The Greatest Love Story I Know

I don't know what Bonnie looks like, but I know that she had a round cursive handwriting that's classical yet not too serious. She played the piano and was an aspiring photographer. Her father owned an architecture firm. They had a home in the mountains with their own gasoline pump. She was down-to-earth and approachable. She was my dad's ex-fiancée. I've never met Bonnie, but I feel like she was someone who has always been a part of my life.

I learned about her through a bundle of letters that I found hidden in the back of my parents' closet after they divorced. I was sixteen going on seventeen. Like a detective, I arranged the letters chronologically and read them as fast as I could to learn who this woman was and why she was writing to my dad. It didn't take long for me to realize that they were in love. Their chemistry was alive in those letters. My heart swelled with emotion as I read them. I laughed and cried with Bonnie from 1975 until 1981.

October 1981, to be exact, when she sent her last letter–which was also when I was born. This was not a coincidence.

It was written on a note card featuring a bird in a nest, watching over its egg. Bonnie's teardrops had blurred away most of her inked writing. From the pattern on the page, I knew that the blurry splotches weren't due to mere crying but rather a deep sobbing. The writing was barely legible. All I could piece together was that she understood his decision and his newfound responsibilities as a father. In it, she mentioned enclosing a check for $5,000 to help him with his newborn baby, me.

My dad told me the story about Bonnie after I showed him the letters I found—how they met and how he met my mom. He told me that he still loved her and that he was sorry he never apologized to her for breaking her heart. Convinced that their love story wasn't over yet, I devised a plan to write to Bonnie and introduce myself to her. I sent the letter to an address I found on the internet for her father's architecture firm.

Months later, I received a response. The return address was typewritten simply with her last name and address. Immediately, I knew it wasn't her. It was from her niece-in-law, whose husband remembered my dad fondly. She told me the news: Bonnie had passed away in 1994 from breast cancer. My dad was heartbroken. 

We ruminated about this one night in the kitchen.

"You and mom... You were never that happy... Not like you and Bonnie."

"Your mom and I are two different people. We tried but we couldn't get along. We're too different."

"I wish you had chosen Bonnie. You could've had such a happy marriage. Your life would be so different," I sighed.

"I couldn't."

"You chose to spend sixteen years with someone you weren't in love with. Don't you regret it?"

"No, I don't."

"Why not?"

"Because..." he said, pausing for a draw of his cigarette, "I chose you."



On Eyebrows

"Don't pluck your eyebrows," warned my mom, "They won't grow back—look at mine." She raised her eyebrows at me, two thin arcs like Marlene Dietrich. I had my dad's eyebrows: super thick Groucho Marx eyebrows that looked like someone drew them on with a Sharpie. 

As a teenager, I would hide in the bathroom with a pair of tweezer, ready to free my face from the weight of my brows. But I'd imagined my mom screaming at me like a banshee and left them alone. My friend Tina persuaded me to let her "clean them up" when we were sixteen. I knew she was dying to have her way with them, so I only allowed her pluck to pluck the strays in between my brows. "My mom will notice and she'll kill me!" I explained.

Eventually, I started shaping them as an adult, but they weren't quite symmetrical and that drove me nuts. "Think of your eyebrows as sisters, not twins," a makeup artist at Bergdorf Goodman once advised me. Still, I couldn't help myself. In 2008, in an effort to make them look similar, I managed to pluck out all of the thick hairs and left behind an undercoat that was virtually invisible. I tried to convince myself that it was a much more modern look, akin to Kristin McMenamy's or Lara Stone's non-existent brow look, which was much touted in the fashion world. But the damage had already been done. 

If I were being held hostage by my tweezers before, I'm now held hostage by my eyebrow pencil, T. Leclerc's version in Chataîn, a soft medium ash brown. I have to painstakingly fill in my brows everyday or else I'll look like a sickly person. Believe me, I've tried growing them out to no avail. They're so sparse that I just just get the itch to pluck them again. My dad is convinced that having his eyebrows were a blessing and that I've plucked away all of my good luck. What I should've done was go to a professional.

Calling it a "goal" sounds a bit much, but I'd really like to try and grow them out again this year. I wandered into Sephora yesterday and the makeup artist there recommended Anastasia Brow Serum Advanced. Apparently, I'll be able to see visible results after 60 days. I'm willing to give it a whirl.

Brooke Shields' brows, here I come?

How to Peel a Clove of Garlic

Growing up, I'd see my dad whack cloves of garlic with the side of his big heavy cleaver, smashing them open with a thud. He'd then proudly strip away the peel with ease before chopping them up. It was unnecessarily dramatic, but, having been conditioned to seeing it done that way, that was how I subconsciously started "peeling" my garlic too. 

Once, while cooking at a friend's apartment, I started slamming the side of my knife into the garlic cloves with the heel of my hand. Bam! The table shook. Bam! The chopping board slid a little. 

"Jess, what are you doing?" he asked, laughing, holding out his hand. I handed the knife to him.

He pressed down the side of the knife on top of the garlic cloves with considerable pressure. With the quietest sound, they flattened out and the peels eked off. No loud bams; same result. I told him the story about my dad's method, explaining that I had unwittingly picked up the same technique. (When I need the cloves whole, however, I just slice off the wide end and use my fingernails to peel it off cleanly before slicing or whatnot.) It's just that the loud bam brings back so many memories.

It reminded me of a Jewish story about a bride who prepared her grandmother's brisket recipe for her husband and sliced off the end of the meat before sticking it into the oven, just as she had seen her bubby prepare it. Her husband asked: "Why do you slice off the end? That's the best part!" In response, the bride exclaimed, "But it's my grandmother's secret!" During a visit with her grandmother, the bride asked why the ends of the meat were always cut off, to which the grandmother replied: "Why, Darling! That's the only way it will fit into my pan!"

I'm not sure why my dad whacks the garlic cloves with such a purpose, but, in any case, I still give my garlic cloves a booming whack from time to time as an ode to our time in the kitchen together.

On Being a Guest

Many years ago, while I was on a buying trip in Paris, I attended a dinner at the home of an artist's widow. She was an elderly woman who was Spanish by descent and still fiery and sharp despite her age. As the after-dinner conversation lingered on into the night, she suddenly got up from her seat and asked the table, "Is there anything else that I could offer you? A nice dessert wine, perhaps?" Obviously, it was a cue that she was ready to call it a night. I graciously shook my head, but another guest, an art dealer, shouted out, "That would be lovely! What do you have?"

Unbelievable! I recoiled, aghast that someone could be so insensitive to her polite signal. She, herself, was taken aback. "Oh!" she exclaimed, "I didn't think anyone would actually say yes. I'm actually very tired, but, I suppose, since I offered, I should be a proper hostess."  She went into her kitchen, brought back a bottle of dessert wine, and poured him a splash. 

It's a memory that sticks out like a sore thumb; a reminder that always made me aware of what it meant to be a guest. Guests should be as gracious as the hosts, as I was taught. My father drilled it into my head at a very early age. I used to think that he liked to impose his rules, just for the sake of it:

"Never go to a dinner party empty-handed," he would say, "Always bring something. Like a tin of cookies." Yes, Dad. (This would later become a bottle of wine or something of the like. But he would bring anything thoughtful, really. Even when visiting a neighbor, he might bring over an interesting newspaper clipping or a sack of ripe pears from our tree.)

"Don't forget to pay compliments to the host" Yes, Dad. "Even if the food isn't good, tell them that it was a wonderful meal. After all, it's never about the food."

"And send a thank you card when you get home. A handwritten one. Nice penmanship; no mistakes." I know, I know—use a pencil and a ruler to draw faint lines and erase them after the message has been written in ink. 

"Wait until the eldest person or host has taken the first bite before you start. It's rude to dig in." Yes, Dad. I've always waited! When have I not done this?

"When you put food on your plate, don't take too much. Don't be greedy. If you're still hungry after you've finished what's on your plate, only then do you take a second helping." Got it. I'm very aware of that.

"Don't slurp or eat too fast. If you're eating soup, remember to tilt the bowl and spoon the soup away from you." I know! 

"If there's one bite left, offer it to the table before taking it." Sigh.

"Oh, and if you have to use the bathroom, turn on the bathroom sink faucet." Geez! Okay, Dad!  

As a child, it felt like a lot to remember. How can I have fun if I'm thinking about all of these rules, I used to wonder. Like all of the ingredients that go into a cake batter, everything gets folded in and fully incorporated. Before you know it, it's baked into you. I like to think of myself as someone who's acutely aware of manners and etiquette, but not a total stickler. Although, admittedly, I do find myself cringing at the occasional social misstep. What can I say, like father, like daughter.