Audrey scooped Breyer’s Vanilla Bean and generously dusted it with Hawaiian Pink sea salt. “Watch,” she said. “I just want you to see how much salt you need to use.” Then she finished with a generous pour of peppery Kiler Ridge Gregg’s Reserve olive oil and placed our desserts in front of us. Olive oil. Really. On ice cream. All I could say was, “Oh, wow. Oh, wow.” I’m still marveling.
We are in California for what turns out to be our bi-annual visit with the Grillos. These old friends come our way one year, we go theirs the next, and in either Tennessee or California, one of us plans road trips and events for nearly a week of days. In the West, we’ve headed out to Hearst Castle, Mendocino, and Napa Valley and, in between, gone for plays, music, wine, and art, and the frequent runs to San Francisco, Monterey, and high school reunions. Down South, we visited the Biltmore, Rowan Oak, and the Grand Ole Opry. There’s always something to do in Nashville for entertainment or sightseeing: the Country Music Hall of Fame, Cheekwood, the Schermerhorn, or the Nash Trash Tour. We also eat. A lot.
We arrived on Election Day, planning ahead to either celebrate wildly or drink our sorrow. We did neither, although three of us did stay awake long enough to hear the President’s speech. Mrs. Grillo (Ja, superbly playing the role of Cruise Director) reminded us to rest up for our next day’s trip to Kiler Ridge, a family olive farm on the top of the hills above the coastline.
The California central coast has the perfect Mediterranean climate and chalky soil for wine grapes—and for Italian olive trees. It was pretty much perfect weather for us, too. There was a slight breeze but the sun was warm. Hummingbirds dove in and out of tall blooming sage and lantana. We inhaled the clear air and oscillated around the circular panorama of mile after mile, hill after hill of olive trees and grapevines.
It was harvest day and the frantoio operated with great roars, whines, and poundings on a big batch of olives from a neighboring farm. Gregg explained the crushing, grinding, and separation process and we sampled the fresh oils. The tasting room was closed to the public as is usual during a harvest but since we had made reservations months ago, Audrey and somebody’s nona cooked lunch for us: a fresh salad, succulent Linguica sausages, and thin pasta, all featuring one of the oils from the shelf.
We sat at the big farm table at Audrey’s invitation and she sat out the plates of fresh greens. It was in that moment that I remembered times I love the most; spongy moments with friends or family when we soak up the often-overlooked assurance that everything is good, that all is right in God’s world and ours. More frequently, those brief breezes of warmth waft over us, unacknowledged, as the busy-ness of living and caretaking insulate us from the contentment that would drift down to warm and soothe if we were but receptive.
Our friends tell us who we are. J became my best friend in seventh grade, my touchstone for all but the first few years of my life. We figure this year is our fiftieth friendship anniversary. At some point that neither of us knows, we lost the opportunity to choose to be friends; we became “just us, just there, just together”—family, I suppose. It was natural that the Alex we embraced in high school would take an easy place in our friendship and Dave would be loved just for himself, after the initial admission by association.
J and I are just alike and we are completely different, the way sisters are often described. She is dark-headed and so slight; I am blonde and quite round. She is oriented toward rules and order; I often fly by the butt of my bloomers. I think of her as the quiet to my boisterousness, the fragile to my hardiness. But then I consider the underlying similarities, for underneath the blonde my roots are dark. And while I may seem to prefer a broad view, there is a level of routine and predictability that I need in order to breathe. Turn us loose on the Beatles or Motown and we can both raise the roof; set us down on a park bench in autumn and we are happily silent together. I can remember times when she was an indestructible buoy for my wounded, drowning soul and named my very self so that I could once again claim my bearings.
Yesterday, there occurred another moment of precious being. A half dozen friends from high school and Facebook met the four of us for what Alex described as a “four-hour lunch”. He exaggerated; it wasn’t nearly four hours. It was long enough to find ourselves, together, after all these years—and yet it was not even a blip of the time I could have basked in that sunshine of memories, laughing, jokes, teasing, affirmation. All of these wonderful women have carried gifts through the last forty-five years that we saw in each other in high school: ability, tenacity, warmth, acceptance, appreciation, beauty, and fun.
We checked in on our families; husbands—present and ex, children—some just over surgery or illness, grandchildren—there for us to spoil (yes!), and friends we wished for. We resurrected memories; who kissed who when, whose history class was it, where exactly we each went in the first few years after high school. We’ve kept up well on Facebook. I am grateful for social media but there are things we haven’t said online so seeing each other was my cake’s favorite frosting—salted caramel or anything with cream cheese.
I told Cynthia how envious I was of her, when we were on the yearbook staff, of her perfect tan that she got watering the yard. She brought me a bracelet of many colors that she made. Linda C. and I love to cook; she told me how much fun she had making my pulled pork recipe for a bunch in the Coast Guard. Linda G. and I cannot remember a class we had together but who cares. I remember loving the way her hair flipped. Cathie got the real story of how that fabulous kiss happened in the production of Guys and Dolls; she also re-trained us in the Queen Mum wave. (Her son is the mayor of Dublin, CA.) Joyce is coming to Tennessee to visit, I’m sure, and I told her how much I enjoy the pictures of her grandchildren. Rosemarie rode her bike to the restaurant and she loves me even though I’ve always been “mericani” to her “extreme Sicilian”.
And there were the words we didn’t say in person, either, but thoughts and feelings that wrapped us together around our trusted history—whatever pieces we can call up, our admiration for each other—unspoken now as it was in teenage days, and our love and appreciation for where each of us has been and how we fit this puzzle of life currently laid out on the table.
At Pittsburg High School, I sometimes struggled with acceptance. I was not Italian enough, too simultaneously smart and silly, less popular than I wanted to be, and, a lot of times lonelier than I should have been. But, yesterday, I was me and each of us was “just us”, woven into fabric as tightly as Italian linen, transparent as the restaurant’s window letting in too much sun, and as comfortable as an old pair of sweatpants I almost wore to the gathering. If Ja had not asked, “Hey, aren’t you going to change your pants?” I would have sported pulled polyester grey-with-white-stripe half-hemmed almost-pajamas with the silver-studded batwing red sweater.
So once again, in the moment somewhere around the end of the first hour, I knew who I was because they told me. We told each other, and all was well.
The saying of the mystic Julian of Norwich comes to me, “…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”. Julian claimed it to be said to her by God Himself. This November, with friends in central California, I believe her.

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