[First posted in November 2012 on www.deepeningcommunity.ca]
October 25th was Onion Day. You probably didn’t know that. It’s an annual tradition that was invented by my friend Lucy in 1998, when she was eight years old. Lucy and her family had just received the news that her mother, Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann, was suffering from an aggressive and deadly brain cancer. Young Lucy decided that, amid all the sadness and fear, they had to have something to celebrate.
Two months before Jeanie died on New Year’s Eve of 2005, I was in their Detroit home for her last Onion Day. Lucy, her older sister Lydia, her dad Bill, Jeanie, and I sat expectantly around the dining room table for the annual ritual, knowing that the winner would be the person who came closest to guessing the number of layers in the onion we passed around—and that the one left holding the last piece of onion was obligated to make everyone else laugh. An average onion contains 20 to 25 layers—well attested by copious data collected from seven years of Onion Day celebrations to that point.
Her daughters encouraged Jeanie to guess first. Though the exact numbers have slipped my mind, I remember that it went something like this. Jeanie guessed that the onion had three layers. Lydia smiled sweetly at her mom and guessed that the onion had 274 layers. Lucy went next, guessing 526. We continued around the table, with Bill’s guess coming in at 832 and mine at about 1,287. Then we passed the onion around, each peeling away a layer—22 in all—until we were all weeping and laughing at the same time. Jeanie—the winner by far—was triumphant on her last Onion Day.
Then came the presents. I’ve always been impressed by how the Wylie-Kellermanns lavish thoughtful and stunning homemade gifts on one another. An elaborate dollhouse that Bill made back when his daughters were very young was still in the living room. Lucy had engraved beautiful plaques, bearing expressions of love and gratitude, with a wood-burning tool. Lydia gave each of us a jar filled with small stones, on which she had written words such as smile, hug, and tears. She offered them with a note that said, “When the time comes when we have no words, may these words surround us all and may our love and prayers be carried through them.”
Jeanie was indeed running out of words—and time. As we all sat at breakfast the next morning eating our oatmeal, she started a sentence and then lost her train of thought—a common occurrence in those last weeks. In frustration, she declared, “I’m having trouble finishing my…” We all waited expectantly…patiently…for her to say “sentences.” Long pause. And then she said “cereal.”
Jeanie laughed. We all laughed. Heartily. Laughter sustained that beautiful family through their tragic loss. Even on the worst days, they were able to laugh. And when they ran out of words in the end, they communicated their love with tender glances and gentle touches.
A couple weeks ago, just before Halloween, Lydia and her partner, Erinn Fahey, whose wedding I was privileged to celebrate a year ago, made the long drive from Detroit to visit me in North Carolina. We carved a pumpkin and made caramel apples. And we celebrated Onion Day. I had found an onion the size of a small child’s head and won the day with a guess of 28 layers.
Lydia and Erinn gave me honey from their bees and cherry jam from their orchard. I gave them dark chocolate and a CD of lullabies from around the world—for their son, who is predicted to appear in early March. There’s always something to celebrate.