Death and memories

Taking time to remember a person is how I grieve. This may not be the most classic way to process grief, but it works well for me and is influenced strongly by two books:

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. In this book, a plague has wiped out all but one woman alone in the Antarctic. The people who she remembers have an afterlife in a city until she she forgets them.

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. The book is a fictional history that takes place over centuries via reincarnations. It is a fascinating portrayal of souls persisting beyond one body. The reincarnations are not a plot point, more of a convenient device, but that stuck with me way more than the actual story being told. Do we have a jati – a group of souls we travel through time with?

Those ideas are always in the back of my mind and they come forward when someone dies. I take time and I reflect so that they are not forgotten.

Whether it’s a cat or a person my process is the same – let the memories resurface then spend time to review photos and blog posts, maybe even do some Google searches for things I had forgotten.

Yesterday I learned that Jonathan Wilder, a good friend from many years ago, passed away last weekend. It was a shock. We hadn’t spoken in a long time so I mostly have memories of things we did almost two decades ago. The only photos I have of him are these two both snapped in 2006: one at my 40th birthday party in the park; the other at UltraBob and Tomoko’s wedding.

Taking time since hearing the news, what have I remembered?

  • Food was his passion when we were friends. He introduced us to cassoulet – and I think making cassoulet this month will be my tribute to him – and a raw tuna and avocado dip that Tod loved. I recall him grilling a huge slab of salmon on the balcony of his city apartment. And lamb, so much lamb.
  • When tasting any dish I cook even now, I assess it for lemon. Jonathan always said there was never enough citrus and if a dish tasted bland or wrong, it needed more lemon. He was almost always right.
  • We had so many dinners around his table in Minamiazabu. The table had to be pulled out from the wall to accommodate guests, which meant there was very little space to maneuver. If you sat next to the CD player, you were in charge of music. If you were in front of the fridge, you got the cold stuff out. If you were at the window, you controlled the breeze. The small space did not stop us from having delightful & interesting conversations.
  • His apartment had a view of Tokyo Tower and he took frequent (perhaps daily) photos of the sky. I wonder where those photos went?
  • He had great advice for expanding a party menu to fit more guests: add another dish. Don’t make more of something already on the menu, instead add something new.
  • We worked on a cookbook together in 2004 and 2005, but didn’t finish the project.
  • We also worked on a cultural activism project: protecting the foreign section of Aoyama Cemetery from the devastating renovation plans of the city. Thanks to Jonathan and his wife, Sachiko, the Foreign Section Trust petitioned the city and changed the course of the renovations for the short term. You can see some of the details on the website preserved here:
  • Jonathan interviewed Donatella Failla about Eduardo Chiosonne for our podcast project “Hanashi Station” in July 2005. Thanks to the Internet Archive, you can listen to this episode:
  • Jonathan hosted epic hanami parties in the Foreign Section of the cemetery. The cherry trees were always perfect and there was, of course, a lot of good food.
  • “The Boys” – Jonathan, Tod, Jeremy and a variety of other guys – took weekend trips together to Nikko and to Izu. I remember being really unhappy that I was excluded and relegated to the The Girls, where I didn’t feel I belonged.

Tod told me today that Jonathan visited Kamogawa once when I was away, so probably in 2018 or 2019 when I was in the India-US phase of my life. They had lunch together at Nadaitei – enjoying the kaisendon, Tod remembered – and walked a few loops of Sakuma Dam before Jonathan headed back to the city.

My last communication with Jonathan was seven months ago, a comment on a video he shared on Facebook. The video showed flowing water in the subway station.

Jonathan will be remembered by other people in other ways, but for me he defined an era of good eating, social occasions, and activism. Thank you, Jonathan.

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Mediatinker, Kristen McQuillin, is an American-born resident of Japan since 1998. This blog chronicles her life, projects, thoughts, and small adventures.