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My Secret Weapon

I  was introduced to Christy the year that I abruptly went from sous chef to head chef in the dysfunctional yet totally lovable cafe where I had been happily learning everything I could while avoiding all the stress and responsibilities of the head chef.

My promotion came about after the head chef, Sarah, cut off the tip of her finger in her car door, forcing her to lay down her knife and step away from the bench for the foreseeable future. The Co-op kitchen, which worked on a wing and a prayer, had neither the time or money to dither around looking for someone more qualified than me.

When I took over the kitchen, all I had going for me was a good palate, team spirit, and a burning desire to cook good food from scratch for others to enjoy. As for commercial cooking experience, I had none, yet encouragement from others was enough for me to try to be Sarah–herself a mere mortal–who on a daily basis produced a staggering amount of food, from scratch, in a grossly inadequate kitchen.

When I inherited the Alternative Food Co-op kitchen I was desperate to prove myself worthy of the trust placed in me, and being the competitive person that I am, there was no way that I was going to let Sarah’s breakneck pace slide on my watch. That year, I worked my ass off, had nightmares and anxiety attacks about lentils, learned a ton, became a very efficient and cost effective cook and had a strangely wonderful experience.

Sarah’s gift to me in my hour of need, after I suddenly found myself in charge of the cafe kitchen, was Christy.The Alternative Food Co-op Kitchen, just like the Food Co-op storefront, had volunteers. Christy, who was Sarah’s loyal friend and a fan of the Co-op, would volunteer every Tuesday morning in the kitchen.

When Sarah explained that Christy would be coming in on a weekly basis to prep whatever prep vegetables I needed for the week, I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of what she was saying. My head was already spinning, worrying about my margins, paper good orders, food allergies, the limited baking that I would have to do each day, my dreadful lack of storage and space, the inexorable and perpetually empty cold case, daily specials, and how to make three soups a day on an electric range with only four burners.

Within a week I came to know the awesome power of Christy. She came in to volunteer on my first Tuesday morning, as I was opening for the day. She was cheerful and energetic just like I am in the morning, and demanded to know what I needed done. I didn’t yet know what I needed done, so she just did what she would have normally done for Sarah, while I pretended that I knew what I needed done.

Christy was my secret weapon. Each week, she would come in and prep a week’s supply of onions, eggplant, potatoes, and anything else I asked for, depending on what was going on with the produce department. Having at my disposal, pounds of prepared staples, while I struggled to keep my head above water, was an incredible luxury in the insanity of the co-op kitchen. The humble work she performed each week atop our chest freezer (because there was no space in the kitchen) gave me the freedom to imagine and execute soups and daily specials that I would not have been able to pull off without her help.

Christy was no saint and she was no chump. She was very clear about what she was willing to do for the Co-op. In an environment completely staffed by women who were less forthright about boundaries than me or Christy, I really appreciated her directness.

Christy’s openness was refreshingly easy for me to work with. She was there one time a week for four hours to chop and prep vegetables. It was clear that the payoff for her was engagement and interaction with others and a sweet discount on her organic produce, which she took advantage of each week.

Not only did Christy give me material support, she lifted me up as I struggled to get my legs under me. When she said I had made something good, I believed her. When she had suggestions, I listened, except for the time she suggested that we make ice cubes out of coffee for the iced coffee station, and then I wanted to spank her. She was a good listener. She said I could do the job and because she wasn’t a bullshitter, I believed her.

Christy, I came to find out, was much older than her youthful good looks would have one believe, and she taught me a lot about how to take better care of myself.

Christy’s approach to life and relationships was straightforward and uncomplicated. She valued herself and cherished the people in her life who were close to her, and did not appear to waste time or energy on those who were not worthy. I have taken a page from her book and applied it to myself and have enjoyed better mental health thanks to her.

I moved on from the Co-op and worked in a few more kitchens. My crash course in kitchen management at the Co-op was like learning to ski on one leg. Any subsequent kitchen environment has been a cake walk as long as the people are good to work with.

Christy and I kept up with each other after the Co-op and it was interesting and somewhat flattering to learn that she did not offer her services to the chef who came after me.

Maybe Christy needed someone less circumspect to work around than the person I hired to replace me. Sarah, Christy and I shared the same sense of humor. Between the three of us, there were few topics that were off the table. Christy could make me howl by talking about the vegetable delivery man’s “package”.

Last April, I decided I would try a yoga class at the new gym I had just joined. As I stepped into the room, somewhat trepidatiously, a woman barked at me–she was worried that I was going to defile the sacred yoga space in my unclean shoes.

Totally flummoxed and fighting back the urge to simultaneously flip off the yoga Nazi and flee the studio, I heard a familiar voice say my name with obvious pleasure. It was Christy. Grateful and relieved to see a friendly and familiar face, I joyfully made my way toward her and happily muddled my way through the class while keeping my eye on her for guidance on how to do the poses. For a gal in her 70s, Christy had a rockin’ little figure, a cute butt, and she was super strong.

I wanted to monopolize Christy after yoga each week, but she was always busy as a bee and in high demand with other people. She was always genuinely interested in, and open to other people. An avid gardener, she had a lot in common with our instructor who loves tropical plants and they always had a lot to talk about.

It was beyond shocking when I read Christy’s email to me with the subject line “I’m gettin’ out”. She explained that life after 70 only gets worse and that she was getting out “while the getting was good”. She included several quotes about suicide that had resonated with her and then reiterated that suicide was her choice and told me not to be sad. By the time I saw her email, it was a done deal.

When I got her email, I was in the visitor’s center of Big Bend National Park checking my email for the week. My Royal Consort had just learned moments earlier that one of his cousins had also taken his life. Gobsmacked, we drove out into the desert and walked in the late afternoon sun for over 8 miles.

The temperatures in the desert that day were in the low 80s, and our hike was very hot and not particularly interesting for the first few miles. We walked separately, me thinking about Christy, and he thinking about his cousin.

Christy was no martyr and by the end of the hike, which ended up being very beautiful and soothing to my soul, I concluded that my gal had, in her organized and straightforward way, done what she wanted to do. She got out while “the getting was good” because she wanted to. She sidestepped whatever it was that she saw coming and didn’t want to have to endure.

Christy was not one to do what she did not want to do. She was single and did not have any kids. She was a babe. Maybe she dreaded being old and out of control of her own life. From where I am, healthy, happily married with two beautiful sons, with enough money to live comfortably, I cannot begin to walk in her shoes. As open and forthright as she was, she was also mysterious and obviously there was much I did not know.

This is not my first experience with suicide. Desperately ill and near death, but not near enough for her liking, my mother enlisted me to help her commit suicide. We were not close but we did share a certain practicality and I am not without empathy. I agreed to leave her pill bottles open and then leave her alone to access them on her own. To my relief, her attempt was unsuccessful and I was completely traumatized for many years after. I tried to remember if I had ever told Christy about that experience.

By the end of the atrociously hot and heartbroken walk in the desert, I had to hand it to Christy. Suicide is not something that I think about as an option, just as I don’t think about different variations (aside from the ones that interest me) when I am having sex. Having said that, just because I don’t think about suicide doesn’t mean that for some people it is not a reasonable thing to think about. According to Christy, suicide is only terrifying to some people.

My conclusion was, after reading Christy’s suicide note to me and then grieving in the desert, that I do not understand suicide and that I must trust in the Christy I knew in order to understand and accept the Christy I did not know–the Christy who mindfully destroyed her own beautiful and functional body and snuffed out the engaged and empowered spirit it contained.

I regret that after yoga one day I could not convince Christy to take off of my hands an abundance of native Rhode Island liatris, given to me as tiny bulbs by my botanist friend, Hope. Christy refused them, explaining in no uncertain terms that she was not a fan of liatris. Since I could not describe the native liatris to her satisfaction because I had not yet seen it bloom, she was not interested.

Christy did what she wanted to do, and did not do what she did not want to do, and that is my only comfort.

12 comments

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  1. Amber Kelley Collins says:

    I can close my eyes and see her over there chopping vegetables on the chest freezer. We are still reeling. What a lady.
    Be well, it’s good to read your writing

    1. admin says:

      Those were good times.

  2. Kim Falcone says:

    Oh, LaVie-this hit so close to home. I appreciate your candor, reliving those years at 357 Main. I’ve had the same thoughts about our friend. Christy did not do what she did not want to do. And did what she wanted to do-although I was initially shocked (learned the news before I received the e-mail) after a few moments of contemplation, I was not surprised. I do regret, however that the last time I saw her, at a dinner that I hosted for her and the Co-op lades in late December, she seemed sullen and hypercritical of my home and some of what was served at dinner. I thought she was just having a bad day. I should have reached out to her afterwards but it was close to Christmas and I was involved in my own sh**t. Not that it would have made any difference. She had been planning this for long time, I think. Yes, this is what she wanted. Pragmatic to the very end. That’s our Christy.k

    1. admin says:

      I have to think that her head contained a raging sea at that dinner… and that she was overwhelmed by details and maybe ambivalence by being around her friends. I’ve noticed that kids can be awful before they leave home for good and I’ve often thought that they do it as a way of distancing themselves from the people they care about deeply. Love to you, Kim ?

  3. Mark P. Fisher says:

    Thanks for putting pen to paper, Liz. We are lucky to connect with some great people in this life. Death sure makes us appreciate them.

    1. admin says:

      We sure are. Thanks for reading, Mark

  4. Sarah says:

    Thank you for this beautifully written, wrenching and thought-provoking piece. I miss you very much. I will miss Christy for a long time, and selfishly wish she had not made this decision at this time.

    1. admin says:

      I feel the same way. It’s up to me to figure it out. I miss you too and wish I could be with you now.

  5. Debby Drew says:

    Thank you LaVie for this lovely tribute. I loved Christy. She was in charge of the herbs when I worked at the coop and gave it her all when she was there and then she was gone. She did not linger. She had a way of being totally present but somehow mysterious. Like you, suicide is far from my consciousness and it is hard for me to accept her choice but so be it. On a happier note, we are loving our peace corps life here in Nicaragua and I have taken a job in the peace corps office so we will be here a few more years at least. Come and visit! You would love it here! We could toast the life of Christy Russell!

    1. admin says:

      Thank you for getting in touch. As usual, after sending this out into the universe to be read, I worried that I might not have gotten it right. I’m hoping that when I get home a few of us can raise a glass to Christy. So glad you are enjoying life in Nic! We will take you up on your offer! Xoxo

  6. Amy says:

    This is so beautifully written. I’m so sorry, both of you for your loss. ️Xoxo

    1. admin says:

      Thank you.

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