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Thursday
Feb232012

Terry's Tale

This is why I am storyteller.

I met Terry on a flight to Omaha. He was an older man, kind and gentle, with a quick and easy smile and a never ending story to tell – the kind of seatmate that makes a long plane ride almost enjoyable, especially for someone who loves to listen to a good story as much as he likes to tell one. After we got situated I introduced myself, and we began to talk.

“My grandfather ran his own winery in southern California until the day he died,” he told me, his eyes far away. “We lived at that winery, and I played hide and seek among the grapevines. I remember the smell of the fruit in the hot summer; it was so sweet it was cloying. And toward the end of the season, just before harvest time, there was a very different smell in the air – a heavier smell, a smell that you just knew meant that the grapes were ready to be picked. The weather was different too: there was dew in the morning, and we didn’t go out to play until later.

“He had a wonderful old house on that winery with a huge cellar – at least, to a kid, it was huge. It was deep, and long, with hand-laid stones lining the walls. On one side was a long row of sour-sweet-smelling barrels that contained different vintages of his favorite wines. I loved to go down there; it was a secret place, one that my grandfather and I shared. It was our fort.

“On Saturdays, he would make dinner – pasta, salt cod, sausages, whatever we wanted – and he and I would go into the cellar to pick out the food we would prepare that day. The place was a jungle of savory foods, most of them hanging from the ceiling. There were handmade salamis and pepperonis, white and chalky and smelling musky; big, yellow rounds of cheese; and gallon jars of tomatoes, pepperoncini, and pickled onions. Depending on the menu for the evening he would walk among the foods with the big pocketknife that he called his matasuegras (mother-in-law killer), slicing off huge chunks of salt cod, great wedges of hard cheese, and thick, greasy slices of salami. We’d sit down there in the cool dark air and eat smoky sausage and hard cheese and drink secret glasses of wine from his personal cellar, ruby red from the bare bulbs, watching the snarly shadows on the walls from the tree roots that hung from the low ceiling. For dinner he’d make big steamy bowls of pasta, with meatballs the size of tennis balls wrapped around seasoned croutons, and a thick, rich tomato sauce, cooked all day long in a big battered aluminum pot with sausage, pork chops and a big handful of basil in the bottom.

“He was a special old man, and he lived until he was 95. My own kids got to know him, and he lived long enough for them to realize how special it was for them to get to know their own great-grandfather. I have pictures of them all together, and I treasure them.”

 He smiled at the thought, and drifted away for a few minutes. I interrupted his reverie to ask him the reason for his trip to California. Retiring, I asked? He shook his head, smiling. “No, I retired a long time ago. After being bored for a few years I decided I’d like to run a winery of my own. Since I wasn’t working, I had time to think about my grandfather, and those memories I had of him were so good I made a decision. The time was right to do it now, so I did it. I bought a winery.” I told him how great I thought that was, and how he must already look forward to drinking the first glass of his first vintage. “Oh, that’s the only pleasure from this great and grand venture I won’t get to enjoy,” he chuckled. “Not a drinker?” I asked. He laughed out loud at that. “No, I like wine as much as anybody. The problem is, I’m dying. I have cancer. The doctor tells me that I have about two years if I take care of myself, so if I’m going to die, I want to die in that basement, smelling those smells. If anything’s going to take me away I want it to be those smells.”

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