THANKSGIVING CHEZ MANFULL: WHICH WINE PAIRS BEST WITH GRIEF AND OTHER STORIES FROM AROUND OUR TABLE

by Susan Manfull

On every Thanksgiving but one, there’s been a turkey on our table.  The singular exception was 16 years ago during our semester in Provence when our favorite rotisserie at the Lourmarin market recommended a Chapon de Bresse. (Turkeys were hard to find back then.)  This year, Chez Manfull, there will be no turkey (or chapon), and other things will be quite different, too.  But, as always, we will gather together at the table to express our gratitude for all our blessings because, even now in the depths of our sadness, there is much to be thankful for.

Since our only child died in August, exactly a month before her 27th birthday, we have found the table – where good food and wine are shared with friends and family – to be one of our greatest sources of strength. On this Thanksgiving, the most important day at the table in our country, I am reminded that coming to the table requires neither feast nor celebration.  Its real value is the simple comfort of being among those you love – to break bread, pour some wine, and toast to life…even if those you love, now, lie only in your hearts.

It’s been nearly four months now since Alex passed away.  Summer has turned to fall, temperatures have dropped 70 degrees, and we’ve seen some snow since the day Alex drew her last breath, turning our world, of which she was the center, upside down and adrift.

My husband and I fell into a state of shock, the body’s way of preserving the psyche for what is in store.  How else could we possibly complete the tasks that would soon be thrust upon us? There would be conversations with stunned family members and incredulous friends, inquisitive detectives, curious neighbors, an empathic landlord, Alex’s neurologist, and Alex’s longtime mentor who was her employer and her colleagues with whom she was very close; visits to the Office of the Medical Examiner where we identified our daughter, and to the funeral home where we were asked to make decisions we had never imagined; choices about what clothes we would dress Alex in for our last rendezvous and which personal items would be tucked into her coffin (we chose Snappy, a scraggly stuffed dog that had once been mine, a poem written for her by Gérard Isirdi, a dear French artist friend, a plush blanket from her high school alma mater, a pendant from her college alma mater, and a few photographs); seemingly endless hours devoted to packing the rest of her clothes (many of which I had helped her choose over the years) and her personal belongings such as framed photographs of friends and family, her dog Penny’s bed and assorted toys, and her nascent collection of pots and pans, all of which she had just purchased in anticipation of actually cooking in a kitchen larger than the small closet that passed for a kitchen in Manhattan; the sorting of various drugs she kept on hand to deal with the ravages of the autoimmune brain disorder she ultimately succumbed to; and the wholly unanticipated discussions with professionals from NIH who asked that we donate her brain for further research to understand neuropsychiatric disorders such as the one that took Alex’s precious life:  Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcus (PANDAS).

In the immediate aftermath of Alex’s death, while still in Washington D.C. where Alex had lived, the profound grief that would eventually envelop us had not yet set in. But we were untethered.  Fortunately, family and friends knew it was the table – where we would be comforted by breaking bread with loved ones – that would help to ground us.

The Venetian Bar and Lounge in the Hotel Lombardy in Washington, D.C Photo by W.T. Manfull

Just before collapsing at the end of our first day there, just 24 hours after Alex’s death, we propped ourselves up, at the insistence of my cousin Juli and sister-in-law Lisa, for a light meal. We had apéritifs with a rosé from Domaine de la Petite Cassagne in Costiere de Nimes followed by a Zinfandel from Lodi. Neither the food nor the wines were particularly remarkable, but the gathering was memorable and immensely therapeutic.  We were in the Venetian Bar and Lounge in Foggy Bottom’s classically elegant Hotel Lombardy, where Alex and I had stayed twice when she interviewed for the job she ultimately took, and where my husband and I now stayed.  Alex should have been there; it was surreal that she wasn’t. What kind of cruel god would pluck our vibrant, smart, gorgeous, funny, kind daughter from the prime of her life?  How could this happen? We all sobbed as we raised our glasses many times to Alex:  to our collective love for her, for gracing our lives albeit far too briefly, for her safe passage to heaven.

Another meal, sandwiched between two emotional visits with Alex in the funeral home, was more feast than meal.  Lisa and her Moroccan-French husband Charlie prepared a dozen or so Moroccan dishes that filled the dining room with sweet and spicy scents reminiscent of our trip to that North African country some ten years earlier, one that Alex loved.  Red wine from several châteaux in the Rhône Valley helped to wash away the grief that hung in the air. 

On our first visit to the funeral home, early that Sunday morning before the Moroccan feast, it was just five days after she died, seven days after she had excitedly called us to tell us about her five-year career plan, and fourteen days after we had laughed together in Tucson.  Now, she lay motionless in the black dress I had purchased for her last summer in Provence, one I had expected to see her wearing while drinking rosé in Lourmarin, the village where Alex went to school and where we had spent so many vacations.  Instead, she was lying supine in a coffin in Bethesda, Maryland. A wail emanated from my gut that was so primal I didn’t recognize it as my own. The incongruence of our excruciating pain with her radiant beauty and peaceful appearance was jarring. I held her hand as I often did but it was cold and lifeless. The last time I held her hand was in Tucson where, as she left for her flight, she sought assurance from me that the upcoming treatment would work, and she would be herself again, free of the debilitating disorder with the strangely cute name, “PANDAS.”

The spicy lamb and assorted vegetables atop Lisa’s renown couscous calmed my nerves, and the various blends of the region’s signature Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, warmed my soul and grounded me for the return visit to the funeral home after lunch.  The conversation was lively, mostly about Alex and, heartbreakingly, focused on the past as each of us sitting around the table carefully navigated the sudden absence of a future. I relayed the story of Alex accompanying me to the renowned Château Beaucastel in the southern Rhône Valley where she took photos and I interviewed fifth-generation vigneron Marc Perrin,

After lunch, we returned to the funeral home — the last time I would ever hold Alex’s sweet hands. We told her about the lunch and how much she would have loved it. And how she should have been there (and how we hoped she was).  If the funeral home had not been closing, I would have had dinner brought in. It seemed impossible that we would never see her again. Even as I type these words now, I cannot fully grasp she is gone.

The same group of friends and family gathered the next night at an Indian restaurant a few blocks from Alex’s apartment and across the street from her office.  My husband and I had been in her office earlier that day when we met her employer and the colleagues about whom she had spoken so fondly.  We wanted to meet them, to match faces with names of the people, and to give her young colleagues some semblance of inchoate closure. That same day, in the morning, we had met Alex’s neurologist, whom Alex held in very high regard, and who had just formally diagnosed her three weeks earlier and determined the course of treatment Alex should have begun by the day we met.  Both meetings were heart-rending yet satisfying.  The outstanding array of Indian food and multiple bottles of Gentil “Hugel” – an Alsatian blend of Gewurztraminer, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Muscat – lightened the mood around the table. 

Alex loved Indian food. On one of her early visits to the pediatrician – she was about four years old – Alex responded to a nurse’s question about her favorite food by saying “saag paneer.”  The nurse, who must have asked the question in hundreds of other visits with young patients, could not decipher Alex’s answer.  Alex tried a few more times before I intervened to clarify. The nurse told us that in her 40-plus years of pediatric nursing, she had never heard that answer from a child’s mouth. We told this story at the table that night and garnered some honest laughter for the first time since Alex had died.

Most of our meals in Washington followed long, emotionally grueling days, each of which underscored the death of our daughter in new ways. Most of those meals were quite simple.  As prominent wine writer Gerald Asher wrote in The Pleasures of Wine, “It needs only a good bottle of wine for a roast chicken to be transformed into a banquet,” a sentiment with which Alex would have completely concurred.

Some of the meals we enjoyed included cheese pizza with pepperoni and Caesar salad accompanied by M Chapoutier’s Côtes-du-Rhône Red Belleruche (2017); Japanese dumplings filled with pork and paired with a white Rhône blend (2016) of Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc called T’aya from Kitá Wines in California (one we found in Alex’s burgeoning collection of wines that I knew was a favorite and one she tasted when we visited the winemaker Tara Gomez); and a cheese and charcuterie board with a huge arugula salad and crusty Italian bread assembled by one of Alex’s new friends, Steve, who brought it over to Alex’s apartment where we all met for dinner.  We opened a bottle of Léoube Collector (2015) from Provence’s Château Léoube, also from Alex’s wine collection. (This was a bigger wine than our meal called for, but Alex, like our small group, would have appreciated it.)  We were growing accustomed to meeting à la table where we would breathe a collective sigh of relief that we made it through the day, shed some tears, and tell some stories that, if we were lucky, elicited a few laughs.

The worst day was probably our last. We were down to the wire to close Alex’s apartment, so when the funeral home called to say that Alex’s ashes were ready – that is, the remains of Alex were in the Thai Buddhist bronze begging bowl that Lisa had given us – I volunteered to go retrieve them. It would soon become clear that neither my husband nor Juli (nor I) had thought this errand through as this task required me to be the sole custodian of Alex’s ashes for the 30-minute trip from Bethesda to D.C., alone in the back seat of a taxi.  I wrapped my arms around the begging bowl now holding what remained of our only child in my lap, sobbing all the way back to Alex’s apartment. I will always remember the driver, a Muslim man who told me we were all family at times like these, did not charge me for the very long wait while I was inside the funeral home.  I relayed these stories to Lisa and Charlie later that night over bowls of spaghetti topped with a red bison sauce that, in this case, more than compensated for the bottle of inexpensive Italian wine we paired with it.

We drove home the next day, the van we had rented filled to the roof with our daughter’s belongings.  It was a drive we had made, in part, countless times over the last decade, sometimes with Alex and sometimes not, but always with a car full of Alex’s things.  Alex moved to Princeton in 2009, to New York City for two summer internships and then, in 2013, for full-time employment, and, more recently, from New York to Washington, D.C.

During those long drives, our conversations, if not directly about Alex, would always loop back to her. We marveled at her resilience during the most challenging periods at Princeton, we basked in the pride of being her parents when she coxed the men’s lightweight rowing team to a huge win, we laughed when she sounded more like an old sailor than a young female coxswain in that boat, we delighted in meeting her friends and their parents, we wondered where she would live after graduation, what she would do with her life after she launched her career in finance, whether she and her longtime steady boyfriend would marry, and we counted our blessings that Alex was in our life.

Now, it was all we could do to imagine cobbling together a life without Alex. We were on our way to a home that I couldn’t imagine ever feeling like home again.  For 26 years, we had lived at this address with Alex.  All that gave purpose and meaning to our lives – both before Alex and after she was born – seemed hollow without Alex. As a close family of three, our lives were braided together, and, without the thick blonde center strand around which ours were wrapped, I wasn’t sure what remained would be held together.  For almost all our marriage, for nearly half our lives, we were parents:  volunteer classroom parents, crew parents, soccer parents, squash parents, Alex’s parents.  Who were we now? We didn’t dare broach what the future held for us while suspended between what was and what we had always expected would be, but no longer is.

Profound grief, now enveloping us, defies words.  Once back, I found that where love once knew no bounds, pain knew no bounds.  Listlessness and my indifference to it led to long days in which morning, afternoon, and evening were blurred until, mercifully, sleep would return

Chez Manfull. Photo by W.T. Manfull

Our saving grace during these heart-wrenching months has been the table.  The table, where once we three gathered, now we two gather, often with friends who, initially, brought all the food: an amazingly generous bounty of food, I hasten to add, that, as David Scott Allen observed, included not a single prosaic casserole.  Every dinner, as best I remember, has included wine.  With our long dining room table in temporary use as a repository for Alex’s things, our humble kitchen table has been the site of our gatherings. I think of these times together at the table as our anchor to the untethered hours of our days, especially those early days. Gradually, they have provided structure to our days and given us a platform for difficult questions to seep out. No matter your history with death and the religious or philosophical framework with which you understand it, you know that for most of these questions, there are no clear answers.  But we ask them anyway.  Over and over.  It is part of the grieving process, especially when a life has been cut tragically short.

Alex was just beginning to develop her palate for wine, and it was already quite sophisticated. She loved finding just the right words to describe the bouquet she noted and the flavors she detected. She had already accompanied me to several wineries and to one significant tasting of organic wines called Millésime Bio.  In Montpellier, for three long days, she juggled translating French with photographing winemakers, all the while tasting a little wine, too.  She loved it.  She was a natural and, sadly, left some unfinished projects from that tasting (notably, the video of my interview with a consultant on biodynamic winemaking for Domaine Richeaume).

I think Alex would have liked the (2015) Gigondas from Clos du Joncuas (as she met the winemakers in Montpellier) we served with the roast chicken one of our dear friends left for us and the biodynamic red Château Fontvert (2015) blend (as she knew this Lourmarin winery well) we paired with the spaghetti sauce we fell in love with.  I wonder how she would have liked the Viognier from Acquiesce Winery (2016) that we paired with the salmon that we found waiting for us on another day.  If she is looking down from heaven, I am sure she was smiling with all the wonderful soups and salads we received. David Scott Allen and Mark Sammons made mac ‘n cheese out of the cheeses left from the reception following her service and I made a vegetable stock from the beautiful vegetables left from the huge vegetable platters which I then used to make celery soup. And when we weren’t drinking wine, I know she would have loved the iced tea Betsy Tabor kept us supplied with.

Honestly, we might not have eaten had this network of dear, dear friends not risen to the occasion in their respective kitchens to make such sustenance for our table.  Their food not only fortified our physical bodies, it nourished our souls in ways I never imagined.  They told us that their shopping and cooking was a labor of love, that it helped them by helping us; but, truly, the great gift of freedom it gave us to grieve is one we can only repay by paying it forward.

Chez Clark. Photo by W.T. Manfull

Which wine pairs best with grief? The wine that warms your heart. The wine that comes with a story that recalls a place and time. The best wines are made from grapes that are grown with a deep love and respect for the terroir, harvested with tremendous care, and vinified with an unrelenting confidence in the grapes themselves. Therein lies the beauty of the wine, and of life itself.  And, in both wine and life, there are profound disappointments.

We will set a place for Alex at the Thanksgiving table and pour a wine we know she loves. We will tell stories of Thanksgivings past and count our blessings she graced our lives.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.  À la table!

 

To read more about the autoimmune brain disorder that took the life of Alex or if you would like to contribute to her fund to help all young people with PANDAS, please visit: http://pandasnetwork.org/alex-manfull-memorial-fund/

34 Comments

  1. So beautiful Susan. With much love.

  2. Hello Susan, Towney and all the Manfull network of friends. As I read this I feel a sense of great love as well as the satisfying feeling of being cared for. I think of you every day and am so refreshed to read your writing once again. Sending love and gratitude to you.

  3. Hello Susan and Bill. Have been thinking of you both, and of course Alex, on & off over the past few months. I have something in common with you in that I lost my father on my 14th birthday (November 19 just a few days ago and, historically, back in 1972). That year Thanksgiving was a few days later. This is a bit of disjointed comparison yet as there is some overlap I simply want to let you both know that I am thinking of you. Thank you for your post and I send you my all. Tom

  4. I married into a Jewish family, and one of the customs I most took to was that of setting a place for Elijah at the table, in case he took it into his head to visit. Your post reminded me of that. I cannot imagine the pain you have, and are still experiencing, but leaving a place at table is a wonderful way of keeping her memory with you. I never met her but the photo you published of her beautiful, intelligent, characterful face gave me an idea of how much you must miss her. Grief is the price we pay for love.

  5. Susan—this is so heartbreakingly beautiful. Written with grace and love that knows no bounds. I wish you the best and will be thinking of you on Thanksgiving.

  6. Stunningly beautiful, Susan. Mark and I read this while sitting around the table where we sat with you, Towny and Alex in July. Your words are so thoughtful, about the power of sharing food and wine around the table – we will, of course, toast Alex tomorrow, every thankful to have had her in our lives for as long as we did.

    A note of inappropriate levity: The only casserole that darkened your door was my mac ‘n cheese. There is some poetry in that, don’t you think? There had to be at least one casserole, n’est pas?

  7. Oh, Susan! I am so very sorry to hear of the loss of your dear Alex. No one who had not lost a child can ever truly understand how completely wrong it is. My son died at 15 in 1985, on Halloween and I still cannot celebrate Halloween. Please accept my most sincere sympathy.

  8. Dear Susan,
    It is fitting and touching to come home and find this lovely, lovely post in my mailbox. I have just come from La Boulangerie where I had coffee and scones with Patti. You, Towny, and Alex were the center of our two hour conversation. Your desire to both grieve and honor your daughter has brought out the very best in your writing ability. Thank you for your profound observations about the grounding effect of sharing wine and food with family and friends. It really doesn’t get any better, in good times and bad.
    Much love, Kirsten

  9. Susan –
    I was so moved by your frank writing about the grief that embraces you and Towney these days. I am thinking loving thoughts of you and of Alex (who, of course, I never met) and am grateful for your sharing. Be strong and cherish your memories.

  10. Susan, your writing so fully captures the love of food, wine and – most importantly – family. You will always be three; Alex left too large an impression on everyone’s lives to be left from the equation. Much love.

  11. Very moving Susan. Thinking of you as I sit in my kitchen.

  12. Very moving Susan. I am so sorry for your terrible loss. We will be thinking of you tomorrow and many other times as well.

  13. Dear Susan, thank you for opening up your heart, and in so showing the true and undying love you have for your beautiful daughter Alex, it lets us see how you and Alex enjoyed each other’s company and shared in your interest of wine during the short time she had in this world, as a parent my self, cannot imagine what you both are going through, but thank you again for this caring beautifully written celebration of Alex’s life, my prayers are with you, god bless you both 🙏

  14. My GOD Susie that was beautifully written. I am still thinking and praying for you, Towney and Alex.

    much love
    Robin

  15. Thank you for reminding us what is important in life and how you have managed this tough time in your life. A beautifully written piece. Much love to you Susan.

  16. An absolutely exquisite tribute to your daughter, Susan. You take my breath away with your ability to communicate your sadness through your passion for wine. What a meaningful way to share your story and to make the heartbreak bearable for you to communicate to many of us who cannot begin to understand your pain. Thank you for sharing.

  17. Beautifully written Susan. You Towny and Alex are in my thoughts every day. John and I will raise a glass to you and Towny and Alex with deep love. Hugs. Rosjke

  18. Dear Susie, So much love and devotion is captured in this article that I can only imagine was so difficult for you to write. Tears are flooding my heart, thank you so much for sharing such beautiful memories of Alex. We will toast all 3 of you a la table tomorrow, Thanksgiving. Praying 🙏 for all.

  19. Dear Susan, I weep with you, laugh with you, hold you and Towny in my thoughts and do so admire your grace and ability to express yourself so beautifully through the written word. Thank you for sharing. Hugs, Audrey

  20. Jennifer and I are without words. Sending love and prayers to you and Towny.

  21. Your writing continues to mesmerize my heart and soul. Susan, you and Towny are living with such profound grief. You write about so many joyful memories. Each story of Alex is filled with promise, warmth and intelligence. She was a gift to this world even as a little child. Her gifts only multiplied with age and experience. How crushing to weave the story of her final days into such sweet memories. My heart breaks for you both all over again. As I type these sad words, something inside of me tells me to remember Alex by imitating some of the qualities I loved in her. I am really restating a quote that I read just recently. The author of these profound words provided me with hope. Imitating Alex’s devotion to art, people and political justice honors her soul and personal energy. I can embrace my life with renewed zest knowing Alex’s essence is never far!

  22. Yes, that table! Can you count all the times I sat at that table, while growing up with Alex? How many Animal Tribune meetings we had at that small table of yours? How many times Alex invited me over, for which I eagerly took, and we had cookies at that table? Personally, I lost count, I can remember a singular feeling all these points of memories lead to: happiness, a sense of thankfulness.

    I think about Alex everyday. I think about her before I think about what I should buy for dinner or what wine should go along with it. I think about her when I see cardboard boxes on sidewalks, how a young Alex (and myself included) would love to build fantastical worlds out of them with just tape and imagination. I think about her whenever I come across small details we shared, like our Pokemon affinity, our love for travel or culture, and eclectic taste of music. Or how she was there for Kathleen and I when our father passed away, not because its what friends do, but because of her sense of being that we all loved her for.

    I shall be toasting her tomorrow, as well as forever, because her spirit still lives on. Thank you for this read, Susan, you and Towny and Alex are in our thoughts.

  23. Susan, while out of town, we are at that special table with you and Towny in spirit. Not just Thanksgiving, but daily as we continue to remember Alex and the times we shared together. Your words are very special. Lots of love to you both.

  24. André & Monica Renaudo November 22, 2018 at 5:19 am

    This is heart wrenching and beautifully written. We did not know Alex and we have only met you once in Cotignac but your writing brought us deeply in the sadness of your family and your close friends. Monica and I join you in sympathy and grief for the souvenir of Alex.
    André & Monica

  25. Dear Susan & Towny,
    You are constantly in my thoughts and prayers. I saw your article heading yesterday come across my phone, but waited until this morning to read it. It was so beautifully written, and could not have come easily. As tears rolled down my face, I’m feeling so grateful to have met you both and although only meeting Alex a few times, her beautiful face is embedded in my mind. I miss you both so very much and hope we can get together before Christmas. Thanksgiving blessings coming your way!
    Love,
    Patty & Eric

  26. From the poet David Whyte:

    Those who will not slip beneath
    the still surface on the well of grief
    turning downward through its black water
    to the place we cannot breath
    will never know the source from which we drink,
    the secret water, cold and clear,
    nor find in the darkness glimmering
    the small round coins
    thrown by those who wished for something else.

    Kindest regards,
    L

  27. This Thanksgiving we are grateful for the love and nourishment that you and your family have given ours through the years. It was not that long ago when you were pregnant trying out possible names; when Alex was a toddler handing out shower gifts to me and sitting next to me on the piano bench; when the two kids were playing games of eating donuts hanging on strings and blowing out candles, having pizza and talking about trips abroad; drinking wine and enjoying faux filet; the art, the stories, the joy, the creativity of her life will live inside of our hearts. Sending a depth of love to you today and always. Heidi, Dennis, and Nico

  28. This is an amazing emotionally pure, poignant and powerful essay on grief underscored with the hope, resilience, and purpose. As we gather together today on the west coast our families will not be together however we will share memories of times spent at the very table pictured, at the period table in the formal dining room that at the time we left had become a small gallery of Alex’s collected items, and other tables here, there and abroad where conversation has flowed easily and often humorously enhanced by the food, wine and folks that have joined us destined to become new friends. The language of love and inclusion has always been spoken in your family making it such an inviting and enchanting place to be and grow. I can clearly picture the non culinary projects creatively developed there as well, some time sensitive and others ongoing. Alex will continue to be celebrated and her presence always requested.
    I love you Susie and Towny and Alex and am eternally grateful for the family you became to us and the impact you have had on our lives. A toast in the spirit of gratitude…faith….love

  29. So beautiful and so brave. My heart is with you every single day.

  30. Dear Susan,
    This is the most beautiful, touching, and heartfelt tribute to your beautiful daughter Alex. Thank you for sharing your heart with us.

  31. We are so grateful for what you have shared. From the unimaginable pain of losing your lovely Alex, you have enriched us with a beautifully balanced tasting of wisdom, humor, heartbreak, wonder, hope and resilience. Like the wines and wineful experiences you describe so vividly each time, you’ve given us a very special “taste” of Alex and your own heart that we will always remember and cherish.

  32. You dig deep into your own and your family’s amazing strength to write magnificently about the beauty of your sharing community. Thank you for letting us know how you have been, not just continuing but relying on the bounty of love that has always been at any table where you, Towny, and Alex sit. Colleen wrote that you will always be three. Yes. Alex is with us. Always. How gracious of you to keep us with you. Thank you.

    I see a book being born here. This chapter you have written is stunning.

  33. I am touched by your post, Susan, as well as your generosity of thought and enthusiasm for life, wines and love. Thank you so much!

  34. Dear Susan
    This must be the opening chapter in your book about Alex. You write beautifully and eloquently about an incredibly tragic event. You demonstrate that good food and wine can help celebrate and mourn together Alex’s remarkable life and her sudden passing. From now on, I will toast Alex with every glass of wine I drink. With love from Alex’s grieving Godmother.

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