I ate toast with Deb’s almond butter this morning. And another piece of toast with her pesto. The top shelf of our fridge is filled with Deb’s condiments, which I requested just before she left. The idea occurred to me because my Air Force friend, Shelby, years ago presented me with a box of bottles before she and her family moved from Spokane to Colorado. Shelby said it was military tradition – the parting gift of mustards, sauces, chutneys and jams. We used the stuff to flavor, season and disguise food for months. With every splash of soy or dash of Tabasco, we thought of the Baslers.
Condiments are a sweet-and-sour inheritance from moving mates, a pragmatic solution to the question, ‘Do-I-throw-out-this-half-full-jam?’ Don’t pitch it, pass it on…
The night before she and her family left New Zealand to return to Spokane, Deb came by with two boxes of food. Not just ketchup and mustard, but a whole bag of frozen peas, a kilogram of ground beef, unopened bottles of cider and wine... “I hope it’s okay,” she said.
Ask Deb for a cup of milk and you’ll get a dairy farm. During our last girls’ night on the town (a raucous affair that had us sipping a single glass of wine for two hours at a restaurant whose menu is organized into chapters, plus an introduction, notes and epilogue), Deb picked up the tab.
“No, you got it last time,” I said. “It’s my turn.”
“Oh, I don’t keep track of that stuff,” she said.
She also bought our dinner at a Mexican restaurant two nights before she left. Don't tell her I told you.
The best people I know don’t keep score. They’ll give you a spare bed, bicycle, computer, a place to stay, then forget about it. That’s so Deb. So Shelby. So Lee, Leanne, Jennifer, Donna, Paula, Louise, Cheryl…
We’re rich not because of stuff (never the stuff!) but for what friends teach us – long after we leave our parents' homes, friends instruct us how to be nicer. When they’re gone, we miss their presence – and their subliminal coaching. Any act of kindness I've performed the past two decades is largely the result of what my friends have shown me to do.
I didn’t know Deb before she moved to Mount Maunganui. Mutual friends from Spokane connected us after she got a job doctoring for a practice across the bridge in Tauranga. Deb had decided to fulfill a decades-old desire to live in New Zealand. Because she has a fiancé and an ex-husband in the States, she’d have just one year to live the dream. Over several emails, I suggested places she might consider renting and steered her from neighborhoods I deemed dodgy. I circled the perimeter of a house she found online and told her it looked great.
We developed the immediate kinship two expats form with someone from their old town. We could talk about Spokane’s lake culture, harsh winters, favorite vacation spots and about more important issues – family and relationships.
Deb dove into New Zealand like a Kiwi, just back from overseas, tucks into steak and cheese pie – unreservedly, with gusto. She’d climb the Mount and cycle the Karangahake Gorge before noon, then spend the afternoon paddle boarding in the ocean. She said her adopted home was the first place she felt deep in her bones she belonged.
Colleagues and patients embraced Doctor Deb, showering her with freshly-baked pies, mountain bike trips and that most precious commodity – time.
The day she left, with tears in her eyes and a box of tissues tucked into her elbow, she said, “I feel like a baby being ripped from its mother’s arms.”
She paused while hanging a wide-brimmed straw hat in the hallway of her rental house. “You want this? It’s ours, but we're not bringing it.”
I’ll take the hat, but I’d rather you stay.
I write this not just as a see-you-later for my friend, but as a reminder we can all be the spark for someone else. We can revel in our corner of the world rather than lament what we lack. Our sunsets are numbered. Deb’s year abroad has flown for us both – another signal of time eluding our grasp, slipping like sand through a sieve.
A journalism mentor once told our class, “There are two kinds of stories – ‘Going on a journey,’ and ‘The stranger comes to town.’”
Sometimes, when the stranger comes to town, she takes us on a journey – a trip to rediscover wonder and the possibilities of place.
And when wonder makes me hungry, I smile as I open yet another parting gift - the jar of almond butter in the fridge.