My husband politely declines the Brussels sprouts I am spooning up at dinner this evening, but my mom and I heap our plates with the little green globes of goodness.
I ask mom if she recalls the first time I ate this misunderstood, under-appreciated veggie, and of course, she has no idea. I remember in vivid detail.
I see my small self: a pony-tailed 8- or 9-year-old sitting at a chrome kitchen table, getting in trouble for kicking my feet against the table legs. We were having dinner with my mom’s childhood friend, Norma — better known as “Red” for her fire-flame hair and equally feisty personality.
Red plopped a pile of sprouts on my plate, and I was instantly intrigued. Not only did I think the baby cabbages adorable, I actually liked the taste. My mom — who was never much of a cook — learned to make them, and I looked forward to dinners when the much maligned sprouts called me to the table.
Now, these decades later, spring’s sprouts — swimming in a pool of melted butter — take me back to my childhood: Summers spent on splintery benches, cheering on the local softball team; eating snow cones under the bleachers, ribbons of sticky syrup dripping down my elbows, plopping into dusty dugouts.
Red took me to the games to watch her son, Duke, play ball. She was the mouthy mother in the stands. My mom, quiet and shy, was generally appalled by Red’s outbursts. I secretly admired her moxy. This was the lady who could cook, change the oil in the car, run a business and run me ragged on forays to estate sales and antique shops. Soon, under Red’s tutelage, I learned the difference between barley twist and old hickory.
Red was my mom’s best friend, and I loved hearing stories about their girlhoods; recollections of skinned knees and playing paper dolls under the Oklahoma pines; first crushes and the summer they spent as carhops, balancing malts and burgers on metal trays at their small-town drive-in. I heard how they pooled their money as college coeds and bought a car they affectionately named Shaboom. My mom being an only child, Red was the aunt I never had.
When she was diagnosed with cancer, I flew home from California where I was living at the time, and my mom and I took Red to experimental treatments in San Antonio in a last-chance effort to buy her a little time. My next trip back to Texas was for Red’s funeral. I stood in the back of the funeral home and wept beside my mom. She refused to go to the casket, and I held her hand, trying to grasp the heartbreak of losing a lifelong friend. Many of my mom’s friends are gone now, and I wonder if she remembers them, can recall the carefree days of her youth.
Tonight, I marvel at the things that make us remember. Tonight, a humble bowl of Brussles sprouts has me thinking of Red and all her fiery glory.