They say it was a brave man who first ate an oyster. I have known a few brave men in my life. The first was my father, who taught me to eat oysters. The second and third are my husband and son, who love them. The last is Paul Harbin, who taught numbers two and three how to pop that hard shell open with an oyster knife and slide that living, briny wonderful mollusk down their gullets.
Tonight we will speak of oysters. And grief.
Of course, there is much more to a relationship than oysters. But it will suffice for tonight. When Paul and Bunny came into my life, I was a stranger, not even a daughter-in-law yet. No need for them to like or accept me. But they did. Immediately and unconditionally. The oysters started much later when Bunny started hosting Thanksgiving dinners and I insisted on making our family’s recipe for Scalloped Oysters. Bunny hates oysters. But Paul loved them. And eventually I stopped buying the oysters in Brentwood and waited until I got to Knoxville so Paul and I could go buy them together.
So for years, the two of us would set off for The Shrimp Dock to buy our oysters, already shucked. And one year, it occurred to us that we could buy them in the shell and start a new ritual of eating fresh oysters on Thanksgiving. Which we did. We had to take them out on the deck because Bunny was having none of this in her kitchen. Mark would mix up the cocktail sauce fresh. And out we would go, into the cold, with our oysters, sauce and saltine crackers. When Noah was old enough, we invited him outside. I am proud to say he accepted the invitation.
The last time I saw Paul was about three weeks ago. Shrunken and dazed by Alzheimer’s, he sat in his wheelchair at his care facility, gamely trying to down a lunch of a turkey patty and soft cauliflower. Paul was well taken care of and I am not in any way criticizing the cuisine. It was what it was. But it wasn’t an oyster on the half shell with homemade cocktail sauce.
When we left, I leaned over, kissed him and hugged him hard. “It will be fine,” I told him. “It really will. I love you.” Today, it was fine. Spared the possible years of debilitation and robbed memory, he passed. My father-in-law was many things to many people. He cared for the poor, he adopted Hurricane Katrina refugees, he was a father figure to countless people, many related to him only by love. He was a philanthropist, a proud Optimist and played a mean game of golf. And, in the end, he made light of his disease as best he could. He called until he could no longer remember the number. And I think he knew us all up until the end.
It was a brave man who first ate an oyster. A brave man, indeed.