Sunday, September 18, 2011
Green Tomatoes Remind Me of Her
I've been thinking about her a lot lately because her birthday is coming up. If she was still alive we'd already be celebrating it because she insisted her birthday be celebrated an entire week rather than one measly day.
Man! She used to go on and on about fried green tomatoes. We had the same conversation a million times about how gross I thought they were and how amazing she thought they were. I was happy to bring them to her. Especially this time of year when Chicago starts to get cold and the garden is still littered with all different varieties, the frost imminent. Green tomatoes are so beautiful. Perfectly shaped, firm, blemish free. Full of potential. I love the ones that are real dark green on the top and how the dark green fades in subtle streaks to a softer, paler green.
The range of emotions I have when she crosses my mind is so wide that it catches me off guard. Most of the time I think of funny conversations we've had and laugh. But now and then when I'm wishing I could talk to her about something I get teary, or pissed off that she's gone. We worked together for 7 years but I learned a lifetime of lessons from her. She was so vibrant and charismatic, stronger than just about anybody I know yet pathologically compassionate. One time there was a going-away party for a temporary worker who'd been in our department over a year. Carolyn knew of him but because she supervised the clinic and he worked in the finance area, they didn't know each other well at all. I recall watching her as one of the managers made a short statement about how much we appreciated all his hard work and wished him luck in his new position. So predictable. Carolyn's nose started to turn pink then tears filled her eyes and we all busted out laughing. "You don't even know this guy! Why are you crying?" She was moved by the speech, she told us, laughing right along with us. All of us, even Carolyn, got a big kick out of her habitual, uncontrollable crying. But the best part was the juxtaposition of the crying to her palpable strength and confidence.
She spent a lot of time building relationships at work and as a result, she could be a bad ass when it was necessary and people responded quickly and without bad feelings toward her. She took the time to tell people she appreciated them. I mean she would flat out say "Gina, I want you to know that I appreciate you because of this and this and this." We should all do that more. Just being in the same space with her felt good. She was about the only coworker I felt comfortable confiding in. I told Carolyn we were getting married long before I told anybody else. She screamed, then cried.
They called a mandatory meeting that morning. As we all gathered in the small corner conference room overlooking Navy Pier, Carolyn's manager walked in the door. "I have some bad news..." She said the words and as they registered I felt like I was being sucked into the ground. I had just seen her the day before, standing by the bathroom talking, smiling, it didn't seem possible. I am not particularly emotional but in that moment I could not catch my breath. I cried 10 years worth of tears that day sitting back at my desk, my headphones on, the music as loud as I could stand it, every song making me think about some aspect of her personality or life or too-soon death. And I wasn't the only one. I don't think any of us realized just how important she was until that day. We're all crying now, Carolyn.
This time last year she was vacationing in Cancun. In one picture she is standing with her girlfriend, she's wearing a light colored loose-fitting skirt, top and sandals. I was struck by how genuinely happy and beautiful she looked. I envied her for living life so fully and intensely. When Carolyn passed away unexpectedly last year I thought of planting something in my garden in her memory but nothing seemed appropriate. Carolyn was a houseplant person, the window in her office a jungle of lush green healthy plants. But I realized that what really reminds me of Carolyn is green tomatoes. That as long as I have a garden, as long as I grow tomatoes...