Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Tribute to Frank Barnett -- and his Pecan Pie

Another thing I managed to fit into my tight New York City schedule was lunch with an old roommate of mine, Carol Barnett-Stark. I lived in Manhattan when I was 25 years old. I had moved back to the U.S. from Nairobi, Kenya and started a coffee import business I called Livingstone Provisions. (Back when I had that enviable combo of big dreams and excess energy. How I miss those days.) I was trying to end an affair with a married man and Carol, an aspiring actress at the time, was trying to escape a religious cult. We rescued each other by sharing a one-bedroom walk-up on the Upper East Side, solving all our problems by sitting on the fire escape and talking late into the night over steaming cups of chamomile tea and ginger snaps.

Fast forward 24 years. Carol is still in New York with a darling 7-year-old daughter and I'm in rural Iowa with two unruly terriers. In spite of the number of years that have passed we have more in common than we knew. We had both married German men. She is (amicably) divorced from hers and, as we all know, my husband is...well, deceased.

When I went to meet her for lunch last Friday, taking the elevator up 20 floors to her office in a slick Times Square highrise, I learned we shared a bond over more than lost German husbands. We also had grief in common. Carol's dad, Frank, had died just two weeks earlier.
Carol and her dad Frank (just after chemo)

From our emails over the past year I knew her dad had been sick. He had been getting chemo and was doing much better than the doctors had predicted. He was living on his own, still meeting his friends for coffee every day, and then, out of nowhere, he had a stroke, his heart stopped, and he was gone.

Oh, I know what that feels like. To lose someone with no warning, no chance to say goodbye. Robbed of the opportunity to say “I’m sorry” or “I love you” or both. No time to say, “PLEASE DON’T GO!!!! I DON’T KNOW HOW I WILL SURVIVE WITHOUT YOU.” But they leave us –sometimes in an instant – and we are left with our tears, our grief, our loss, emptiness, confusion, our desperation.

And thus, last Friday, I happened to have stepped not only into Carol’s glass-walled office (with a million-dollar view of 42nd Street), I stepped into her grief. Fresh and raw. I recognized it all too well.

“What should I do?” Carol asked me coyly upon sharing her devastating news. “Make pie?”

I smiled at her to mask the sadness. “Well, it couldn’t hurt,” I said. “How about if you read my book? I mean, if you’re ready. You will see all the ways pie helped me. It’s not out until April, but I’ll send you a copy of my manuscript.”

She nodded and said, “My dad loved pie. He was known for his pecan pie. Everyone loved his pie so much they always expected him to bring it to their picnics and parties.”

“Are you serious? You never told me. I had no idea pie baking ran in your family.”

She continued, “When we had to print the program for the funeral we couldn’t come up with any scripture or other quotes that fit my dad. The funeral director said sometimes people include other things, like a favorite recipe. So we included my dad’s pecan pie recipe.”

My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe I was sitting in the middle of Times Square talking about life, death, and pie recipes printed in funeral programs. But there it was, another example of the far-reaching powers of pie. I like to think all those friends and family attending Frank Barnett’s farewell service smiled at seeing the recipe in such an unlikely place, and that they will all carry on his legacy by making his favorite pie themselves.

When I returned to Iowa I couldn’t stop thinking about my lunch with Carol. (I say “lunch” but we talked so much and so long I barely had time to slurp down a bowl of soup before my next appointment). Her dad remained very much on my mind. I wanted to tell the world about Frank, his pecan pie, and how his recipe played such a special role at his funeral. I asked Carol to send me the recipe and a picture of her with her dad. She sent both, along with this note:

With Thanksgiving approaching he would be getting requests and he would be so excited to whip up those pecan pies. He shelled the pecans himself. He was a salt of the earth kind of guy. Content to sit on the porch and watch the grass grow. Or go into town to have breakfast with his buddies. Perhaps ride around on his tractor lawn mower, taking care of the grass. He was a simple man with a great sense of humor. The most patient person you’d ever meet. I can’t tell you how many people came up to me at his funeral and said “Your dad was my best friend.” I thought WOW, my dad made everyone feel like they were his best friend…that’s awesome. I too will make my first pecan pie in his honor this Thanksgiving – and be thankful for the amazing dad I had.
Frank Barnett's famous pecan pie recipe.

Carol is truly an inspiration and sets an example of dealing with grief with grace. She reminds me that I, too, have a lot to be thankful for. And to honor that, I’ll scrap my trusted pecan pie recipe (the one on the Karo Syrup label) and make Frank’s recipe for Thanksgiving instead.

Twenty-four years after meeting Carol, we are still rescuing each other. Our wounds are much bigger than before, but we have stronger weapons to heal this time. We have a lifelong friendship to fall back on. And now we have pie.

1 comment:

Carolyn said...

Beautiful story beautifully written. You have such a way with words. I am looking forward to reading your book.