October 6, 2017
Only the truth being told, I have delayed finishing the writing of this particular story about my reunion trip. “Rabbit” is about my last ride on the east coast in Maine, before I drove inland for my return trip west and back to Michigan. To recall this day, this meal, and this cycling experience is overwhelming to me. Why, you ask? Because like a life itself, it cannot be done again. What was pure “bike magic” that afternoon and now to recall it, is to miss it terribly that it is over and gone. I am choosing to write about it now because ‘now’ is the time to remember it, to savor in the joy of what I found at a simple country kitchen in Maine, now a part of my heart and a symbol of so many things. The tears I will cry in writing about it now, will be tears of longing, remembering sights, tastes, and smells, and my gratefulness to have had such a time. Such is the same of missing so very much and remembering my husband, who had died one year ago as of today.
In real-time, on July 25th, I had posted pictures and brief descriptions on my Facebook, Twitter, and Strava accounts of a condensed version of my lovely visit to The Spurwink Country Kitchen. I was so excited to share what had happened. Now, please read the full story, really the “full plate,” all about delicious food and meeting Chef Uncle Don. You are invited to the table. Bon appetit. ❤️ ~P.
July 25, 2017 (continued)
For the first half of this story, please read Reunion – Rabbit Pt 01.
Upon entering the Spurwink Country Kitchen, I am greeted by two hostesses. Both are casually dressed, and one of them I immediately notice is wearing an orange polo shirt under an orange zippered sweatshirt: orange! Not many people have the confidence to wear orange. Instantly, I connect with her, and as I’m walking in and looking at her, my left biking-gloved hand whips out and I’m doing this pointing back and forth gesture from her to me and back, and I say, “hey, nice color you’re wearing, we match!” referring to my bright orange vest I wear for cycling. This is instantly followed by our exchanging big smiles and then our conversation begins. I keep eye contact with her as my senses explore the quaint diner-like atmosphere around me.
We are talking as she is walking me now through the length of this homey space to my table, and medium warm-toned, pine wood-paneled walls seem to glow around me as natural light streams through windows like that of a tidy cabin in the woods. I am brought to a table that could seat four, I choose the seat putting my back against the wall, an oil painting of sailing ships in soft blue hues hangs behind me, and I set my backpack in the navy blue fabric and metal chair to my right. The wooden tables themselves here are unassuming and their nakedness matches the cheery wood glow of the walls. I suddenly notice the decor is quintessential country in all its glory, down to the plaid window valances, open shelving with glassware in a corner, and metal-detailed wall light sconces. I can’t stop smiling, I feel like I live here, and just like at my motel room, if I did not have responsibilities to return to, this place could be home.
Adjusting my chair at this table, I feel like I’m a kid who just came down the stairs to see that Santa had delivered gifts under a fully lit Christmas tree, complete with the smell of warm sweet treats. Even music is playing in the background. The music here is piano-only music, it doesn’t matter that I can’t quite recognize the tune and I can’t find the speakers where it’s coming from. There is a real piano across the room, someone must play for special occasions. I sigh, marveling at these comforts, and then I see on the menu it reads “comfort food in a country setting”: if ever there was truth in advertising, here it is, and I’m laughing to myself half in disbelief at this plain truth. The second hostess wearing a navy blue t-shirt comes now, snapping me out of my daydreaming, and she tells me about the specials and asks what I would like to drink. Of course the iced tea is brewed fresh here, no question, my father-in-law would be so proud to know. I order Uncle Don’s meatloaf lunch special, and of course an unsweetened iced tea.
Sitting here now and waiting for my meal to come, I realize I still have on all of my biking gear, so I remove my orange biking vest, helmet, and reluctantly my gloves. My gloves can be tricky to peel off, as they are now, but I think it would be considered bad table manners if I left them on here. My phone is out, put to the side of the table in front of the empty seat next to me, filled by my backpack. I carefully pull out my little black and white notebook for writing now, and I immediately start jotting down my thoughts about today’s adventure so far. The addition of a notebook to use on this reunion trip has been really nice, especially when the phone seems to take too long to retrieve, the immediacy of pen to paper helps my thoughts come to life more easily, and I’m less likely to lose a phrase or detail I want to remember in words. The memories and impressions just flow. I also have a fine point click-pen I bought to use also, and of course I have a back up pen just in case this one gets lost. Keeping track of my biking things is very important now, all part of the steps and things that I like to do, that I can rely on, to be there.
Right now there are less than ten people seated around me, maybe 60 people or so could fit in here at best, so I am especially intrigued by a group of four across the width of the room to my left, maybe fifteen feet away at most from my table. They seem to be family, all adults, and reminiscing about this-and-that, mostly about who was doing what in the 1950s. I am not lingering on details of their conversation, but it is the feeling heard in each of their voices that I find fascinating. The lightness and excitement as they each add to the back-and-forth discussion. I’m suddenly back at the TKE reunion in Pennsylvania from just a few days ago, having heard the same musical notes and patterns of shared stories sprinkled with laughter. The ‘knowing’ of one another, even if time and location has separated them for some time is clearly heard, and I am wondering how is that exactly? How can people be suddenly back together in the present moment, maybe now so different in appearance from the passing of time, but find that commonality and comfort in the shared reminiscing, each adding a layer to the story being told like the making of stone soup? Stone soup: the recipe where people in a village each contribute a bit of something to nothing, making a huge batch of everything that can be shared and enjoyed by all.
As I continue to listen and think about all of this, my eyes are still wandering around the room, and I notice the movement of the second hostess who is briskly walking on her way over to me with my lunch in hand. What she sets before me is something that I can’t yet touch. It’s the most beautiful plate of food, I want to take it all in with my eyes first for just a few short minutes. I tell my hostess how wonderful this looks. She smiles and says “that’s Chef Uncle Don, he makes it himself,” and I immediately follow with “oh, please thank him, this looks amazing!” After her “thank you, he’d love to hear that,” we exchange smiles and I return my eyes to my plate. The temperature heat of the hot food comes up to meet my face as I gaze on perfectly plated slices of meatloaf piled high in a white baking dish. It needed to be served in something with high sides to nestle the slices in the rich, brown gravy. Set beside the dish is a small side bowl of shiny, fresh green peas. Both the meatloaf and peas are fitted on a blue-rimmed dinner plate which holds the whipped mashed potatoes topped with more of the molten gravy. Someone please pinch me. This man, Uncle Don, must be an artist, and his medium is food. What he created here is a comfort food masterpiece, and I am so honored now to have the pleasure of experiencing his work.
In the summer of 2016, when Jon was really having difficulty eating because of his cancer, I too, tried to be a food artist of sorts. Instead of heaping a large plate high with generous portions, I was creating tiny vignettes on a salad-sized plate several times a day to feed him. I tried to make the quarter of a sandwich look like a whole sandwich by cutting it diagonally then dressing each area of the plate with complementary flavors and colors, little bite-sized somethings, all in miniature. When he would take even one bite, it would appear as though he had eaten more than he had. I think he felt terrible about his inability to eat, so my job was to make him feel like he ate a whole plate, even if that meant his only eating with his eyes by seeing pretty colors and designs, with his nose by smelling the most appealing flavors, and with what did touch his tongue would be his absolute favorites. Since Jon died, food has been a painful reminder of his cancer struggle, and every bite now that I eat has to be for good reason, and sometimes it is difficult for me to swallow with the sadness I feel so often of my missing him. Hunger is something I now know too well, and having watched the life of the man I love waste away under its grip, his being more fearful of the pain of having eaten more-so than not having swallowed a single thing, broke my heart.
My food anxieties are put aside, out of my view now, because I’m focused on this lunch in front of me: comfort food and it’s called Uncle Don’s Meatloaf Special. I put my tiny notebook and pen aside and take a few pictures of the meal with my phone before picking up my fork. I don’t waste any time trying the meatloaf first, its flavor is so savory and beefy. Each of the flavors placed in my mouth tastes like a long time ago before all of life’s madness began, back to a time of being innocently happy and very content. The group next to me are also eating now, I wondered if any of them ordered the meatloaf, too. Somehow I feel we are all guests at the same table, our silverware and plates clinking merrily in a funny, unified melody. I continue to look down-and-up from my plate to other parts of the room, enjoying every bite. There is a small dessert menu on my table aptly titled ‘Uncle Don’s Desserts.’ I begin reading the full list of assorted pies, puddings, cakes, even an ice cream sundae is offered. Surprisingly, I’m thinking about ordering dessert, not even having finished my main lunch. As I’m imagining what dessert sounds best while reading the menu and deep into working on my meatloaf, I hear a man’s voice say “I can’t hear the music, is it on?” And the next thing I know as I look up, the server in the navy blue t-shirt is walking toward me with a man who has the nicest smile and kindest face behind her. She smiles brightly to me and says, “This is Chef Uncle Don,” and I’m simultaneously shaking his hand and almost jumping up from my seat to chat, first and foremost telling him that this is so delicious and the best meatloaf I have ever had. It needs to be noted that I should know a good meatloaf, because I grew up in Pittsburgh, and I have eaten my fair share of different meatloaf recipes. (Y’unz, truth!)
I want to be eye-to-eye with this man, I want to make sure I look straight in to his eyes and that he hears my compliments, so I speak slowly and lean a bit to his right ear to make sure he hears me. He has salt-and-pepper hair, a boyish grin, and a twinkle in his eyes. Our conversation is heart-warming to me, I’m saying how thankful I am for his food, and as he asks me questions, I tell him about my adventures of biking in Maine and on the coast. I feel comfortable to tell him the why: my husband died last year, so I’m doing these ashes events, biking, and I write about my grief and all of it. He takes my telling him of this in stride and keeps a wide smile, our chat moves along and back to the topic of his food, of course. I feel comfortable enough to ask if we could take a picture together, he smiles and says “well, sure!” and the hostess takes our picture with my phone. Memory captured, we shake hands, and it’s back to the kitchen for Chef Uncle Don, and for me, back to eating my lunch.
Continuing to read the dessert menu, I finally notice that the name ‘Uncle Don’ is on everything, and honestly, now having met him, I feel him everywhere here. Even his plaid shirt seemed to have matched the valance curtains! I’m heartily eating, nearly finishing everything in front of me. I take a picture just to remind myself of this feat and being so relaxed here. I can’t remember the last time I ate this much food at one sitting. Most of the time, my eyes are bigger than my stomach, or I’ll eat a few bites of what’s there, but it just loses its appeal very quickly. I also have found that I am a slow eater, because if I eat with someone, I’d rather do the talking or sit with fork in hand watching other people eat. Sometimes food just cannot be swallowed if the table conversation turns to subjects that rattle my emotions, and in my effort to hold it together, my throat tightens and feels paralyzed and I’m only able hold the food in my mouth.
My cheerful hostess returns, and I have questions for her about the desserts, specifically asking “what is the pie of the day and the crisp of the day?” The funniest answer: strawberry rhubarb. Both the pie and the crisp are the same, and I think this is so humorous because Chef Uncle Don doesn’t do all fancy, just delicious and simple. Still a tough choice, but I decide on the crisp, and then I am asked if I would like whipped cream. Normally, I am not a fan of whipped cream, but I say “yes, please” because I know it’s going to be good and I think it will be homemade here. Soon after, a bowl of hot strawberry rhubarb crisp arrives with a large plop of whipped cream on top, almost equal in proportion as the crisp, and cream is melting and pooling around the edges in the bowl, and I can’t take time for a picture because it needs to be enjoyed right now. Every. Bite. Eaten.
I really don’t know how long I have been at the Spurwink Country Kitchen. I don’t feel rushed, but I know I should be getting back to my parked car at the trailhead. My original destination of Cape Elizabeth will not happen today, and I’m okay with that because of what I found here, plus I’m determined to come back to Maine in the future. I happily pay my bill, and it’s time to think about those biking steps again: bathroom, charge phone, put on biking gear. I forgot to charge my phone while eating, so I find an outlet next to the piano, and while I use the bathroom, I leave the phone tucked out of sight on the carpeted floor. A little too trusting under normal circumstances, but none of this seems normal, so I go with my gut. Phone charged a bit and my personal needs managed, I click and zip on my gear last and say goodbye to my hostesses, Chef Uncle Don does not make an appearance now, but I have my photo of us, so I’m good. Out the door I go, it’s creaking seems a little less harsh on my ears, and I carefully clack down the two steps to my bike.
As I’m unlocking my bike, I notice an suv in the corner of the parking lot and a couple hitching their two bikes to the back. As I ride out of the lot in their direction, I find myself talking to this couple, and I say “Good afternoon, have you eaten here before?” For the next several minutes, I come to learn they are from Pennsylvania, and are new at doing bicycle touring. Suddenly, even though I am a novice myself, I’m gushing about my own little adventure and we are talking about Pittsburgh, Maine, bikes, and packing for trips. I’m showing off my new, black-zippered pouch I added to my bike frame for this trip, and as I’m doing show-and-tell, I notice the lady has a little dog. She tells me her dog’s name is Stella, and I really wanted to ask if their dog rides on the bike too, but I did not want to extend our conversation for another hour. That can happen when you ask details about people’s beloved pets. What a nice couple, but I really need to be riding back, having spent quite a bit of the afternoon enjoying lunch. We wish each other well, and I part with saying that if they have a chance to eat here, see Chef Uncle Don because he makes the best food. As the lady is holding her dog and they are getting into their car, I hear her say, “well, we’ll have to get one of those packs like that, she knew a lot…” her voice trailed off as I cycled back on to the road. I’m literally humbled by the thought of someone thinking I knew something about biking, as I feel I’m still so new to it and learning new things myself every day. The cycling community as-a-whole has been so overwhelmingly welcoming, and there’s something special about passing on to others shared information that I think I have learned so far.
The first thing I notice once back on the road is that the clouds have really broken up and a medium blue sky now meets with most of the treetops and landscapes as I cycle past, it just feels brighter. Sights look familiar, I’m trying remember which spots I told myself I would stop on the return trip to take a picture. The marsh for sure, that was near the beginning of the ride out. As I cycle along now, I’m thinking about my conversation with the couple in the parking lot, and especially about my bike. I like telling people that I bought it used, I’m happy that it doesn’t have every-single-thing strapped to it. I feel so much like it is a form of me, we are the same in having more life to live, despite a few scratches, and new things are added only if-and-when needed for a purpose. There is a strength I feel from-and-with Ariel, my bike, knowing if I ride through rough road or have a fall, I will be able to go on or get up because she is with me and understands: it’s what I do, what we do.
At my first turn from Spurwink Road back onto 207, I’m feeling a brief moment of that elusive thing called ‘certainty’ about the ride back. After making this right turn, I know that the next one will be a while, so I can ride at a faster speed, focus on what’s right in front of me, and not worry about missing a street sign. Maybe I’ll even get clipped in! Most of the time on my bike routes, I feel ‘uncertainty’ of knowing there is a turn I need to make coming up, but not knowing quite when I will see it. I’m in a steady state of anticipation, afraid to miss that turn and as a result, lose my pace, have to turn around, or become lost entirely.
I’m concentrating on what I see, taking in the colors, and the wind is filling my ears, when I realize that I may have made a turn when I should have stayed straight. Maybe it’s my mind having been lulled by a full belly of comfort food or just a dumb mistake, but suddenly things looked unfamiliar, it just felt wrong. Grateful for this feeling now, I turn around and continue back on the correct road. I’m nervous about missing my next turn to the left coming up, so I slow down to methodically keep an eye out for Eastern Road Marsh on the left, which I also nearly missed. With great relief, the ‘certainty’ of knowing that this path now will take me straight to the trailhead and my car fills me with calm and energy at the same time. I’m pedaling along, but once again this path has multiple walkers spreading across its width. I am thankful to find my ‘marsh photo’ opportunity which when I stop to do this, returns a sense of calm to me. Taking photos during my bike rides has its own steps involved, and I am happy now to do the standard shots: biking selfie, down the road, and the traditional landscape. I love the rich greens here, and the sky reflects delicately on the water’s surface. Before I know it, I’m back to riding with the crunch of packed gravel under my tires and I see the trailhead where my adventure began.
As I load up my bike, I begin to feel compelled to change out of my biking clothes, in particular these biking shorts. After a week of riding with only two pairs and despite the daily airing of them and washing them out mid-week, they carry a week’s worth of sweat, the road, and adventures on them. And I don’t wear underwear, so yeah, it finally hit me, off with them! Impulsively now, after checking that no one else is here except the dead in the cemetery behind me, I find myself having stripped down only to my sports bra, and I unzip that too. I’m standing basically buck-naked in the parking lot with the sun kissing my ass and all other parts of me. There is a soft breeze that has slowed time for me to just be here now in this state, raw and open. As I keep an eye out for people, I really don’t care who sees me, I’m taking my time standing at my car with both driver’s side doors open, routing through my biking bag and choosing what to wear for the drive on to Boston.
I feel warm now not only from my lunch, but from the sunshine that seems to have melted away all those clouds from earlier. Blue sky and my bare butt, I could be here like this for the rest of the afternoon, but the drive needs to be done sooner than later, so I get dressed very slowly, having chosen the new white board shorts bought in the Poconos and a raspberry pink tank top. Slip on shoes with no socks is mandatory to complete my driving ensemble. Now behind the wheel, my gps is up and I’ve got the address for my sister-in-law’s house loading. Seeing her and her family was a spontaneous decision made earlier today, she is unknowingly now a part of my adventure of seeing what I see. As I pull out of the parking lot, I give one last glance to my driver’s side mirror and my eyes pause on the cemetery view behind. I quickly bring my eyes back forward to the road ahead, concentrating now on the living, the next turn coming up, and wondering about what I might find to eat for a late dinner. ~Paula