Tuesday, November 13, 2012

as if my life depended on it

Abbott’s smell has changed; I noticed it for the first time last week. Not in an off-putting or adolescent way, but his skin no longer conjures baby soap. When I press my face to the top of his head it isn’t quite familiar; like right after moving into a new house, you’re happy to be there, and it’s full of familiar objects, but it doesn’t quite feel like home, yet. I linger in the moments of physical connection, trying to memorize him as he is now, imprint without clinging.

When I was a kid, I read voraciously, and incorporated many words into my vocabulary before I had the benefit of hearing them aloud. Abbott does the same thing – he’ll start telling me about “an-ti-ques," for example – and I recognize myself.

November is always my personal marathon. The light seems non-existent, and with it goes my energy and my mood. I make myself exercise, though I never want to in these dark months; yesterday, on the treadmill in our garage, while the boys played street hockey. I see it in them, too – the power of physical play and sports to energize, to blow off steam, to develop character.

I had one good November. In 1999, Alexi and I ran the Seattle Marathon. I completed chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer at the beginning of that year; I took on the fitness goal as an effort to start to feel like myself again, and shake the fear I had developed of my own skin. I was obsessed with every random leg, back, and stomach ache I experienced (leg/back/stomach cancer!). If I coughed, I knew it had spread to my lungs. I was sure I felt heart palpitations; a risk associated with one of the chemotherapy drugs I had was heart damage. Training for the race distracted me, and helped reset my thinking. 

The end-of-November day of the marathon, the sun shone. The city came out to cheer, to spectate; each neighborhood was brimming with hand-lettered signs of encouragement, cheering voices, boom boxes playing whatever its owner deemed energizing. The more miles we ran, the more affected I became by these shows of support. To this day, I can’t watch a race without being overcome by emotion. That experience of making it 26.2 miles to the finish line went a long way toward helping me perceive myself as strong and healthy once again.

The next year, Alexi and I ran another marathon, simply for the revitalizing value of the challenge. Before the race, he spent six weeks in Washington, DC, and I spent a week with him there. We did some of our longest training runs along the Potomac.

Now, I feel like I’ve had enough in the way of major physical challenges. I’ve given birth twice, and I had a second cancer in 2005, and a series of preventive surgeries after learning I have a BRCA1 gene mutation. And I have different priorities now. But I will forever be glad that I experienced the rollicking joy that came with the fulfillment of those goals.

These November days, I light candles earlier and earlier, I force myself to exercise, and I cook as if my life depended on it. Regardless of my lists of things to do, I bake and I braise, and remain steady from performing deliberate, creative, nurturing acts in the kitchen. Yesterday I made a Ragu Bolognese – a favorite around here – that simmered all afternoon as we hibernated.

Ragu Bolognese

This tastes even better the day after it is made. 

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup onion, finely chopped
2/3 cup celery, diced
2/3 cup carrot, diced
¼ cup bacon, chopped
¾ pound lean ground beef
¾ pound lean ground pork
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
salt and pepper
¾ cup dry white wine
1 cup whole milk
one 28-ounce can crushed plum tomatoes
1 cup chicken or beef stock

Put the butter and oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion becomes translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the celery, carrots, and bacon, and cook for several more minutes, until they begin to soften. Add the ground beef and ground pork, and season with the nutmeg, 1 teaspoon salt and a few grindings of pepper. Break up the meat with a fork and stir well, cooking until the meat has lost its raw color, about 5 minutes.

Add the wine, raise the heat a bit, and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Add the milk, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until it is absorbed, about 20 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and stock to the meat and stir well. When the contents of the pot begin to bubble, reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting and gently simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the meat is tender, at least 3 hours. If it begins to dry out, add ½ cup of water as needed to keep it loose and saucy. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Yield: about 6 cups

Toss with cooked drained pasta, and serve with freshly grated parmesan.

The sauce will keep, refrigerated, for three days, and in the freezer for three months.


Dawn said...

Yum Lecia! Thanks for the recipe.
Your boys are certainly growing up. As hard as this current phase is of Rafael's (he's now walking and getting into EVERYthing), I keep reminding myself, there will be a time when I won't be the center of his world, a time when he might not even want to hug and cuddle. It goes by so fast.
That last shot is so lovely.

betsy said...

Oh, Lecia. Your words are truly such a gift. Despite the beauty of the changing light, November is such a challenge, isn't it? But you have captured so much life and goodness here.

Love from another November candle-lighter, baker and braiser, who mispronounced "colonel" for many years. xo

Denise | Chez Danisse said...

You always leave me thinking. "I wanted to create my own insurance policy, along the lines of, if I eat healthily, drink exactly 12 glasses of water a day, remember to take lots of deep breaths, and don’t watch the news, my body will stay well. I combined practicality with magical thinking." spoke to me on so many levels. I hope you are enjoying today, Lecia. We have sun here. I hope you do too.

Michelle DeRusha said...

I need to make that recipe. It's dark here in Nebraska, too -- I light candles every night at dinner.

I ran a single marathon about 18 years ago. At mile 25 I quit - I went to a first aid tent and laid down on a cot and ate some crackers. Then, I came to my senses (the carbohydrates maybe?) and begged the first aid worker to let me finish. She actually relented, although it was against the rules. I crossed the finish line. But I will never run another 26.2!

Ilene said...

Leica, you inspire me. Your words are a delight. The everyday things you record, fill my heart with a warmth I crave. Thank you for your generosity.

Jillian said...

Adrian's baby scent went away so soon...around 4 or 5. Last year was also my year of watching him grow and trying to contain every moment, so it is comforting to know that you have some similar tendency with it. I love seeing them. They have already changed so much in so few months.

Lecia said...

Dawn: It goes SO fast. I know you're doing your best not to miss it! Give Rafael a hug for me. Thanks about the photo!

Betsy: I've been thinking of you when I've lit the candles the past couple of days. xo

Denise: Indeed, the sun shone. Thank you. xo

Michelle: Wow! I'm so glad you were able to finish!

Ilene: Thank you very much. Your generous words mean a lot to me.

Jillian: They change before our very eyes.