My birthday was coming up. Nifty fifty. The oldest I've ever been. The beginning, perhaps, of the end. Or the end of the beginning. Whatever your view, turning 50 is a milestone, and you ignore its implications at your peril. If you're a woman, it means the arrival of flab you've never had before. It means you are surprised when you receive a holiday card with a picture of small children on it and you marvel that people are still doing that. As my neighbor said to me the other day, "We're the old ladies in the neighborhood now."
My plan for turning 50 was to pack as many middle-aged women as I could into the day: Teach my weekly writing workshop to eight fabulous women in New York for two hours, sneak in an appointment with my (female, middle-aged) therapist, go to see "Elephant Man" with two close friends who were already 50. I would celebrate with my husband and sons the following night, after my kids had finished up their work for the semester and had a chance to remember that this birthday was an important one for Mom.
But God laughs when you plan too hard.
A week before my birthday, I took two cooking classes. One was with Karina, a holistic health counselor and nutritionist who is the most beautiful middle-aged woman I know in real life. Whatever advice she is willing to share, I am willing to receive. She introduced us to the pleasures of cooking with chia seeds, hemp seeds, coconut sugar and skillet cornbread made from gluten-free cornmeal. The other class was taught by Arlene Ward, author of Pressure Cooking for Everyone, and the mistress of delicious, luxurious meals. Arlene showed us how to make cream of tomato onion soup, butter-flied beef tenderloin stuffed with spinach and mushrooms, edamame risotto drizzled with basil oil, a mixed green salad studded with pomegranate seeds and Coeur a la Creme. All of the dishes were delicious but my head almost fell off when I took that first spoonful of Coeur a la Creme. Arlene made the Coeur in a heart-shaped porcelain container that had holes in the bottom for draining. She decorated it with fresh raspberries and served up a dollop of chocolate raspberry sauce on the side. She had originally developed the recipe for Valentine's Day. The dish really says, "I love you" but works any time you are seeing people you like to hang out with. The ingredient list was short---sugar, egg whites, plain low fat yogurt, heavy cream, and raspberries---but required equipment I didn't have: The heart-shaped draining dishes and cheese cloth.
Coincidentally, that same week, I received a check from my father. My father is dead almost ten years but every December, I receive a distribution from his pension fund. I open the envelope, think, "Thank you, Daddy,' and deposit the check. I had a difficult relationship with my father but I am grateful that he is still sending me birthday presents, even from the grave. Because of the check, I felt flush and immediately went on line to order everything I would need to recreate those dishes.
The night I received a box of goodies from Amazon, my friend Rebecca texted me: "My dad is in the hospital, dismal prognosis." Her father had had a heart attack while walking down the stairs. Rebecca is my closest friend from high school. As an adult, you don't always know what's going on in your friends' houses, but as a teenager, you do, and Rebecca knew that my house was a volatile place and my father had a temper. Rebecca's Dad bent over backwards to make me feel comfortable. If we even mentioned that we might want to go to a movie or the mall, he ran to the car to warm it up. He was a gentle, musical man, brilliant at punning and so very kind. He had a PhD and worked at a lab at one of the big pharmaceutical companies and was always telling funny stories and singing songs. There was nothing he wouldn't do for you. My father, who had disdain for almost everyone, respected Rebecca's father. I spent a lot of time on the black leather couch in Rebecca's family room, talking to her parents, and tucked away in her bedroom, which her father had painted a dusty rose. Over the years, her father became more fragile but he was always warm and friendly, the kind of person who makes you feel as if you're just the person he has been waiting all day to see.
On the first night of Chanukah, Rebecca called to say they were taking her father off life support and the funeral was likely to be on my birthday. "The rabbi is on his way," she said, and we both burst into tears. Then she texted: "I'm so sorry to be mourning on your birthday. We're going to celebrate, you and I, something special, just us. I know you're thinking, 'whatever.' But it's important to celebrate happy things and treasure each other. I'm corny. Sue me! xo"
Sheryl Sandberg told us all to lean in to our work, and that's a lovely idea, but really, you can only do that for so long, and even then, all that leaning depends on a small staff, an extremely supportive spouse, and a great deal of being lucky enough to have work that is so meaningful and satisfying you want to lean into it. Even in the best case scenario, you can only lean in for so long. Eventually, you wonder what you're leaning away from. That's where your friends come in. In middle age, you are leaning into your friends and leaning hard.
The next day, I emailed my students and cancelled class. Then, I got busy making Coeur a La Creme, one for Rebecca and one for me. Our housekeeper arrived as I was folding the egg-whites into the yogurt mixture and asked what I was doing. She gently reminded me that my birthday was also the anniversary of her father's death. I handed her a spoon.
The next morning, my husband wished me a happy birthday over coffee.
"My birthday is going to suck!" I yelled.
"You're going to be there for your friend," he said, softly.
He was right. I knew all about fathers and cemeteries but sharing that knowledge is never fun. I went upstairs and cried. Then my husband hollered that the shower from the bathtub my younger son was showering in was dripping water onto the kitchen ceiling. When the florist called to say the flowers she was delivering were from my best friend from college, and not my husband, I knew that my birthday was not only going to be bad, it was going to be brutal.
After the funeral service, I drove to the cemetery, got lost and still managed to get there before the hearse. When everyone arrived, we walked up the hill to Rebecca's father's grave and looked out at the beautiful view. The air was cold, and we shivered and leaned into each other as we waited our turns to shovel dirt onto his coffin. Rebecca had lost her uncle a year before so she leaned over to place a stone on her uncle's grave. Everyone left to go back to her house. I drove home, kissed my children hello and retrieved the Coeurs a la Creme from the fridge. When I turned the heart-shaped molds onto the plates and removed the cheesecloths, my younger son couldn't believe it and snapped a picture. "Wow," he said. "That looks awesome!"
I loaded the Coeur into the car, went to pick up my friends Terri and Susan and headed to Rebecca's. On the mantel in her family room were pictures of her parents on their wedding day and a beautiful black-and-white picture of her father, sitting outside on Fire Island, strumming the guitar, his eyes closed and his face filled with joy. I handed the Coeur a la Creme to a woman who was setting out food in the dining room. Terri told Rebecca we had brought her Coeur a la Creme. "Oh, no!" she cried. "Put it in the fridge." She whispered: "I love Coeur a la Creme! I'll have it later. Plus, we probably shouldn't mix milk with meat."
Then we looked at pictures of her Dad, reminisced and leaned into each other.
In memory of Phillip Brody
Coeur a La Creme (Adapted from Arlene Ward)
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup plain yogurt (I used Greek)
1 cup heavy cream
2 egg whites
1 container fresh raspberries or strawberries
1 10 ounce package frozen raspberries or strawberries
1 jar Fran's Chocolate, out of San Francisco
1. Remove 2 tablespoons sugar from the 1/2 cup sugar and reserve the egg whites.
2. In a large bowl, whisk the sugar together with the yogurt.
3. In a separate bowl, whip the heavy cream until stiff and fold it into the yogurt mixture.
4. Beat the egg whites until foamy and expanded and add the reserved sugar. Beat until stiff. Fold the whites into the yogurt mixture.
5. Cut a pieceof cheesecloth, larger than the mold (or molds) to be used. Rinse the cloth in cold water and line a perorated mold with the wet cloth, letting the excess cloth hang over.
5. Fill the mold with the yogurt mixture, haling it neatly to level the surface. Fold over the overhang. Cover each mold with plastic wrap on the top side only.
7. Place on a rimmed tray or plate to train and refrigerate for 12-24 hours. Pour off the liquid as it accumulates to prevent the mold from sitting in liquid.
8) Un-mold the mixture by folding back the cheese cloth and placing a plate on the mold. Reverse the dish to remove the mold. Carefully, remove the cheese cloth. Outline the mold with fresh berries and serve with a puree of berries made from either sweetened fresh or frozen berries.