Brian Shea tells stories of his mom and his male friends, through the rituals that connected them all.
When you are twelve, being assigned even small chores by your mother is a laborious injustice. There are woods to explore, comics to help you escape uneventful summer days, and rivers to hunt elusive trout. Through the narrow lens of my youthful perspective, my task of going to the cellar freezer to retrieve frozen broccoli for dinner was God’s reminder that my leash remained squarely fastened.
On a hazy summer day in 1981, however, my scowl was tempered as I plodded down the cellar stairs to get my dreaded broccoli. That day was different; the smirk on my face was invisible in the dark cellar, but I could feel it push the sides of my mouth upwards. I had a plan.
I composed a plot to pass my summer doldrums: Operation Black Bag Broccoli. There were unpalatable vegetables in that basement freezer to be sure and they couldn’t be completely avoided. But without darkness there would be no light and our freezer was stocked with that prince of culinary indulgences, ice cream. Growing up in New York City, my mother adored her orange Creamsicles and kept a supply of premium frozen treats in our freezer at all times. I shared her genetic addiction to ice cream and it remains my sanctuary in difficult times.
I proceeded down the basement stairs. Passing underneath the pipes that lined the basement ceiling, I reached the freezer and looked suspiciously to each side and then again behind, to make sure I was alone. My silver soup spoon glimmered softly in the limited light. I opened the freezer, arctic air rushing over my body in the darkness. I removed the half-gallon carton of mint chip elixir and carefully lifted the cover. Wisps of frozen flavor ascended to my nostrils. Mother had her orange creamsicles but for me, the refreshing mint, the dense, almost umami-like quality of the chocolate, and the cream to bind it all together could lift any burden from my young mind. I was my mother’s son but was finding my own way through the universe of flavor. I was a mint chip man.
Replacing a newly opened carton of ice cream with no evidence of tampering was no easy task. With my mother’s footsteps just above my head, I held the spoon against the side of the ice cream container; when cold, it would scrape shavings of my frozen treat without melting the ice cream below. If the spoon grew too warm, drifts of melted ice cream would remain, which would then re-freeze to a molecular structure distinct from the surrounding dessert. Such evidence told the careful observer that someone had been there before.
After re-cooling the spoon on the side of the ice cream container, I gently ran the spoon’s edge in a counter-clockwise motion across the ice cream’s surface, from the outer perimeter towards the center. Thin, frozen waves of ice cream rose and curled downward before the advancing spoon. Then, when I could resist no longer, I placed it in my mouth.
For several minutes longer than it should take a twelve-year-old to retrieve broccoli, I flattened the small ridges I had created with the smooth surface of the spoon. I inspected my work and was pleased. I hid the spoon in its new home on top of the freezer, just inside the shadows, where it would be waiting for me on future visits.
Despite the admiration I held for my own ingenuity, it was not without some guilt that I delivered the broccoli to my mother upstairs. She had always trusted me and placed few restrictions on my activities beyond the occasional freezer run. By high school, I could tell her I was going out with my friends and she never imposed curfews or asked questions.
This was in part because my friends were, as she once described them, “good men.” She trusted them. If she drove them anywhere, she always found money tucked between the car seat cushions for gas, hidden to ensure she would find it only after it was too late to refuse it. While our classmates devoted their energies to beer and avoiding the police, my friends were more interested in a good meal or a hike in the mountains.
My friends had “old souls,” my mother once said, and she knew we would be friends for the entirety of our lives: Ken, AKA “Cooky,” the future chef. Dean, the future veterinarian. Scott, the future evolutionary plant biologist and fly fisherman and his twin brother, Eric. Vin, the musician. Rob, the entrepreneur.
“I hope you appreciate how good you’ve got it,” she once said to me years later. “It’s very rare to have friends like that. Don’t lose sight of it.”
These men would sit around my mother’s kitchen table many times, listening to her stories and drinking Earl Grey tea as we grew from youths to adults. I listened to Vin share his love of music with my mother, a former music teacher and like Vin, a devotee of the French Horn. Her kitchen also welcomed Scott many times, who enjoyed seeking wisdom from my mother as the two of us tied trout flies and discussed the next river we would explore. Cooky spent as many hours in the same room entertaining my mother with the comic ironies he observes in daily life that others allow to pass unnoticed. Before long, he would see what my mother was cooking and the two would share culinary insights with a vocabulary I had yet to learn. Dean began and mastered a career in veterinary medicine with periodic visits to my mother’s kitchen table, graciously accepting tea with the manners of a gentleman and providing a quick examination of the family dog with his growing expertise.
It was by Dean’s hand that our first family dog, a Shetland Sheepdog named Wee Ted of Dundee, “Teddy” for short, was gently put to sleep after his battle with cancer. Bringing her beloved but suffering dog to the vet’s office for the last time was torment for my mother, who adopted the pain of other living things as her own. But she was tremendously comforted when it was my old friend Dean who waited by the office entrance to ensure our little Dundee friend would suffer no more. Dean was a good man who, like all my friends, always sought to comfort those who suffered. It made all the difference and my mother never forgot it.
Since 1986, my band of gentlemen friends has converged on New Hampshire’s White Mountains every Halloween to hike the remote trails and camp. Cooky prepares gourmet meals from scratch on a campfire, which have included a full Thanksgiving dinner, a leg of lamb with cranberry-onion stuffing, personal sized pastries with berry reduction glaze, and peaberry coffee custom-roasted on the north shore of Oahu. Hikers who dine on granola and trail mix are viewed with combination of curiosity and sympathy.
It is a ritual we observe without fail and our group’s members have traveled from Virginia, Alaska, Wyoming, Taiwan, and Japan to be there every year. Somewhere along the line, we adopted the title of The Tea Fellowship, migrating to our northern home to once again catch up on each other’s lives, dine on gourmet food in the forest, and cleanse our lungs with White Mountain air before promptly defiling it with cigar smoke. On the first Saturday of the hike at 9 PM EST, we raise our metal mugs over the fire to toast those Fellows unable to be present, who in turn raise a toast to us from wherever they may be at precisely the same moment.
It made my mother proud that we dedicated ourselves to our friendship and the Halloween Hike in order to observe it on an annual basis. She enjoyed my descriptions of Cooky’s latest culinary achievement prepared on charcoal and often in a sleet storm in the dark. She marveled that her prediction had been correct: almost thirty years and we were still friends, still meeting every October to explore the northern mountains, albeit with widening bellies and receding hairlines. In a world where Facebook “friends” don’t actually speak very often, I had it good. Almost too good, and I knew it.
In September of 2012, a month before the 27th Halloween Hike, the other shoe dropped with the sound of the phone ringing. My mother’s surgery to correct a failing heart valve had resulted in an infection. I needed to get to New Hampshire immediately.
She had become reflective in her later years and I later realized we had said goodbye, in a sense, when she expressed her satisfaction with her children not long ago.
“I don’t worry about any of you,” she had said. We had all settled into healthy marriages and found work of meaning. We had evaded the demon of my father’s alcoholism. We liked each other. We had the best of friends and more importantly, we didn’t let ourselves forget it.
“I know you’re all going to be just fine,” she concluded.
It is the moment all children face but that remains unbelievable, surreal, to each and every one. My sisters and I stood around her bed, listening to her breathing fade over Handel’s Water Music, a piece she had always loved and that we played to comfort her. If music is the record of one’s emotions, Water Music now floods my head with feelings that no longer resemble the light cheer it once invoked. I rarely make it past the second suite before turning it off.
With my mother’s last breath, I wept openly for the first time in probably 35 years. My divinely long run of good luck had run its course. Stumbling out of the ICU, my mind was bombarded by the chaotic emotion of loss and the cold list of obligations that now lay before me. Estates. Arrangements for cremation. Death certificates.
More immediately, there were people who loved her but didn’t know she was gone. There were family members who deserved to be notified first, of course. Blood is supposed to trump all other loyalties. But as I lowered my fingers to the keyboard, it was the Tea Fellowship I found myself writing to first. I could not bear to utter the words out loud and sought sanctuary in a cowardly email. I let them know the regard and love she had always extended to them. I let them know that she thought them the best of men.
At 44, I have been blessed with more happy rituals than most. My old friends will once again return to the White Mountains in October. Our laughter will again echo among the granite peaks of my home state. We will applaud Cooky’s roasts and stews. We will share our growing bags of pain killers and knee braces to stem our advancing age. We will raise our mugs once again at 9 PM EST to toast absent friends and loved ones now gone. This October will be the 28th Annual Halloween Hike of The Tea Fellowship. But September will mark Year One of a new ritual, at least for me. You will find me in the frozen foods section, looking for an orange creamsicle.
It was Cooky who responded to my email first. He had lost his own mother to cancer only a few years before, and we raised mugs in tribute to her over our campfire that October. It had been the first loss of a parent in our group and I had spent many hours around her table as a youth, much as Cooky had done around mine. He confronted his loss with a bravery I envy.
“We will, of course, need to raise a glass for ours who have passed,” he said. “I know words can only be a hollow comfort for loss. We are left with memories joyful and sad.
Just know this: Mom always knew you were shaving off bits of ice cream. She just let you think you were getting away with it.
With sincere heartfelt sorrow, Cooky.”
Photo of Brian Shea’s mom courtesy of author