Today is my grandmother’s birthday.
She’ll likely be celebrating the day quietly with my parents in Aurora, the Missouri town in which she has lived for more than 60 of her 83 years.
Because I spent most of my childhood in Aurora, I’ve always been close with Gaga, but in recent years, as I’ve had my own children and started thinking beyond just the span of years that I will enjoy on this planet, she and I have grown even closer. As the matriarch of our family, she is the keeper of many family stories that she inherited from her own relatives, and I’ve been trying to get her to tell me as many of them as we can squeeze in during each of our visits. (That’s her with Avery in June 2011.)
Last Mother’s Day, I wrote this post about how the community cookbook I was working on for the Austin Food Blogger Alliance aligned with my feminist and genealogical interests.
Fast forward a year to this Mother’s Day weekend. Not only do we have an actual cookbook to show for our efforts, at 4 p.m. today, I will be talking about the book with my fellow contributors at BookPeople, Austin’s premiere bookstore.
It’s a happy coincidence that our event today is on my grandmother’s birthday, a fact that I forgot to mention in an interview I did last weekend with Cecilia Nasti, who produces a food segment on the local NPR stations called Field and Feast. Nasti and I spent Sunday morning making Gaga’s coffeecake, one of my two recipes in the Austin Food Blogger Alliance Cookbook and one that embodies the kind of storytelling through food that I have come to appreciate as my love of family, history, food and journalism have converged in the last few years.
Gaga and I had a cathartic cry over the phone a few weeks ago when she finally got her copy of the book and read the story about our family coming to the U.S. from Sweden in the late 1800s that introduces the coffeecake recipe. I feel so lucky to get to share these moments with her and to have her support as I continue this very personal journey.
But there’s a lingering sadness in my heart when it comes time to celebrate her birthday each year.
This is Troy.
He would have turned 30 today.
Long before I was a mom, a blogger, a cookbook editor or a food writer, I was a simply a journalism student at Mizzou who was interested in storytelling.
So was Troy.
He’d grown up in a small town in Southwest Missouri not far from my small town, but we didn’t meet until we moved to Columbia to go to school.
After our first meeting sometime that freshman year (I think it was a Maneater party, if I remember correctly), we were inseparable, connected by a love of magazines, music, road trips, new experiences, foreign languages and big cities. We traveled to New York, Madison, Austin, San Diego, England, Spain and Italy together, and as we progressed in J-school, took class after class together, sharing our hopes and dreams of what we might accomplish with the stories we’d one day tell.
After graduation, he moved to Florida for a job he loved at a newspaper in Sarasota, and in June 2006, when I was two months pregnant with Julian and didn’t know it yet, he was killed in a freak car accident.
I was so fraught with grief that I didn’t realize I was carrying a child for another two months.
Becoming a mom and losing my best friend in the same year remains the hardest experience I’ve ever gone through, and not a day goes by that I don’t think about the connection of the two. And with every new experience or growth in my personal and professional life, I mourn the loss of those same experiences for my dearest friend.
It’s a sadness that I know I will carry with me until my last day, but in the past seven years, I’ve tried to honor that grief by thinking about Troy on days like today, when I’m doing something that I know he’d be so incredibly proud of.
Telling stories — and helping other people tell their stories — is something for which so many of us feel a calling, no matter if we recognize it and turn it into a career or if we unknowingly honor that calling by sharing stories over something as simple as a slice of coffeecake and a cup of coffee.
We often like to tell the stories that fill us with pride and joy, but when you really start digging and getting to know a person, stories that aren’t so happy inevitably emerge. These are the stories that can put a crack in our voices and an unspeakable pain in our hearts, but they are the stories that also define who we are.
Being a storyteller means embracing all the stories, not just the ones with happy endings.