A round of Tomato Juice


In late August, a dear friend of mine passed away.

Ellen and her husband, Richard, have been incredibly important and amazing people for both Terry and I. She has been Terry’s best friend for almost four decades. As individuals and as a couple, Ellen and Richard have been nothing short of spectacular, generous, reliable, and brilliant as friends, travel partners, and… quite sincerely… as family.

A memorial service was held for Ellen, and I was quite honored to be given a chance to speak on that occasion. The words shared by so many offered a remembrance of a greatly loved, much admired, and truly cherished person.

As I replayed words and stories and thoughts over literally thousands of miles of driving, I thought it might be nice to revisit them in a more developed essay. By no means do I view this as a completed, well-edited offering. Nor is it on its own fitting as a tribute to Ellen. I’ll always wish it was better… always think of more to say. But I do find comfort in the thoughts, as Ellen continues to be a part of our lives moving forward.

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Over the past few days, we’ve been gathering as friends and family and exchanging stories about Ellen. Should be no surprise in that. We all cared tremendously for her. We all shared moments with her. Whether they bring smiles and laughs, or crying and tears, it is how strong our experiences have been, and how we feel about Ellen, that creates such wonderful memories. It helps to remember.

I’ve been telling many stories about Ellen. Terry and I have recalled them over hundreds and hundreds of miles of driving. We’ve shared them with Richard, and family, and friends. We’ve shared them in the car, as general exchanges during the afternoon, and over dinner. There’s one story I haven’t told though. And I’d like to tell it now…

Almost all of us can picture a delightful, amazing, and bordering upon sinfully good indulgence. Perhaps it’s warm chocolate chip cookies or a beyond description sundae. Something that just tempts you as the most incredible and often unsatisfied craving.

During two decades, I have been fortunate to share many moments with Ellen. Terry and I have been on several adventures with her and Richard. And when it comes to indulgences for her, I can tell you Ellen loved good wine and enjoyed good food. She was passionate about travel, and thrilled by the opportunities to host friends at her home. But there is one thing that, just by seeing it on a menu, could cause her to enter a state of dazed bliss, with her eyes glazed over and as a visible state of euphoria overtook her.

Tomato juice.

I know. Terry and I never understood the appeal of tomato juice either. But we witnessed it appeal to Ellen on multiple occasions.

I think part of the beauty of tomato juice for Ellen was that when found it was almost always an unexpected and unpredicted treat. We’d wander into a restaurant for breakfast, normally with plans for a long and wondrous day ahead. She’d pick up a menu, and, if you were watching her, you’d pretty much be able to pinpoint the very moment she spotted it… there would be a light pause in her speech if she was speaking, or she’d suddenly wiggle in her seat. Subtle for certain, but noticeable if you were watching.

You sit down in a restaurant and a server takes your beverage order. How long does it take to complete the delivery of drinks to a table? One minute? Four? Whatever. Generally it’s not too long. But for Ellen, the time from speaking “tomato juice” to having it placed in front of her appeared to be a torturous pleasure that lasted an eternity. To say she’d fidget and squirm, unable to sit still would be a significant understatement. But even more than that body language of exquisite anticipation, the expression on her face was priceless. It would best be described as a combination of her personal conviction that the greatest treat in the world was on its way, united with a glowing satisfaction of having made a tremendous selection that was going to work out wonderfully, topped off with a “ha, ha, I have tomato juice and you don’t” whipped cream and cherry on top smugness.

A few years ago I heard someone discussing the concept of personal losses and death. And they conveyed an observation that I have carried with me ever since. I just like it. I find a sense of comfort within it.

The idea was founded on the expression passed on, and what might be understood as an almost literal reading of the phrase. The people that we meet leave an impression upon us. It’s the experiences we share and the memories we create together… it’s their approach to anything and everything, and the lessons we learn by the way they act and carry themselves. And, in death, they don’t truly leave us… instead… they have been passed on to us.

It’s those amazing vacations, and the smiles we have recalling them. It’s the recipes we’ve tried, and will try again and again. It’s the values and traditions and tiny little things that filled parts of ourselves, and make us the individuals we are today and will be tomorrow.

Yes, an amazing person has departed. Their legacy though… the care of that legacy has been passed on to us.

Each and every day from now on, I will miss Ellen. But there is something I hope she has passed on to me… something I hope to pass on to you…

Tomato juice.

Don’t worry… this isn’t a literal wish… you won’t need to break out some pepper, a stalk of celery, or even hope there’s some vodka around.

Instead… my wish is that at least once every day, you have a tomato juice moment of your own. A moment so special that you find yourself wiggling in your seat, eyes in an unfocused haze of bliss, wrapped in a blanket of anticipation and satisfaction… a moment of pure joy and tranquility.

There is nothing in life that is guaranteed to any of us. And while we all need to be mindful of our actions and prepare for the future, I’d say it’s equally important to take some time every day and indulge in the present.


If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com