I was working in my office when I heard the crash. I heard footsteps dash across the floor, and I lowered my head, waiting for the report. “Mom!” Saoirse burst into the room. “The electricians dropped something, and … I’m so sorry, Mom!” She paused, a few tears of sympathy in the corners of her eyes. “They broke your Bill Knoble pitcher.”
I stood up and went to assess the damage. The electrician stood in the kitchen, waiting for my reaction.
Damn, I thought, looking at the shattered mess on my kitchen counter. That pitcher cost me four chickens.
Life should be rich in buttercream friends—those who touch our lives with memorable moments, bits of laughter, the fullness of their spirit.
I first came across Bill Knoble’s pottery as a teenager, during a camping trip to the Adirondack Mountains. Something about his work spoke directly to my heart, and I’d bought myself a simple small blue bowl. After that, I never drank hot beverages from mugs. I sipped them from my bowl. I loved to immerse my face in the steam, to feel my spirit surrounded by the rich cobalt color, to let my mind drift away to the mountains that I loved so well. The little bowl traveled with me through four college transfers.
It didn’t break until I had returned home to Sap Bush Hollow. But on the day it broke, I felt as though my heart shattered along with the pottery.
Bob worked diligently to track down this mysterious potter from the mountains, whose simple and elegant work brought me so much pleasure. He called the chamber of commerce from the town I had visited, and kept talking to people until he found Bill’s studio in Chestertown. For my 24th birthday, Bob drove me up to see him. We both fell in love with Bill. He made us laugh with his dry humor, he attentively asked us about ourselves, as though our paths were as interesting as his own. We bought two blue mugs. It was all we could afford. But the next year, we drove back and bought two blue plates.
It became an annual trek. Bob and I always purchased just a few pieces at a time to furnish our home. Bill deserved every bit of money he asked for his work. We never quibbled. But he knew his pieces were a stretch for us. That was when he suggested the barter. From that arrangement, our house became filled with beautiful pottery: We exchanged lamb chops and sausages for plates and mugs, chickens for mixing bowls and the (now broken) water pitcher. We developed a lasting friendship. Sometimes we would drive north to bring him food and pick up pieces; other times, he would drive down to deliver his wares to our farm.
We were happy for Bill when, at the age of 60, he met the love of his life and moved to her farm, where he began raising his own meat. But we were sad that it took him even farther north, a good three and a half hours from our home. The annual treks stopped, but Bill didn’t forget us. Once a year he called just to hear our news, or to tell me that he’d read something I’d written. He always urged us to come for a visit, but we were never able to work it into our schedules.
I pushed the broken pitcher aside. I went back to my office smiling, and sat down at the computer to look up the location of his new farm and studio. There was no sense getting upset about broken pottery. It was finally time to make that visit we’d been promising.
I entered the name of his studio into a search engine—and found his obituary. He had passed away suddenly, at the age of 67, after spending a day in the fields working on his tractor. He had been dead for nearly a year.
But the loss was fresh to me. Tears began to run down my face. I returned to the kitchen to retrieve the broken pitcher. The electrician still stood there, awaiting my reaction.
“I’m sorry about your pitcher,” he said.
Trying to keep my tears concealed, I nodded as I gathered together the pieces that could no longer be replaced. I could sense the electrician holding his breath. I think he’d have preferred that I screamed at him. But here before him stood a strange woman, saying nothing, only crying.
“It’s not the pitcher,” I finally said. “It’s just that, well, it was made by a friend, and … and….” I drew in my breath, sniffed, and wiped my eyes. “And we hadn’t spoken in a while, so I went to call him just now and … well,” I shrugged my shoulders in despondent surrender. “He died.”
With that, the tears flowed freely. I ran out to the porch, curled up on the couch, and had a good cry, suddenly mourning a man who had been gone for quite some time.
Was there anything we could have done differently, so that we’d have had more time together? The answer was no.
I felt foolish and guilty. This was a friendship that I had let slip. Bill had repeatedly asked us to come see him, and we never did. We never found the time. We had let it slip so much that it took a full year before I even learned of his death. What right did I have to cry over the loss of a friend who, for all intents and purposes, I’d surrendered? I tried to brush it aside, to return to the girls’ lessons, to go about the rest of the day. But the sadness kept pouring out. Tears fell as I corrected Saoirse’s math homework, as I put lunch on the table, as I cleared the dishes, each one made by Bill’s hands.
We went swimming that afternoon. While sitting at the pond’s edge, dipping my toes in the water and watching reflections of the clouds float past, I remembered Bill’s funny stories. I remembered how he was forever taking delight and fascination in something new.
He had become a connoisseur of all the different varieties of wild apples. He had taken to experimenting with clay from the Adirondack Mountains, to make truly local pottery. He had transitioned to farming with passionate joy, learning everything he could about animal husbandry and pasture management. He had climbed every peak of his home mountain range. As I thought of each of these things, I wept more and more. And I felt more and more foolish.
What right did I have to cry over the loss of a friend who, for all intents and purposes, I’d surrendered?
I tried to replay the past few years. Was there anything we could have done differently, so that we’d have had more time together?
I realized that the answer was no. Why weren’t we taking trips north? Because we were here on the farm. We were busy with our own family. Why did Bill stop coming down to see us? Because he was with the love of his life. Because he was on his own farm, his own joy. So what right did I have to be so sad? I couldn’t answer that question. I could only keep crying.
The meaning of buttercream
Late summer weekends at our farmers market can get very busy. Customers are hungry for the harvest bounty, and lapses in activity at our stall are rare. But at one point, there was a break between customers. Bob looked at me, his eyes bright. “You know,” he said, “all summer long, we’ve been talking about trying Melanie’s chocolate bombs. There are only a few market weeks left.”
I smiled at his hint. I don’t serve a lot of dessert in our house, but that doesn’t mean Bob and I don’t love it. Melanie, one of the bakers, had been bringing a mysterious confection to the market every week: the chocolate bomb. It was chocolate cake layered with meringue buttercream, and coated in dark chocolate ganache. We were deeply curious.
When Bob began helping a new customer, I slipped away and went to see Melanie. Maybe he was right. Maybe, after this week of sadness, it was time for the bomb. I bought one and tucked it away.
On Sunday night, after the kids had gone upstairs to bed, I slipped it out of its hiding place in the fridge. Bob’s eyes lit up when he saw it. We tiptoed across the brick floor to the corner of the kitchen where the kids wouldn’t see us if they came down the stairs. I hopped up on the counter and pulled down the dessert plates. We cut two slices from the bomb, then wrapped up the rest and stowed it in the freezer. Quietly, we took our first bite. My teeth sunk into the meringue buttercream. It was cool, and firm, and sweet, and … BILL! That’s it! I thought. That was the sadness—Bill was our buttercream!
What is buttercream? It is a treat, a piece of delight that we stumble upon—sometimes in a celebration, sometimes when we sneak away from life for a few moments to savor a quiet pleasure.
Sure, life goes on even if it is devoid of buttercream. But when it is there, life just seems so perfect—even if you only get to eat buttercream once or twice in a year.
But when the dessert is finished, when every last smear of buttercream has been licked from a plate, there is always sadness. No matter how much you get, you want more. But when you walk away from it, you are left with a sweet memory.
I love the family, friends, and neighbors who fill my ordinary days, keeping them meaningful and worthwhile. But a good life should be rich in buttercream friends, too. They’re the ones you can’t be with every day, who you can’t make as much time for as you’d like.
Just by walking this earth and touching our lives with memorable moments, bits of laughter, and the fullness of their spirit, they give us the gift of their presence. And when they’ve gone, even though we are left wanting more, our souls are richer for having known them.
Thank you, Bill, for being our buttercream friend. We will miss you. Love, Shannon and Bob.
Shannon Hayes writes, home-schools, and farms with her family from Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Her books include The Grassfed Gourment, Radical Homemakers, and Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled.