Comfort Food – for Renee

I met Renee 25 years ago when we were both working as librarians in the Bronx – she at New York Public Library,  and I at Jane Addams High School.

Renee  had been trained as a book discussion leader,  and as part of NYPL’s outreach to schools she came to the neighboring Lehman High School to run an after-school faculty book club.

Luckily for me,  I  knew Paula,  the Lehman HS  librarian,  and she  invited me to join the club.

Renee was a superb, very well-prepared  facilitator.  She chose great books to discuss and opened each meeting with evocative questions,  and then went on to share her insights,  and the most wonderful discussions always followed.

One afternoon when the meeting ended Renee,  Paula and I went out for a bite together,  and that was the beginning of our beautiful friendship.

The book club met for many years at Lehman,  and after our staggered retirements,  we decided to continue meeting in each others’ homes,  and Renee offered to continue as our discussion leader.  We asked other friends to join,  and I’m happy to say after all these years our book club is still going strong.

(Our book club on City Island,  I took the photo.   Back row:  Raina, Karlan, Judy,  Marlene,  Helen.  Front row:  Renee, Paula)

Renee and I were also part of a group of good friends who took turns hosting each other at dinner every few months.  One July when it happened to be Renee’s turn to host,   she invited the whole dinner group to her country house in Monterey in the Berkshires.

Over the years that Monterey weekend at Renee’s became a cherished summer tradition.  The men would carry Renee’s two picnic tables down the hill beside her house and set them up under the trees with the rest of us at their heels carrying the food and the (many)  bottles of wine.

And when we weren’t feasting,  some of us would head for Garfield Lake with towels and beach chairs,  or drive to town to shop,  some of the men would usually be watching sports on TV,  someone was usually napping on the couch,  one very rainy weekend a few of us intrepid souls drove to Lenox for an unforgettable Roz Chaste exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum,  and there were always some of us raiding the fridge,  and talking books or politics at Renee’s kitchen table.

And we’d usually spend an evening picnicking under the stars and enjoying the music at Tanglewood.  During many summers we saw Garrison Keillor airing his radio show Prairie Home Companion live from the Koussevitzky Shed.   What his radio listeners couldn’t know was that after the show Keillor would come out on the lawn as the band played on,  and thousands of us would dance on the grass and sing along.  I remember doing the lindy with Renee on that great Tanglewood lawn.

Then one day Renee called with the devastating news that she’d been diagnosed with cancer.  Her family and friends rallied to her support,  she traveled abroad with her daughters,  and then as long as she was able,  she continued to pursue  all her Berkshire passions –   tending her beautiful garden,  volunteering at Shakespeare & Co.,  cooking and baking,  attending Tanglewood concerts,  modern dance at Jacob’s Pillow,  and lectures and readings at The Mount.

And when she became housebound under the care of a compassionate hospice team,  she continued to welcome friends’  visits.  Then,  five years after her diagnosis,  Renee died in the Monterey house she always called her Happy Place.

Renee had been an excellent cook, and I on the other hand was never a confident one,  and so I was especially pleased once when she praised a dish of mine.  It was a stuffed pepper recipe I’d gotten from my Hungarian mother-in-law and I had worked hard to master it.   Renee called it comfort food.

Rest in peace Renee,  your memory is a comfort.

Dana Susan Lehrman



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