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.

Mark, Noah and Paul

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.


  1. Lori
    August 5, 2011 at 2:52 am

    What a beautiful story, Catherine.
    I’m sorry for your loss, but understand the joy in remembering.
    My mom had Alzheimers.

  2. Louise Silverstein
    Louise SilversteinReply
    August 5, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Oh, Cath,
    I am so sorry to learn about Paul. Will call you later. Weize

  3. julie hendrix
    julie hendrixReply
    August 5, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    Now that is what a eulogy should be, a beautiful illustration of what must have been a beautiful life. God Bless y’all this weekend and in the days that follow…

  4. Leslie Fraser
    Leslie FraserReply
    August 5, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    Thank you for sharing your memories with us. You all are in our thoughts and prayers. Peace be with you.

  5. Gail Kerr
    Gail KerrReply
    August 5, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    Beautifully said, Catherine. I’m so sorry. Teary-eyed for you.

  6. Howardparishow
    August 5, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    Sorry to hear of your loss, My Mother died of Alzheimers and for an elegant, Boston socialte lady, it was not the way to go.
    But isn’t it a wonderful memory to have shared so much love and passion, all around food and the joy that it brings,in bringing people closer together..

    • the south in my mouth
      the south in my mouthReply
      August 6, 2011 at 1:28 am

      Not that you would wish for the occasion, but we are enjoying the abundant funeral food that has arrived. Tonight, braised beef in an onion gravy, cheese grits and a spinach casserole. I thought on the drive over today that it was about a year ago that you had your first taste of funeral food. Think of Terrell almost every day. He and Paul knew and liked each other quite a bit.

  7. Mike Ramsey
    Mike RamseyReply
    August 5, 2011 at 9:34 pm

    I loved Paul, he was and is one of the greatest friends I have ever had. He will be so sadly, but fondly missed by all the lives he touched. He was and will always be one of the greatest friendships of my life.

    Such a Good Man!
    Mike Ramsey

  8. Les Kerr
    August 6, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Catherine – what a beautiful tribute.

  9. JoAnn Rhodes Groserg
    August 6, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    truly lovely.

  10. Susan Harbin
    Susan HarbinReply
    September 15, 2011 at 4:40 am

    I read this about once a week, and cry each time. I love your blog, but this is the most beautiful thing ever. From one who loved him- about the man who loved you most.. Thank you.

    • the south in my mouth
      the south in my mouthReply
      September 15, 2011 at 2:37 pm

      I always treasured my status as “favorite daughter-in-law” although I don’t think I had much competition in that category. It’s a strange fall, the first I can remember where Coach Paul is not available to discuss the game.

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