I got a call on our land line last night when I was, surprise, surprise, recipe testing. Nobody calls land lines anymore, so when my daughter told me that our neighbor Rick was on the phone, I knew what it was about. Our dear neighbor, Teresa, affectionately named “Risa” by my kids when they were babies, had been in rapid decline over the last few months after a long period with Alzheimer’s. She had been well enough to be seen walking the dog, Charlie, on her own as late as Christmas, but after the New Year, she had a rapid decline and quickly became bed bound. Six weeks ago, her husband of 57 years, Rick, who himself had also been renamed, “Hon,” by my girls, called us to see her. Hon said that she had been refusing to eat for a few weeks at that point, so it might be time for us to pay our last respects while she could still interact. The four of us came over. Risa looked better than we had feared, well enough that our older daughter was able to take some nice portraits. Risa didn’t say much except for pleasantries, but she was happy to see us. I was surprised that my kids’ school photos shared space on her minimally adorned dresser mirror along with the photos of her own grandkids. Beyond expectation, Risa hung on for more than a month after that, with absolutely no nourishment or even hydration, which spoke to her strength and yes, stubbornness.
I came and sat with Rick, watching Risa breathing rapidly, which he told me she had been doing for more than five hours. As we watched Risa, Rick began to tell me some stories of her last days, and also of better times, when they were able to travel and laugh. He was proud that she was always well cared for by him, and that any money she earned, like when she took care of my babies, was always her own; she never offered to chip in for any bills, Rick chuckled. It was calm and peaceful, and I felt relaxed. Before long, Risa took her last breath.
Risa, my kids’ third grandma, we’ll always remember you, your mischievousness, your love for all babies including my own, and your delicious food you shared with love: chilaquiles, tamales, and rice pudding. Rest in peace.
This is a post I wrote about Risa’s rice pudding ten years ago.
Who says people don’t know their neighbors anymore? Most people think that city dwellers, in particular, simply coexist in parallel and faceless existences.
My husband and I moved to our unfashionable “inner city” San Francisco neighborhood 12 years ago, primarily because it is firmly outside of the city’s fog belt. We also fell in love at first sight with the house, which we first rented from the owner. She had painted it in outrageously vivid colors after a lovestruck trip to Mexico, and it radiated warmth. But few of our peers would follow us in making a home here, for various reasons. It is far enough on the outer fringes of the city that people questioned if we were still in the 415 area code, like in that Seinfeld “212” episode. It is also adjacent to one of the city’s supposed ghettoes. But we loved the house’s aesthetics and feeling, and were too young and debt-ridden to heed the adage of location, location, location. By the time we could have afforded to move, it was our home, not a house, and we had already decorated it beyond the point where we could consider abandoning it.
Unlike our friends in tonier neighborhoods, we actually know almost all of our entire block of neighbors by name, and exchange greetings, holiday cards, and neighborhood gossip. We know more neighbors than I did growing up in a small semi-rural town. It’s such an urban village of its own, I can almost see why people would question if this was still in “the city.”
The neighbors on one side of our house are pretty much family now. They’re an elderly couple who basically function as our kids’ third set of grandparents. They took care of them as babies, and are our emergency contacts if one of them needs to be picked up early from school. They share their wisdom and dole out advice. I have called over many times to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar that I overlooked and needed in a hurry to finish what I was baking.
We don’t know the neighbor next to them, Jack, quite as well. He’s a young retiree who lives in his childhood home and spends a lot of time playing golf. But he is kind, and we give him a friendly wave on the rare occasions that our schedules match. He also has a bountiful and ravishingly fragrant Meyer lemon tree:
This brings me to the pudding. Teresa, the honorary grandma, makes a fabulous and decadently rich rice pudding. She usually tops it with lots of bittersweet cocoa powder, but a more recent variation uses the zest of Meyer lemons. This is the best rice pudding there is. Its custardy richness is cut just enough by the fragrant scent of the Meyer lemons, which come from Jack’s tree. When Teresa started her family here 50 years ago, her best pal and next-door neighbor was Jack’s mother, who passed away long ago. Jack is way beyond needing a neighbor to care for anything but his mother’s garden, and so Teresa, with her green thumb, tends it. Before we got to know our neighbors, my husband used to risk falling over the fence and breaking his bones to forage for the forbidden fruit. Now that we know our neighbors, we acquire our Meyer lemons more honestly, simply by asking.
We are so blessed to be living in this urban village, where we know our neighbors, advice and recipes are dispensed freely, Meyer lemons scent the air, and the rice pudding is rich and creamy.
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“It Takes A Village” Meyer Lemon-Scented Rice Pudding
6 cups cooked and cooled long grain rice (separate grains so it’s not clumpy)
Tres leches: 1-1/4 c. whole milk, 2-1/2 c. half and half or cream, 14 0z. sweetened condensed milk
6 eggs, beaten
Zest of a 2-3 lemons, preferably Meyer lemon, preferably locally foraged
Vanilla, a splash or two
Optional: raisins, cinnamon
1. Combine milks and beaten eggs, then slowly warm together over a low flame.
2. Add in cooked rice and stir, but not too much, at barely a gentle simmer. Add vanilla to taste. When thick “enough” (still saucy), take off heat.
3. Sprinkle on lemon zest.
4. May be served warm or cold. If it gets too thick when set, stir in cold milk to desired consistency.
5. Share with your neighbors.