I met Renee about 25 years ago when we were both working as librarians in the Bronx – she at New York Public Library, and I at Jane Addams High School.
Renee had been trained as a book discussion leader, and as part of NYPL’s outreach to schools program she came to the neighboring Lehman High School to run an after-school faculty book club.
Luckily for me I knew Paula. the Lehman HS librarian, and she invited me to join the club.
Renee was a superb, well prepared facilitator. She chose great books to discuss and she opened each meeting with evocative questions. Then she’d share her insights and the most wonderful discussions inevitably followed.
One afternoon when the meeting ended, Renee, Paula and I went out for a bite together and that was the start of our beautiful friendship.
The book club met for many years at Lehman, then after our staggered retirements we decided to continue meeting in each others’ homes, and Renee offered to continue as our discussion leader. We asked other friends to join and I’m happy to say after all these years our book club is still going strong.
(Our book club on City Island, I took the photo. Back row: Raina, Karlan, Judy, Marlene, Helen. Front row: Renee, Paula.)
Renee and I were also part of a group of good friends who took turns hosting each other at dinner every few months. One July when it happened to be Renee’s turn she invited the whole dinner group to her country house in Monterey, MA in the Berkshires.
Over the years that Monterey weekend at Renee’s became a cherished summer tradition. The men would carry Renee’s two picnic tables to a spot under the trees, with the rest of us at their heels carrying the food and the (many) bottles of wine.
And when we weren’t feasting, some of us would head to Garfield Lake with beach chairs and towels, or drive to town for antiquing or shopping, some of the men would usually be watching sports on TV, someone was always napping on the couch, and I remember one very rainy weekend a few of us intrepid souls drove to Lenox for a fabulous Roz Chast art exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum. And inevitably some of us were always raiding the fridge, or talking books or politics at Renee’s kitchen table.
And we’d usually spend an evening picnicking under the stars and enjoying the music at Tanglewood. Many summers we saw Garrison Keillor airing his radio show Prairie Home Companion live from the Koussevitzky Shed. What his radio listeners didn’t know is that after the show Keillor would come out on the lawn as the band played on, and hundreds of us would dance on the grass and sing along. I remember dancing the Lindy with Renee on that great Tanglewood lawn.
Then one day Renee called with the devastating news that she’d been diagnosed with cancer. Her family and friends rallied to her support, she travelled abroad with her daughters, and as long as she was able she continued to pursue all her Berkshire passions – tending her beautiful garden, volunteering at Shakespeare & Co, cooking and baking, attending Tanglewood concerts, modern dance at Jacob’s Pillow, and lectures and readings at The Mount.
And when she became housebound under the care of a compassionate hospice team, she continued to welcome friends’ visits. Then five years after her diagnosis, Renee died in the Monterey house she always called her Happy Place.
Renee had been an excellent cook and I, on the other hand, was never a confident one, and so I was especially pleased once when she praised a dish of mine. It was a stuffed pepper recipe I’d gotten from my Hungarian mother-in-law Hermine, and I’d worked hard to master it. Renee called it comfort food.
Rest in peace Renee, your memory is a comfort.
HERMINE’S HUNGARIAN STUFFED PEPPERS
2 large stock pots / 3 lbs chopped meat / 1 onion finely diced / minced garlic / 2 oz rice / 12 large green peppers, tops off, scooped out / 24 oz tomato paste / salt, pepper, oil, flour, sugar
In large bowl mix chopped meat, 2 serving spoons oil, onion, garlic, rice, salt, pepper – let stand.
Parboil green peppers 4 min. – drain
In each pot simultaneously:
Heat 6 serving spoons oil, then intermittently add 12 oz tomato paste, 4 serving spoons flour, 4 cups water STIRRING CONSTANTLY!
Keep stirring to make a roue and add 2 serving spoons sugar. Keep sauce bubbling, and add more sugar and/or salt to taste.
Stuff meat into peppers, and gently lay 6 peppers on their sides in the sauce.
Cook over low heat spooning sauce over peppers 1 1/2 hours.
Pair with crusty bread and red wine, serves 6. Yummy!
Dana Susan Lehrman
This retired librarian loves big city bustle and cozy country weekends, friends and family, good books and theatre, movies and jazz, travel, tennis, Yankee baseball, and writing about life as she sees it on her blog World Thru Brown Eyes!