I looked up from the neatly wrapped slices of banana bread on the parish bake sale table into a pair of blue eyes. I took in sparse white hair, a hearing aid, a turtleneck bearing traces of egg and a windbreaker spotted with traces of earth.
“What’s your name?” Blue Eyes asked.
“Mary. What’s yours?”
“Richard!” he shouted, holding a small loaf of cake in his hand. “Did you make this?” he asked.
“Yep,” I told him.
“Well, I guess I’ll buy some,” he said. “What is it?”
“Poppy seed cake.”
“Poppy seed cake,” he repeated. “Well, OK. But do you know what my favorite dessert is? Strawberry-rhubarb pie! Do you know how to make that?”
“I sure do.”
“I have rhubarb growing in my backyard,” he said. “Maybe someday you’ll make me one.”
“Maybe someday I will,” I said, laughing.
Rhubarb is an acquired taste; my father never acquired it, so we rarely had it at home when I was growing up. But my husband has fond memories of pulling it from the family garden as a child, dipping the stalks in a bowl of sugar and eating it raw, so I began baking this odd vegetable for him after we were married and discovered I liked its bright tartness, too. But neither Kevin nor I were as excited about rhubarb as Richard was.
Determined to get a pie and make a new friend, each Sunday Richard would wait after church services and woo me with rainbow-colored roses and invitations to breakfasts at neighborhood greasy spoons (my husband chaperoned). Over weak
coffee and diner French toast, we learned Richard’s age (84) and marital status (a lifelong bachelor), discovered his obsessions (sailing, dahlias, the stock market and the miraculous visions of the Virgin Mary at Medjugorje), and his favorite culinary treats besides strawberry-rhubarb pie: salads made with as many vegetables as possible and Manhattans made “perfect” with the addition of both sweet and dry vermouth.
And every so often, I’d get a report on the state of the backyard rhubarb. “It’s just starting to come up,” he’d tell me one week.
“It’s skinny, but it has leaves,” I’d be told another.
Finally, the rhubarb reached maturity and Kevin and I were invited to harvest the stalks. Richard lived on Chicago’s North Side in the house where he was born, and both the inside and the outside of the house reflected decades of bachelor living. Overgrown shrubs and lily-of-the-valley had overtaken the garden on the east side of the yard, while Richard’s sailboat, Spoonful of Sugar, dominated the space near the garage. But the flower bed along the west side of the yard was devoted to dahlias— and rhubarb. Nestled among the wooden stakes for the dahlias were the overgrown rhubarb roots, their elephant ear-like leaves nearly hiding the rest of the plant. We sawed at the rhubarb with a dull butcher’s knife from Richard’s kitchen, and filled several plastic grocery bags full of the green and magenta stalks. “Don’t forget the strawberries,” Richard reminded me.
The following Sunday, I presented him with a lattice-topped pie in a dish slightly sticky from the rhubarb and strawberry juice that had bubbled over in the oven. Richard reached for it murmuring “thanks” and grinning like he couldn’t believe his luck, even though he’d been requesting the pie for months.
A week later, Richard returned my empty pie plate and rewarded me with a bouquet of early dahlias. “Gee, that was swell,” he said. “But next time, could you put in a few more strawberries?”
Over the next few years, I would bring Richard little treats on Sunday— a slice of pound cake, some cookies or whatever I happened to be baking. He would come for Sunday dinner occasionally. But nothing was as cherished as a strawberry-rhubarb pie. I baked one for him using his homegrown rhubarb every spring for several years, and each year he always asked for “a few more strawberries.”
Last summer we visited with Richard in Chicago over coffee at one of the modest cafés he likes so much. He looked smaller, grayer, but his eyes still glowed like cornflowers. He had moved into an assisted living apartment, he told us, and a friend was looking after his house.
“Do you remember the dahlias you used to bring me?” I asked.
“I don’t think there’s any dahlias,” he said slowly.
“Do you remember the strawberry-rhubarb pies?” I prompted.
He smiled then said, “There’s not much rhubarb left.”
When we dropped him off at his new home, I didn’t want to say goodbye.
I grow rhubarb in my front garden, and while it’s nowhere near as splendid as Richard’s, each spring I diligently cut its spindly stems for a pie in his honor, supplementing my meager yield with a few more stalks and a quart of strawberries from the Waverly Farmers’ Market. Could I add more strawberries? Sure. But as even Richard might tell you, it’s still pretty swell.