Yesterday I used the last of the bay leaves. They went into a soup I was making, their particular flavour balancing the split peas and ham bones, the celery and onion.
Amazing things, these dry leathery leaves of a tree I’ve never seen growing. They last for years in the recesses of the pantry, ignored and unappreciated until they are tossed into a simmering pot. Unlike spices that take charge of a dish and name it, bay leaves quietly bring out the best in the other ingredients: they round it out, complete it. And now my bay leaf jar was empty.
I can buy more bay leaves. I can buy them anywhere, but it won’t be the same. These leaves, a few broken pieces in the bottom of an old coffee jar, were the last of a batch of bay leaves our daughter bought in 2008.
We were running away to sea. The house was sold and we were packing up our landward lives. We could be sailing for years and our belongings might be in storage for a long time. Cardboard boxes are not impervious to cockroaches and silverfish, but I’d read that a few bay leaves in a box would keep them out.
Ali, 16 years old, bright and gold and blossoming, was sent down to the local deli for a halfkilo of bay leaves. Surely, if a bay leaf in a tea chest was preventive, then a small handful might be a nuclear deterrent?
She returned saying that the shop ladies had queried the amount. Bay leaves don’t weigh much — did I really want such a large quantity? We settled for 250g, and when I saw the size of the bag I was glad we’d taken the advice. Ali was amazed. “We’ll never need to buy bay leaves again!”
We sailed away, with all the promise of the future, just her father, me and this golden child. Sometimes bay leaves would fall out of things on board, and Ali and I would laugh about them. She’d add them to the coffee jar, saying, “These things last forever.”
Then one day, thousands of miles later, a stranger’s momentary error at a marina in Thailand broke our hearts, and our child was gone. For a long time after, when we returned ashore and had brought the boxes out of storage, bay leaves would sift out of books and clothes. The large coffee jar of bay leaves had come ashore, too, and for years, whenever I took leaves from it to cook with, I’d think: there’s no end to these leaves. When our child died, I thought there would be no end to grief.
I put that last bay leaf into the soup, and thought about grief. It no longer overpowered me, no longer took charge of my day and named it. But it’s still there, a quiet background influence, gently rounding out and making me who I am now.
welcomes submissions to This Life. To be considered for publication, the work must be original and between 450 and 500 words. Submissions may be edited for clarity. Send emails to Which city hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics? Olympus Mons is the largest volcanic mountain on which planet? Who is the host of the current series of the Australian TV show What is the capital city of Fiji?