I was working in my office last week when I heard the crash. I lowered my head and waited for the report as I heard footsteps dash across the floor. “Mom!” Saoirse burst into the room. “The electricians dropped something big, and….I’m so sorry, Mom!” She paused, a few tears of sympathy in the corners of her eyes, “They broke your Bill Knoble pitcher.”
I stood up and went in to assess the damage. One electrician managed to have an unexpected errand to his truck, conveniently avoiding me. The other stood there in the kitchen, watching me, waiting for my reaction.
I looked at the shattered mess on my kitchen counter. Damn. That was a four-chicken pitcher.
I’d first come across Bill Knoble’s pottery as a teenager, during a camping trip to the Adirondack Mountains. Something about his work spoke directly to my heart, and I’d bought myself a simple small blue bowl. I didn’t drink hot beverages from mugs after that. I sipped them from my bowl. I loved to immerse my face in the steam, to feel my spirit surrounded by the rich cobalt color, to allow my mind to drift away to those mountains that I loved so well. That little bowl traveled through four college transfers with me, and never broke until I’d made it back home to Sap Bush Hollow. But on the day it broke, it felt as though my heart shattered along with the pottery.
The internet wasn’t as prevalent back then, but Bob worked diligently over the phone to track down this mysterious potter from the mountains, whose simple and elegant work brought me so much pleasure. He called the chamber of commerce from the town where I’d visited, and kept talking to people until he found Bill’s studio in Chestertown. For my 24th birthday, he drove me up to see him. We both fell in love with Bill. He made us laugh with his dry humor, he attentively asked us about ourselves, as though our paths were as interesting as his own. We bought two blue mugs. It was all we could afford. But the next year, we drove back and bought ourselves two blue plates.
It became an annual trek, where Bob and I would slowly purchase just a few pieces at a time to furnish our home. Bill deserved every bit of money he asked for his work. We never quibbled. But he knew his pieces were a stretch for us. That was when he suggested the barter. From that arrangement, our house was suddenly full of beautiful pottery: lamb chops and sausages exchanged for plates and mugs; chickens exchanged for mixing bowls and the (now broken) water pitcher. We developed a lasting friendship. Sometimes we would drive up to bring him food and pick up pieces; sometimes he would drive down to deliver his wares, just as I was coming out of the cutting room with fresh packs of sausage.
We were happy for Bill when, at the age of about 60, he met the love of his life and moved to her farm, where he began raising his own meat. But we were sad that it took him even farther north, a good three and a half hours from our home. The annual treks stopped.
But Bill didn’t forget us. Once a year he would call, just to hear our news, or to tell me that he’d read something I’d written, and always, always, to urge us to come for a visit. But it seemed we were never be able to work it into our schedules.
I pushed the broken pitcher to the side and smiled as I went back to my office, and sat down at the computer to look up the location of his new farm and studio. There was no sense getting upset about broken pottery. It was just finally time to make that visit we’d been promising.
I entered the name of his studio into a search engine. And that’s when I found his obituary. He passed away suddenly, at the age of 67, after spending a day out working on his tractor. He has been dead for nearly a year now.
But the loss was fresh to me. My mouth gaped open and closed, like a fish out of water. And then the tears began to run down my face. I stood up and returned to the kitchen to retrieve the broken pitcher. The electrician still stood there, still awaiting my reaction.
“I’m sorry about your pitcher,” he began.
I nodded, trying to keep my tears concealed as I gathered together the pieces that could no longer be replaced. I could sense the electrician holding his breath. He’d have preferred that I screamed at him, I think. But here before him stood a strange woman, saying nothing, only crying.
“It’s not the pitcher,” I finally broke my silence. “It’s just that, well, it was made by a friend, and….and….” I drew in my breath, sniffed, then wiped my eyes, “…and we hadn’t spoken in a while, so I went to call him just now and….well,” I shrugged my shoulders in despondent surrender. “He died.” With that, the tears flowed freely. I ran out to the porch, curled up on the couch, and had a good cry, suddenly mourning a man who has now been gone for quite some time.
I felt foolish and guilty. Here was a friendship that I had let slip. Bill had repeatedly asked us to come see him, and we never did. We never found the time. We had let it slip so much, it took a full year before I even learned of his death. What right did I have to cry over the loss of a friend that, for all intents and purposes, I’d seemingly surrendered? I tried to brush it aside, to return to the girl’s lessons, to go about the rest of the day. But the sadness kept pouring out. Tears fell as I corrected Saoirse’s math homework, as I put lunch on the table, as I cleared the dishes, each one made by Bill’s hands. We went swimming up at the farm pond that afternoon, and while sitting on the water’s edge, dipping my toes in the water and watching the reflections of the clouds float past, I remembered his funny stories. I remembered how he was forever taking delight and fascination in something new — He had become a connoisseur of all the different varieties of wild apples; he had taken to experimenting with indigenous clay from the Adirondack mountains, to make truly local pottery. He had transitioned to farming with passionate joy, learning everything he could about animal husbandry and pasture management. He had climbed every peak of his home mountain range. And as I thought of each of these things, I wept more and more. …And I felt more and more foolish.
I tried to replay the past years. Was there anything we could have done differently, so that we could have had more time?
But the more I thought, the more I realized that the answer was no. Why weren’t we taking trips north? Because we were here on the farm; because we were busy with our own family. Why did Bill stop coming down to see us? Because he was with the love of his life. Because he was now on his own farm, his own joy. So what right did I have to be so sad? I couldn’t answer that question. I could only keep crying.
Late summer weekends at our farmers’ market can get very busy. Customers are hungry for the harvest bounty, and lapses in activity at our stall can be rare. But at one point, there’s a break between customers. Bob looks at me, his eyes bright. “You know,” he says, “all summer long, we’ve been talking about trying Melanie’s chocolate bombs. There are only a few market weeks left.”
I smile at his hint. I don’t like to serve a lot of dessert in our house, but that doesn’t mean Bob and I don’t love it. And one of the bakers, Melanie, has been bringing this mysterious confection, the chocolate bomb, every week: chocolate cake layered with merengue buttercream, then coated in dark chocolate ganache. We’ve been deeply curious. When Bob begins helping another customer, I slip away without his noticing, and go down to see Melanie. Maybe he’s right. Maybe, after this week of sadness, it’s time for the bomb. I buy one, then tuck it away.
On Sunday night, after the kids have gone up to bed, I slip it out of it’s hiding place in the fridge. His eyes light up when he sees it. Quietly, we tiptoe across the brick floor to the corner of the kitchen where the kids won’t be able to see us if they come down the stairs. I hop up on the counter, and pull down the dessert plates. We cut two slices from the bomb, then wrap the rest up and stow it in the freezer. And quietly, we take our first bite. My teeth sink into the merengue buttercream. It is cool, and firm, and sweet, and …. BILL!!
That’s it! I think. That’s the sadness! Bill was our buttercream!
What is buttercream? It is a treat….a piece of delight that we stumble upon — sometimes in a celebration, sometimes when we sneak away from life for just a few moments to savor a quiet pleasure. Maybe it is on a pastry in a little cafe that is off our normal beaten path. Maybe it is the glorious topper to a dessert following a special meal. Sure, life goes on, even if it is devoid of buttercream. But when it is there, life just seems so…perfect…even if you only get to eat buttercream once or twice in a year. But when the dessert is finished, when every last smear of buttercream has been licked from a plate, there is always sadness. No matter how much you get, you want more. But when you walk away from it, you are left with a very sweet memory.
I love the family, friends and neighbors who fill my ordinary days, keeping them meaningful and worthwhile. But a good life should be rich in buttercream friends, too. They are the ones who you can’t be with every day, who you can’t make as much time for as you’d like…but who, just by walking this earth and touching our lives with memorable moments, bits of laughter and the fullness of their spirit, give us the gift of their presence, for whatever amount of time they may be here. And when they’ve gone, even though we are left wanting more, our souls are richer for their having been around.
Thank you, Bill, for being our buttercream friend. We will miss you. Love, Shannon and Bob
This essay was written by Shannon Hayes of Sap Bush Hollow Farm — farmer, homeschooler and author — whose weekly Tuesday Posts are supported solely by the sale of her books and family farm products. To receive a link to each Tuesday Post in your email, enter your information in the space at the right of this page (scroll up). To support Sap Bush Hollow Farm and these writings, please check out the hand crafts and farm products in our online store, or come see us at the farm, or at The Round Barn Farmers’ Market in Holcottsville, NY (the Catskill Mountains). To buy books, check the titles in our online bookstore, or check out the ebook titles available directly from the author here. All Shannon’s titles are also available through the major online booksellers, as well as through your local independent bookstore.
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