An onion, or two, for Valentine’s Day.
“Not a red rose or a satin heart,” as poet Carol Ann Duffy wrote. Nor “a cute card or a kissogram.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with those.
But it is both so much more simple and so much more complicated to give and be given any tangible gift of love.
I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.
I am trying to be truthful.
Love is often linked, aptly and sometimes egregiously, not only to light and dark but to food and drink. Comfort foods which harken back to the idiosyncratic home cooking of childhood, at least for those, unlike my own sons and daughters, lucky enough to have grown up with a competently sustained culinary oeuvre. Obscenely costly symbols—authentic Champagne, caviar, pure 24K gold itself shaved over Black Forest Truffles as insular and dense as volcanic rock. Family recipes handed down for better and for worse. Flourlesss chocolate wedding cake. Fresh cardinal-red strawberries and purple cauliflower. Friends who make and feed us the only foods we can manage to eat in times of abject grief.
In my experience, rarely had love’s layers been called to mind by the sulfenic acid particulates which aerosolize as one dissects a vegetable.
But on my counter sits a stalwart couple: a towering purple onion listing slightly over its companion, a small golden onion, as if giving shelter. They have long outlasted all their brethren, delivered to me by a friend not driven to distraction with anxiety at the thought of going inside in winter to purchase daily bread. Only their surfaces are slightly worse for wear, separating along sepia fissures at their translucent outermost layers, furling ever so slightly, more like Rilke’s unending rose petals than the chafing away of our own perishable brittle epidermal layers, cracked by sub-zero cold.
Although I unceremoniously felled some of their brethren, I do not plan to do harm to these companionable Alliums.
I consider them my Valentines.
Early in the pandemic, knowing both of the exceedingly difficult anniversaries which inhabit my outsized winters and in-house medical issues (soon to be compounded by my mother’s CoVid diagnosis), friends from work began driving significant distances to bring me food.
After a scale revealed that I had dipped down into double digits, another friend drove from two states away to deliver troves of healthy food, including bountiful salads someone had endured quite a lot of volatile red onion vapor to adorn. . .along with a not inconsiderable amount of my favorite less healthy treats. The sustaining bounty arrived on my birthday, and again to fortify me for the hollowed-out holidays which followed. My brother brought me highly sweetened booze, just in case, to toast my birthday and Jim’s, although of course Jim does not age. A friend sent Maine coffee to warm my mornings, and then decaffeinated coffee once I had to forgo the real thing.
A century ago, in the pandemic season of her time, Julia Neill Sullivan, at 72, cooked pots of food in the small cottage on Ireland’s west coast where she had raised thirteen children, hauling meals across a stony field to those stricken by influenza and too weak to feed themselves. More than 50 million people perished worldwide, but her own grace in her remote corner of the world ensured that others would survive. Generations have followed them.
Suffering and deprivations are immense. It is hard to know where to begin, and daunting to consider all that we cannot heal or fix—certainly not by ourselves, and maybe not while we still walk here.
But the gift of grace is ours to take as far as each of us can carry it. It is exponential and enduring. Trauma can unfold and carry its scars across time, but so does the grace “to help in time of need.”
In his last newspaper column, at the end of May, Jim Dwyer wrote about those who at their own peril now come to the throne, to feed the sick and those whose calling is to minister to them. He also gifted us all with this final sentence about what Julia Sullivan did a century ago: “In times to come, when we are all gone, people not yet born will walk in the sunshine of their own days because of what women and men did at this hour to feed the sick, to heal and comfort.”
Food is not, strictly speaking, love, but the impulse and the calling to bring or serve sustenance to someone else is. We all need, and may be called upon to give, any “provision for the way” that we are capable of giving.