Many years ago, when I was in my twenties and living in San Francisco, holiday meals were always at Denise’s. Fifteen or 20 of us would pile into her apartment with appetizers and side dishes and wine and sweets–or, if we couldn’t afford it, just our hungry selves– to accompany whatever gorgeous main dish she had prepared. None of us, including Denise, were from California. All of us had made the pilgrimage to the West Coast, has left families back East. Holidays could have been a lonely time. But because of her generosity and joyful light, they never were.
On holidays, Denise, who was no older than the rest of us, was our Earth Mother. She created a space for us to enjoy some of the best holidays I ever had—before or since. I remember sitting in her kitchen eating Ritz crackers and cream cheese (something my organic-eating self would never have eaten at home, but loving every single mouthful of) while she cooked and told stories and laughed. Denise was from Guatemala, had had a tough childhood, had lived in grinding poverty, but it was some time before she shared that with me, and I would have never guessed.
My beautiful white dog, Shambalah, was always invited. She was the only four-legged who was. Denise lived by the park where I walked Shambalah, and on weekends we would sometimes stop in to visit with Denise, who would always coo and fuss over Shambalah for minutes before looking up with her brilliant smile and asking me how I was. Once, only once, I stopped by Denise’s without Shambalah. I never made that mistake again.
We were friends in the days before Facebook, before the Internet, before personal computers. I moved from San Francisco, to New Mexico, to New Jersey, and finally back home to Chicago. Somewhere on that trip back home, I lost my address book. I lost all of my school buddies, all of my work buddies. I lost everyone. Including Denise.
I think of Denise from time to time, especially at holidays. Much of my young, and even not-so-young, adult life was spent in turmoil, in sadness, in depression. Holidays could be a dark time. And so I thank Denise for the beautiful memories, for her kindness, her generosity. And I thank her for showing all of us, for showing me, the true meaning of the holidays, the true meaning of family.
I am a happy person now, but I know many are not. Many are lonely and afraid, hungry, ill, homeless. This holiday season, and throughout the year, I will do my best to share the little piece of Denise that will always live in my heart.
I hope you will be moved to share your thoughts.
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