This is an excerpt from the anthology, Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us, published March 22, 2022. Here author Aria Beth Sloss writes a harrowing thank-you to a quick-thinking diner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where her husband is chef and co-owner.
My daughter was 18 months old that day. Her first food was fish skin, blackened and reeking of the sea—augury foreshadowing her fearlessness, her love of swimming, her appetites.
Her father is a chef. We’d been at his restaurant since morning. Our daughters played in the old grain silo, filched cookies from the pastry kitchen, drew a dozen inscrutable pictures. After lunch my younger daughter went quiet. I sent the four-year-old out into the November afternoon to pick carrots in the greenhouse and took the little one, my baby, to sit by the windows opposite the bakery. It smelled like bread, sunshine, cold.
Was this when you sat down? Three o’clock, three-thirty, a late lunch, the sun already plunging into the hills. The restaurant whitelinened and hushed, miles from anything. A doctor on her Sunday afternoon out, just recompense for all those days spent saving people’s lives. My father is a doctor. He loves creature comforts—a good meal, a warm bath, a nice crème brûlée. I have always envied him the brute physicality of his work, concrete in all the ways mine is not. Sometimes I wonder what I’ve done with my life, choosing to traffic in a thousand shades of gray.
Imagine: We sat no more than a hundred feet from you, a single wall between us. My daughter made a solid weight in my lap. At our checkups I feign indifference to her stats and then furiously text my husband when the nurse leaves the room: 99th percentile!! She’s a beast!! The beast has astonishing eyes—clear, thrilling blue; they peered up at me as I sang under my breath, rocking her. Her eyelids drooped, closed. I smoothed her curls and my palm passed over her forehead: burning.
Listen, I am not one of those hysterical mothers. I was raised to treat anything less than cancer or gunshot with aspirin, fluids, rest. I understand the body wants to heal. I held my daughter. I sang. And then what?
To this day, I couldn’t say. Something shifted. She made a noise; her body stiffened. I felt a stab of worry, a blade sliding under my ribs. I caught the eye of a passing server: “Sorry,” I said—sorry, sorry, why are we always sorry, we women? Why the shame at taking pride in a healthy child? Why the endless excoriation of my choices?—“Would you mind asking my husband to come out here?” The doors to the kitchen swung open and shut. Once I watched my father put my older brother, screaming, in a tub of cold water to lower his fever—106, I remember. A hard cure, but it worked. I felt my daughter’s strong legs under my hands—the muscled calves, the feet that had once, from inside me, kicked and kicked.
The doors swung open; my husband walked toward us, wiping a hand against his apron. It’s possible he’d just plated your next course, arranged a few spinach leaves just so. His job, too, is physical, demanding. I am surrounded by men doing important work.