Aunt Mona is sitting across the table from me shaking her head. She's trying to express the frustration that she feels that her younger brother, Ed, couldn't manage to make his second marriage work, when his wife was such a smart and wonderful and sophisticated woman, who was just perfect for him.
"The whole family loved her," she says, with 22 years worth of bewilderment in her voice. "I just don't understand how he could let her get away..."
I try to explain it from my perspective... "Look, Ed was great at a lot of things... marriage just wasn't one of them. He still turned out to be a great father to their daughter..."
Mona nods, and acknowledges that's true. Still, I know that she's thinking of Ismael, the husband she was madly in love with for the 35 years before his sudden death eleven years ago, and she's sad that her brother didn't know that kind of love.
The fact that I've been married to Ed's ex-wife for the last decade, and that we are having this conversation midway through a family dinner on the day after we've buried Ed might, I suppose, raise an eyebrow of the casual observer, but it seems quite natural to me. This is the way this family is.
We're at the Fox Valley Restaurant in Helena. It's been Ed's favorite spot for over fifteen years, ever since the place opened. From the time that Marian was about eight, until she was in her late teens, she and her dad had dinner here at least once a week. He was here on his own for dinner three times a week or more beyond that, until his health started to hold him back in the fall.
Every year on Marian's birthday, the four of us -- Marian, her mom, Ed and me -- came here to celebrate. Those were wonderful evenings, and I looked forward to them with great anticipation. My favorite, I suppose, was Marian's 21st. Her Mom and Dad were so proud of her, and they each had, perhaps, one more glass of wine than they might normally have had, and got, perhaps, somewhat sloppily sentimental about what a splendid job they had done raising their daughter. Marian was a little embarassed, on my behalf, but I thought it was wonderful. What they had done was remarkable, and they were right to be proud.
Ed was as close to Sue, the owner of the place, as he was to anyone. (Mona has some thoughts about that relationship as well, which she will be happy to share). In his last decade, he was certainly as at home at Fox Valley, and as comfortable sitting at the bar talking with Sue, as he was anywhere or with anyone. Restaurants build their personalities around their regulars; that's what gives them life and character, defines their spirit and lifts them beyond being just a room where anonymous strangers come to get a meal. Ed and Fox Valley had shaped each other and become inseparable. At the visitation, Sue had looked wistfully toward the coffin and half-whispered, "I can't imagine a world without Ed Earnest in it."
So she invited the family to come and have dinner. And what a dinner it was. There were close to twenty of us -- his four sisters, one of his brothers (one had had to get back to California), two brothers-in-law, a sister-in-law, one ex-wife, one pregnant daughter, and several nieces, nephews... and at that point I lose track of exactly who is related to who and in what way... not that it matters much to this group. Oh, yes, and there's the husband of the ex-wife; the stepdad of the daughter.
In its quiet way, Fox Valley has become one of the premiere fine dining restaurants in the Birmingham region. All those years ago, Sue bought a traditional southern steam table restaurant, and, almost surreptitiously, turned it into one of the finest restaurants in the south. As it says on their website "come casually dressed or dressed to the nines and feel equally at home." I've often wondered if some of the good ol' boys who used to go there before Sue took it over ever realized that after awhile they were eating haute cuisine. (Best not to tell them.)
So we had superb food and wonderful wine and fabulous conversation. There were a few tears, there were stories told, there was a lot of laughter. There was a new baby to pass around, and a little three year old who proclaimed herself, "the most beautiful girl in the world," and made everyone fall in love with her. I cannot imagine a finer way of honoring the man.
Marian and Lynn and I lingered until last, and hung out by the bar talking with Sue, and with Mikey the cook, and with some of the other folks. They'd ordered a nameplate for Ed's chair, a simple brass plate with his name on it, affixed to the back of the bar stool that he'd usually sit at when he came in at the end of a long day of figuring out how to rescue another couple of troubled kids, to have a drink before dinner. Sue told us that they'd put the plaque on that afternoon and then, "right about a quarter to five, which is when he'd come in, the sunset was just over the ridge and the light came through and reflected off the plate and it was blinding. I had to move the chair." She grinned, and we hugged her, and went out to our cars.