She sent me the stewed tomato and pappardelle recipe in the form of a sloppily photocopied clipping from the Wall Street Journal, which she annotated in her rather loopy handwriting, using pencil, of course. It was one of the countless recipes she passed along over the years. “She” being my grade 6 English teacher, who became a mentor, a confidant, and, after I moved to a big city that made her constantly fret about me, a faithful pen pal.
With each recipe came a quick story or a recap of the latest meal: “The roast last evening was a triumph, and we have dandy leftovers.” But it was weeks after she sent the pappardelle recipe that I realized she’d gone to the post office somewhat prematurely — before trying it herself. She emailed with a follow‑up from the kitchen: the dish was indeed a success, despite the fact that she’d cut the pancetta too thick. Oh, and the titular noodles were impossible to find in my hometown, population 2,000. Fettuccine was the best she could manage. “But still, wrong pasta and everything, it’s pretty good.”
Day after day, week after week, she would send me updates: some short, some long, most — on the surface and taken on their own — rather inane. She would mention a quick weekend away (“The trip was fruitful, fishing-wise”). She’d write about the latest policy that the new superintendent, who had never actually taught a day in his life, had instituted at school. She’d say how much she loved the latest Inspector Gamache novel. “Louise Penny will be a grand person,” she hunted and pecked on her keyboard one August day, in anticipation of a book signing in Omaha. “Even if she’s not.” (Louise Penny, for the record, proved amazing.)
She was my very own Helene Hanff, the charming screenwriter and transatlantic friend of British booksellers past. She boxed up and shipped foodstuffs she was convinced didn’t exist in Toronto, and she never forgot to wish me well on the random holidays that brought her joy — April Fool’s and Pi Day being her favourites.
Her name no longer appears in my inbox, and every day I wish it would. From time to time, at least, I stumble upon a random comic strip that she once found humorous, cut out of the newspaper, and laminated so that I would never run out of bookmarks (an occupational hazard for someone like me, she was sure).
It’s not the incoming waves of bookmarks that I have missed the most these past few years but the measured perspective on this ever-perplexing world of ours, the assurance that little has actually changed since I was that ever-perplexed eleven-year-old trying to diagram a stubborn sentence. “It wasn’t so long ago that you were the one who required patience,” she would remind me when I was convinced things were infuriatingly bleak. “At least you are an incredibly fast learner, so no one had to be patient very long.”
That was before these restless pandemic times — times that would have caused her no end of worry, especially for those of us in cities. I know exactly what she would have said about stockpiling the right foods, avoiding crowded spaces, and appreciating that, at the very least, there was Peet’s Coffee, the Moccamaster, and a pile of books to read. Nonetheless, I’ve been wishing she was here to actually say it.
Then I found her again, or at least a whisper, in M. A. C. Farrant’s One Good Thing: A Living Memoir. No pasta recipes appear in Farrant’s beguiling new book, which takes the form of garrulous, often amusing letters addressed to Helen Chesnut, the real-life garden columnist for the Times Colonist, in Victoria. This is a one-way epistolary relationship, centred on cucumbers and soil conditions and the existential questions that plague the author: about aging, climate change, around-the-clock news coverage, and the sudden arrival of unwanted change.
“I always look at what groceries people buy”— Farrant’s words, but I hear another’s familiar voice in them. “Is there such a thing as a confidentiality code with cashiers, like there is with doctors, lawyers, and priests?” And when it comes to the coronavirus, “isn’t what we’re living through now . . . epic poem material?” Yes, she would have asked that too.
One Good Thing shows how garden-variety imperfections can still be instructive, delicious, even wonderful. They can distract us, momentarily perhaps, but to positive effect, from all that remains wrong and bleak and contested in the world. So thank you, M. A. C. Farrant, for your quotidian meditations, which, when folded together, are most nourishing.