory I had ever experienced. It was small. Not small in a suffocating way though, but small, like a hug.


It was a time of nothing at all and everything at once but at least football was on. Dad watched and cheered for the Patriots and the Irish, but we both knew he would rather be down the street at his American Legion than stuck in the house watching spectator-less football. Still, he never complained and never rolled his eyes when out of sheer boredom I added team after team to our watchlist.

Texas, sure. Good colors. The Seahawks, sure we like Pete Carroll. Titans, yes. Boston College, obviously. Game by game I could find a reason to like a team until finally, we watched every game televised.

During one of the games between two teams that we had grown to dislike for no good reason, Dad sat up in his recliner, slapped his hands on his lap, and announced, “Let's cook.”


I loved to cook but after months of being stuck in the house, I truly believed I had made everything possible. I had no new meals to prepare. No new meal options to try. I was convinced I had reached the end of recipes as we knew them. There simply were no more.

Slowly, he got up, shuffled out of the room heading towards his bedroom and after some small commotion, he emerged with a large hardcover book.


“I've been reading,” he proudly announced.

“At night? In bed?” I laughed out loud.


Dad could fix anything, build anything, and knew more about the workings of a Whirlpool washing machine than anyone should, but he could not cook and he did not read.


“Here, take a look,” he said, shoving the yellow and white hard-covered book in my direction. “I got it off the Amazon.”

Still laughing, I pursed my lips together to keep from bursting into a full fit of hysteria.


“So, you've been reading this?” I asked, still shocked by his admission. “I've never seen this book,” I said sitting down at the dining room table.

“I had it under my mattress,” he said, sitting beside me.

“Why?” I burst out laughing, snorting and all. The image of him pulling a book out from under his mattress, reading by flashlight was just too much.

“I use my flashlight,” he said proudly.

“Dad!” I laughed and smiled and snorted again.


Although his room was down the hall from mine, he thought if I noticed his light on late at night, I would think something was wrong.

“I didn't want the light to bother you,” he nodded at me. “What do you think? Think we could make some of these?” he asked, hopefully at me for confirmation.


Still laughing and stunned, I looked at the cover, The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock.


“Sure,” I said, flipping it open to the section titled, Praise the lard and pass the biscuits. The heavy glossy pages contained recipes, pictures, and stories about the ingredients and locale.

“Oh good,” he said, pushing his chair closer to mine, “Look, I made some notes,” he said, pointing to page 36 and the recipe for She-Crab Soup. “Can we try this one first?”


He was positively giddy now and it was contagious. Excited at the idea of something new, recipes with ingredients I never cooked with before, and doing all this with my father, almost felt indulgent at a time when the world was hurting.

“Can we eat in the garage?” he asked, as nervous as a child asking to stay up past their bedtime on a Sunday night.


Most families did not eat in their garage. Most did not have a full-size stove, refrigerator, and wood stove in their garage and most people did not consider a party in the garage a fun idea, but we were not most people.

Many of our celebrations occurred in the garage. Engagements happened, birth announcements were made, football games, Red Sox baseball, and just about any reason we could think of to consecrate big doin’s was a good enough reason to have a “splash” as Dad liked to call them.


At one of the last garage gatherings, Mom announced matter-of-factly that this would be her last “splash.” As we sat around, enjoying chips, dip, and various cocktails, Mom said, hand on hips:

“I wanna have a party. I’ve never had one just for me,” she said ready to fight anyone who may suggest that she would be too tired for a said splash.

Pancreatic cancer was an unwelcome guest but one that was determined to have a seat at our table, elbowing its way between the bread and butter.

We cooked on the stove, oven, grill, and deep fryer. Even the wood stove had a pot bubbling with someone's offering.

We held on to the day long past the afternoon shadows that crept over the house, the sounds of children playing hide and seek, and everyone's bedtime. We held on, held each other, and then let go.


When Mom died a few weeks later we locked the garage door, something that we had never done before, and went inside. We thought if we never opened the garage door again, never tossed out his beer bottle, never put away her sweater, and never hung up my baseball hat none of it happened. With the door shut, it was easy to believe that she was just on the other side, still laughing and reminiscing.


“Yes,” I smiled. “Let's eat in the garage.”


Together, we scanned the glossy-paged book for our first meal. After much debate and scouring the cabinets for ingredients, we decided on crab soup —which did not come as much of a surprise to either of us. Crab legs were on the menu for every special celebration we ever had.

One morning, when I was out walking, Dad unlocked the garage, opened the small sliding window to let the cool December air in, began wiping down the counters, and the stove, and delicately moved her champagne glass to the counter. He gently moved the fluff he found under a couch cushion that held a small family of mice to the safety of a nest he made for them under the grand American yellowwood tree in the yard.


In the familiar whir and buzz of movement in the garage, we felt alive again. We knew it was not a time to celebrate but maybe if we were quiet and respectful, we could have this one small moment of “normalcy.”


We worked in harmony, unpacking grocery bags, and stacking up the ingredients on the counter for our Saturday afternoon lunch: four cans of lump crab, rice flour, cayenne pepper, and a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sherry.

We would start cooking after your nap. You were suddenly tired and had a little headache.


***


I sprinkled in Old Bay seasoning even though the recipe didn't call for it because you would have insisted on its addition. I used meat from female crabs (mostly) which are fattier and better for soup and whose orange roe gives a distinctive taste, or so the recipe claims.

It smells good, you would say if the dead could talk.

“Pull up a chair,” I insist.


But, you cannot. You are in the next room now with Mom listening to Johnny Cash and laughing with the others.

As I touch the wooden spoon to my lips, I can hear your muffled voice telling everyone about our recipe for happiness and the day we almost made She-Crab Soup.


Christine Brooks holds her M.F.A. from Bay Path University in Creative Nonfiction. She has two books of poetry available, The Cigar Box Poems and beyond the paneling. Her next two, inside the pale and the hook-switch goodbye, will be released in 2023. Her debut novel, TamboMan, was released in August 2022.


Image credit: Kelly Wright via Ideogram

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