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^ . . . Well, Not Quite

The thing I keep learning about endings is that they aren’t a long time coming, and they don’t sneak up on you either, because endings just don’t happen.

A week before the end of the Project, I bought two bottles of champagne. One of them I popped on the second-to-last night, with Sally and Gwen, for a sort of The End Celebration (Observed). I was going to open the second bottle for The End Celebration (Actual). But then I didn’t, because it wasn’t really over until the last dish was washed, was it? And we weren’t going to wash any dishes that night. And then we hatched the plan to make the Julia Pilgrimage, and that was really The End. Except by that time, there was this book deal possibly going to happen, and once that happened it seemed like a jinx to celebrate until I got paid, or got to quit my secretarial job, or got a dog, or finished the book, or or or . . .

I’m totally lying, of course. Of course we drank the second bottle—what have you read in the last three hundred-odd pages that would lead you to believe I’d let a bottle of champagne just sit in my fridge for an entire year? Nothing, that’s what.

Still, the point is a sound one. With a book it’s easy—to distinguish, not always to write (as you can see)—but what qualifies as The End when it comes to life?

I’ve spent the last year preparing for this moment, but for some reason the obvious answer never occurred to me until it was too late.

I was working on the book that Friday morning—I was always working on the book at this point, only to be honest, “freaking out over” would probably be a better term—when the phone rang. I let the answering machine pick up, as usual, and wasn’t really paying attention to whoever might be on the other end of the line.

“Julie? Jules? You there? Pick up if you’re there.”

Everyone knows that dread of the familiar voice on the machine, affectless with suppressed grief. It is the voice you hear on the heels of car accidents and divorces, illness and death. I ran for the phone.

“Mom? What is it?”

“Haven’t you heard? Oh, baby, I’m so sorry. . . .” And she began to cry.

Julia Child had died on the eve of her ninety-second birthday, peacefully, in her sleep. My mother called me the moment she’d heard, that morning on the radio while she was on her way to work. She was still in the car, parked in front of her office, sobbing into her cell phone.

“I can’t imagine how you must feel,” she said. “After all you’ve been through.”

I didn’t know Julia Child. I never even met her. She did write a response to a letter I wrote her. “Thank you for your kind note,” it read. It was printed on a computer, on official Julia Child stationery. “I am happy to know that I have been such a positive influence on you.” I have no idea if she actually wrote it or not. The signature looks real, anyway.

Even if I had known her, there is no tragedy in such a peaceful death, after such a long and rich and generous life. It’s the death that all of us wish for—well, either that or finding out you have a terminal brain tumor and going out and assassinating some plutocratic motherfucker who’s systematically destroying America’s democracy brick by brick, before you get shot down in a rain of glory. Or maybe that’s just me.

Not a tragedy—an opportunity for celebration, if anything, of a life lived with supreme, if somewhat klutzy, grace. I knew that immediately. I was very calm, and I didn’t feel sad at all, not at first. “Thanks for telling me, Mom.”

She sniffled. “Are you going to be all right? Do you need anything? What about your blog? Are you going to write something? Everyone’s going to be so sad.” Her voice cracked again.

“I’ll be fine. I’ll write a little something this morning. Look on the blog later today, okay?”

I knew I had to write something on my blog, even though I hadn’t been writing on it for months and months. I knew people would come looking to see if I had anything to say. I wanted to write Julia the best, funniest, greatest in memoriam ever. I got to work on it, and I was on fire, let me tell you. I had funny, touching insights. I was coming off clever and heartfelt and sad and grateful and joyful. I was on a roll.

And then I wrote this sentence: “I have no claim over the woman at all, unless it’s the claim one who has nearly drowned has over the person who pulled her out of the ocean.”

And I started crying so hard I had to stop writing.

Two years ago, I was a twenty-nine-year-old secretary. Now I am a thirty-one-year-old writer. I get paid very well to sit around in my pajamas and type on my ridiculously fancy iMac, unless I’d rather take a nap. Feel free to hate me—I certainly would.

Eric and I still live in our crappy Long Island City apartment (though if this book sells we’ll be out of here like a shot). Now Eric’s the one with the crappy job. It’s the same job, except actually he’s been promoted—but everything’s relative, so now his job is the sucky one. But we have a dog now, so that makes Eric’s sucky job bearable. His name is Robert and he weighs a hundred and five pounds and likes to lean on people. He’s got a chicken-bone addiction, but other than that he’s perfect. Soon we’re going to start trying to make a baby; if we wind up with a baby human as good as our baby dog, we’ll be very lucky people indeed.

Isabel went ahead and married her punk-rock boyfriend. They’re living in Bath, and last month they opened their own independent bookstore, and they’re going to start trying to get pregnant. They’re so happy it’s disgusting, just like Isabel predicted they’d be. You can feel free to hate them, too. But if you’re ever in Bath you should stop by their store and say hello. Buy my book while you’re there.

Gwen is still in the movie business. She comes over to eat all the time. We don’t smoke and drink quite as much as we used to, but it’s still a great time. A better time, in fact. Sally’s doing fabulously, and the guy she’s dating is named Simon, which I have to say is a relief. My brother spent the presidential election season out in New Mexico, trying to get John Kerry elected. Now that that’s gone to hell, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, but if he’s got any irrational assassination fantasies, he’s keeping them to himself. The government agency I used to work for picked a memorial design for the victims of September 11, 2001. Everyone hates it, but then what did you expect? Personally, I think it’s okay. Nate the evil genius got himself married, actually to a really lovely girl.

Overall, life is pretty good. I mean, it’s not my own enlightened sheikdom, but it sure doesn’t suck.

And it’s all because of Julia.

I’m not saying this just because blogging about her was what got me the fifteen minutes of fame I was then able to parlay into what’s so far looking like maybe (knock wood) a permanent respite from temp work. (Knock wood one more time on that.) Though it’s certainly true that blogging about, say, David Strathairn or Jason Bateman would probably not have gotten me quite the attention (no offense, guys, you know how I adore you. Call me!). No, what I really mean is this:

Julia taught me what it takes to find your way in the world. It’s not what I thought it was. I thought it was all about—I don’t know, confidence or will or luck. Those are all some good things to have, no question. But there’s something else, something that these things grow out of.

It’s joy.

I know, I know—it’s truly an obnoxious word, isn’t it? Even typing it makes me cringe. I think of either Christmas cards or sixty-something New Agey women in floppy purple hats. And yet it’s the best word I can think of for the heady, nearly violent satisfaction to be found in the text of Julia’s first book. I read her instructions for making béchamel sauce, and what comes throbbing through is that here is a woman who has found her way.

Julia Child began learning to cook because she wanted to share good food with her husband, because she’d fallen in love with great food late but hard, because she was in Paris, because she didn’t know what else to do with herself. She was thirty-seven years old. She’d found love, and it was divine. She’d learned to eat, and that was pretty great, too. But it wasn’t enough. She probably thought she’d never find whatever it was that was missing if she hadn’t found it by the age of thirty-seven. But then, at a cooking school in Paris, she did.

I didn’t understand for a long time, but what attracted me to MtAoFC was the deeply buried aroma of hope and discovery of fulfillment in it. I thought I was using the Book to learn to cook French food, but really I was learning to sniff out the secret doors of possibility.

Sometimes, if you want to be happy, you’ve got to run away to Bath and marry a punk rocker. Sometimes you’ve got to dye your hair cobalt blue, or wander remote islands in Sicily, or cook your way through ^ Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year, for no very good reason. Julia taught me that.

In the month or so since Julia died, a lot of people have put forward their two cents on How Julia Changed the World, or What Julia Meant to Me, or, very occasionally, Why Julia’s Not All That. These statements tend toward the possessive—“I saw Julia in this-and-such restaurant,” or “My whatever-Julia-dish is really great,” or “I never really bought Julia’s opinion on this-or-that. . . .” God knows I’m guilty of the same thing. It seems there’s something about Julia that brings out the self-centeredness in others. I’m actually worse than anyone, because I get very defensive when other people talk about her. I tend to believe that they don’t understand what’s really so special about Julia, that they don’t get her like I do. How self-centered is that? Especially since as far as I know, Julia left this world thinking I was a useless little uppity bitch.

When you don’t believe in heaven, death is about as “The End” as you can get. As lovely as it would be, I just don’t believe that Julia’s eating sole meunière in heaven with Paul. I believe that her body’s buried—under a very cool gravestone, as it happens; I’ll give you one guess what the epitaph is—and the brain and heart and humor and experience that made that body Julia have been extinguished. All that’s left of that is what resides still in all our memories.

But that’s a kind of afterlife too, isn’t it? And for a woman like Julia it’s much for the best. When I was in high school I had a particularly damaging drama teacher. Which is so a story for another book, and I’m not going to go into it now except to say this: he’s dead now, and he lives on in my memory, but he lives on in my memory as a callous, manipulative, unhappy son of a bitch. That’s no way to spend eternity.

But with Julia, it’s different. Instead of wandering around some hokey, half-baked heaven, wondering how to obtain real Dover sole, she’s rattling around the apartments of my brain, banging away at a good sturdy Garland stove and drinking her wine and having a high old time. She’s set in her ways, and she can be mulish, but she doesn’t clarify butter anymore because she’s decided it’s just a nuisance, so she’s still learning. And since I’ve given her a place to crash, she’s decided I’m not such an uppity bitch after all, and that in fact I’m a pretty great broad. At least that’s what the Julia in my head thinks. There are thousands and thousands of her around, in brains all over the world, but this Julia is mine.

Practically every single thing written about Julia since she died has ended the same way—including what I wrote on my own blog that day. It’s irresistible. It was her sign-off for forty years. It’s on her gravestone, for Christ’s sake. But I’m not going to do it. I won’t. Because although it is affectionate, it is also, ultimately, meaningless. It doesn’t get across all that Julia has meant to me—the Julia still in my head right now, saying it, shrieking like a deranged schoolgirl, “Bon Aaa —

No. Let’s just say “The End” and leave it at that.

Oh, and thanks.

Thanks for everything.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Like every other author in existence—and especially every first-time, seriously clueless author—I find that there is simply no end of people to thank. This is my first time with this, and I’m going to forget someone here, so apologies in advance for any pique:

Thanks to—

Eric, of course;

Mom and Dad and brother Jordan;

Hannah, Helen, and Em;

the Two Texans and all their hangers-on;

the six Democrats at my erstwhile government agency—most especially Anita, John, Sharon, and Katie, but also Ben, Peter, Chris, Amy, David, and . . . (Wait. That’s more than six, isn’t it?);

Elizabeth Gilbert, who saved my ass all the way from Afghanistan, within twenty minutes;

Sarah Chalfant, who saved my ass several more times;

Molly, who reminded me at the last minute of the virtues of inconsistency;

Judy Clain, for believing in me;

Eric Steel, for believing in me some more;

and anyone who ever read my blog, ever ever, but especially all of you who became family to me.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julie Powell was born and raised in Austin, Texas, where she met her husband, Eric. After a long, long time spent working as a temp, she now writes in her pajamas in Long Island City, Queens, where she shares a “loft” apartment with Eric; their dog, Robert; their cats Maxine, Lumi, and Cooper; and their snake, Zuzu Marlene.

 

*Excerpted from a letter from Paul Child to his brother, Charles, 1949.(back to text)

 

*Excerpted from a letter from Paul Child to his brother, Charles, 1949.(back to text)
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