Ralph Gardner Jr: Her Gift

Jan 20, 2018

On New Year’s Eve I was looking forward to presenting Bruce Shenker, a friend since college, with a special gift.

I hadn’t purchased it. I was regifting it. I’d come across it in a closet a few weeks earlier.

But they say that it’s the thought that counts.

Bruce’s gift was a bottle of Gold, a fragrance by Jay Z. I’d apparently written about the rapper’s signature scent in the Wall Street Journal a few years back and mused how I’d go about marketing a scent of my own. Not that I deceived myself that I possessed the flair or fan base that would send cologne flying off department store shelves.

The scent smelled pleasantly generic. It was the packaging that truly impressed. The fragrance came in a serious looking white box with the words Gold, in gold lettering of course, and below it “Jay Z.”

And when you opened the container you found a matching second box, this one heavy duty plastic with gold hinges and a button one had to press to gain access to the mystical scent.

Having succeeded, you bore witness to the sun king splendor of a white bottle encased in plush black velvet, its cap emblazoned with inspirational words, such as courage, confidence, strength and success.

I wasn’t sure how Bruce would react. He might take it as a suggestion to raise his game, in an olfactory sense.

But I didn’t really care. It was his wife Elizabeth Field, and Betsy’s reaction, I was really working for. I knew she’d love it. Poking gentle fun at her husband. The faux majesty of the packaging. The solemn ceremony of presenting Bruce this talisman of post-modern marketing in the middle of a dinner party.

Unfortunately, Bruce and Betsy couldn’t make it to our house on New Year’s Eve, as much as they wanted to. Betsy, who died a few days later of breast cancer, was simply too weak.

But it says everything you need to know about her that she wanted to attend, that she planned to attend, despite the sub-zero temperatures that night.

Betsy, a writer who specialized in food, was all in. All the time.

She had a high-strung, delightfully birdlike manner as if she was anticipating what wonderful thing someone would say next and how she could support and build on it.

Bruce and Betsy met in the late 1970’s, started visiting Columbia County shortly afterwards, and built a home in Canaan, New York a few years later.

The best gift we ever gave them – a legitimate gift, not a joke gift – was a dinner party diary with a marbleized cover. We’d bought it for them in Italy. And it included entries to list the guests – my recollection is that it even had a diagram of a table to note where everyone was seated – as well as the menu, and the subjects discussed.

It was the perfect gift, for Betsy in particular, because at her frequent dinner parties she managed simultaneously to whip up gourmet meals while fully immersed in the conversational fray.

If values, as they say, are not taught but absorbed, I believe that part of our daughters’ Lucy and Gracie’s extreme sociability can traced to the fact that we brought them to Bruce and Betsy’s parties starting when they were a few weeks old.

And if passion is communicable, Betsy was the most effective carrier, no matter the subject. Marmalade, for example. There are those of us who enjoy marmalade, even have strong feelings about it. Betsy went and wrote a book about the spread in 2012. It’s called “Marmalade,” fittingly enough, “Sweet and Savory Spreads for a Sophisticated Taste.”

In the book’s introduction Betsy writes about how, as a food writer for the Berkshire Eagle, her interest in the subject was sparked when she visited a neighbor who made his own marmalade from scratch, the inviting smell of bubbling orange peel filling his farmhouse on a frigid January day.

Most people – writers or otherwise – would have left it there. Not Betsy. She wanted to learn everything she could about the subject. So she placed an ad in a Scottish newspaper – the home of marmalade – asking for recipes. She was flooded with responses.

A trip to Scotland inevitably followed. “I was plied with food, tea and conversation,” Betsy wrote, “as well as being the recipient of multiple jars of marmalade that clanked together in my suitcase.”

Bruce, Betsy and their daughter Joanna eventually moved to Ireland for six years – though I don’t believe marmalade was the impetus – where Betsy served as the secretary of the Irish Food Writers group and contributed to the Irish Times. She was also an adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Incredibly, even in poor health she managed a trip to Ireland and Italy with Bruce in the final months of her life.

And they made it to our house for dinner in December.

Once seated it was as if her strength miraculously returned. The food, the conversation, the candles, the logs glowing in the wood burning stove -- they were sources of strength that Betsy managed to convert into the fuel of gossip, laughter and kindness as well as anyone I’ve known.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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