Alexis Brinegar, Chef Extraordinaire
July 5, 1946 - April 3, 2020
The last time I saw Alexis was March 7, 2013. She was living in a rehab facility in Camden, New Jersey. In the thirty-eight years we had known each other, she had struggled with her weight, but entering the small two-bed room, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The blue-knit sweatsuit she wore was stretched to its limits. Adding to my disorientation, she remained reclined against the pillow not moving a muscle to rise from her bed and hug me hello.
We met in fall 1975 as Temple University students and became instant friends Alexis and I had so much in common—recently divorced, each with two children living with their respective dads at the time, and closer in age to the professors than our student cohort. We both came from working-class backgrounds. Yet, there we were, two bright women working on Master’s degrees in Community Psychology. What anxiety did our similarly bitten fingernails reflect?
At the end of the eighteen-month program, I was offered a job at a health food store. This held no interest for me. Alexis, with her knowledge of natural, non-processed ingredients, found it the perfect fit. Her flavorfully-prepared meals educated my tastebuds and changed forever my previously boring cooking habits. When she later moved to Maine, her cuisine expertise landed her a chef’s position at the well-known Slate’s Restaurant in Hallowell.
With Master’s degree in hand, my first job was directing an emergency shelter for runaway teenage girls in the Kensington area of Philadelphia. With Alexis’ move to Maine and mine from suburbia into West Philadelphia, we could have easily lost touch and grown apart. But we stayed connected, visiting back and forth over the years.
Most trips were planned, but I had an adventure when, on-the-spur-of-the-moment, I joined Alexis and her long-term partner John on a trip back north. They’d driven down to Pennsylvania to pick up Alexis’ sons who were spending part of the summer with their dad. Though my children remained with their father, Alexis’ sons lived with her in Maine. Along with John and his son, the five stayed together until the boys graduated from high school.
On the drive to Maine, we made an overnight stop at their friend’s house near Woodstock, New York. I was thrilled to be in the town where the famous festival took place in August 1969. But I was disillusioned to learn that the site of the festival was sixty miles away, about a ninety-minute drive. The organizers had already booked the artists and printed posters for “Woodstock” by the time permits were refused. It was too late to change the name—otherwise we’d be reading books and watching documentaries about the Bethel Festival.
After the children were in bed, the four of us sat over dinner at a picnic table in the backyard, drinking wine and throwing the empty bottles over our shoulders onto the grass.
The next morning, the family went on without me. Their friend had become mine. He told me he was especially attracted to my feet—but that is a different story.
Although I didn’t make it to Maine that time, I remember another visit when Alexis and John had constructed what seemed to me a small village of tents in the forest. There was a kitchen structure, a tent for dining and lounging, a roomy master-bedroom tent, and each boy had his own. I stayed in the “guest” tent. Summers in Maine were perfect for tent living.
Alexis loved cooking at Slate’s and became close with Wendy, the owner, and others who worked and ate there. Eventually she asked friends to invest so she could open her own restaurant: Alexis’ Diner. My contribution was $200. On one of my summer visits, when Alexis burned her hand, I was recruited to assist in the kitchen. She stood close by, making sure I sautéed the lemon chicken just so. As most forty-year old women might, I took the initiative to do whatever needed to be done to help out. This impressed the young waitress, and I’ll never forget her compliment as she watched me efficiently load the dishwasher: “You would make a good restaurant worker!” At the time, I was at the University of Pennsylvania in a doctoral program.
My overnight guests are always treated to one of the Diner’s menu items, Alexis’ Eggs. Directions: lightly sauté sweet onions in butter, add a good portion of crumbled feta cheese, carefully add two eggs without breaking the yolks, cover and cook till whites set. A more accurate name would be Eggs Vladimir. During one of Alexis’ visits, Vladimir had slept over and made breakfast for us. I’m sure this was a dish his Serbian mother served.
Over the years, Alexis and I usually got to meet each other’s significant boyfriends, which served a useful purpose. When the romance would invariably hit a crisis point, the other’s first-hand observation of the man contributed a jolt of objectivity to the discussion. Vladimir and I didn’t make it to the altar or even live together, but he remained the love-of-my-life— yet another story.
Though Alexis and I had a lot in common, there were differences. When we first met, Alexis was more culturally sophisticated as well as psychologically aware. Once, when I couldn’t let go of being unfairly treated by a professor, she made me see that his insecurities had nothing to do with me. Growing up as I did, that concept was life changing. Alexis also showed me how to live in the moment—she insisted every instant ought to be enjoyed. This is possible, if you allow enough time. She’s there in my mind every time I remember to add those extra minutes—even entire half-hours—into my schedule to avoid that horrible surge of adrenaline when I feel rushed.
About the time I moved from Pennsylvania to St Augustine in June 2003 to be near my grandson, Alexis moved from Maine back to Philadelphia to be close to her grandchildren. Our visits back and forth continued, and we we talked often by phone sharing fun stories about those grandchildren and commiserating about “miscommunication” between mothers and their adult children.
I spent many years working in universities, and taught one last year at Jacksonville University before retiring. Alexis found a position as a personal chef for a prominent Philadelphia couple She said it was the easiest job she ever had—cooking nightly dinners and brunch on weekends for two people.
When Alexis called me, she shared her vision of the future. While still in Maine, she had started a side business creating specialized baked goods, selling them locally and through her website: “Cakes & Biscotti by Alexis.” Now back in Philly with those deadlines and the difficult restaurant work in the past and free time and money in the present, she rented an atelier and returned to her first love: painting, especially in watercolors.
Two of her pieces hang on my walls. In the kitchen is a print of a torso with hands cradling a bowl of soup. Alexis painted the original for a friend whose mother had died. In the living area, where my guests can stand for a close look, is an exquisite small watercolor of a woman holding a tray of fish—the viewer wonders what the woman’s side-ways gaze sees but is drawn to the six staring fish eyes.
When her older son called to say Alexis had been hospitalized and diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, it occurred to me how often in the past months she had either not answered her phone or cut short our talks. In retrospect, I realized how superficial our conversations had become. She didn’t say much more than her family was good and her job was OK. Previously, she would have shared frustrations—especially the lack of control she felt over her life, because her employer disregarded any attempt at a consistent schedule. Why wasn’t my curiosity or concern aroused?
From her son I learned that even when he and his brother were young, she had struggled with depression. Without knowing more, I wondered, if along with other intelligent, talented people, Alexis suffered some form of bipolar disorder. I don’t have the severe mood swings of the special people I’ve known. When feeling discouraged, I’m blessed with the impulse to call someone. I never feel isolated. Some people feel unable to do that just when they need it most.
The Alexis I knew always seemed cheerful and upbeat, optimistic about the future. Sure, at times, she shared frustrations at being stuck, but usually she was excited about a new venture. We encouraged each other to strive toward goals—most recently, hers to earn money from her art and mine to become a published author. She talked about preparing for an upcoming one-woman art exhibition in Maine.
Before moving to Philadelphia, Alexis had purchased land and was slowly improving her little piece of heaven in Maine. She paid to have a driveway cut through the woods. We fantasized about the future when we could be wherever the weather was most comfortable—she could warm up in Florida during the winter. I could travel to Maine in the summer. Her heart was set on buying a silver Airstream to put on her lot. I loved listening to her description of how the site would look— there’d be a screened-in structure along side the trailer for meals and a large vegetable and herb garden out back.
Her son didn’t know how long it had been since she left or lost her private chef position. Evidently, once she stopped cooking on the job, she stopped eating, leaving alcohol to take its toll. Without sufficient B-1, the body uses its reserves, and the result is irreversible brain damage. The most prominent symptom is short-term memory loss.
Alexis had been in the rehab center for two years, but until this trip to Pennsylvania, I resisted making the relatively short drive to visit. This time, I was determined to see her before returning to St Augustine. When she didn’t get up to greet me, I leaned over to hug her. She smiled and hugged me back but did not attempt to sit up.
I had spoken to Alexis earlier in the day, and we planned to have lunch in a restaurant nearby. One of her sons told me she loved getting out of the building. Expecting her to be eager to leave, I talked the parking attendant into holding the car. But Alexis was laconically adamant about staying inside. No matter how encouraging the aide and I were, we couldn’t budge her. Finally, I gave up and spent the next twenty minutes moving the car and paying the five dollar parking fee.
Soon after I returned to Alexis’ room, someone popped in and told us to go to the dining room. A hot meal was available, but when offered a sandwich with potato chips, Alexis accepted this carb-filled, less-healthy lunch. Later an aide explained that Alexis had to be directed through most daily activities—when to shower and change clothes, meal times, and going to bed at night. Hearing that she didn’t participate in social activities or rehab therapy, her large size no longer seemed surprising.
Our lunch conversation went in circles without depth or meaning. She remembered our children’s and grandchildren’s names. There was no confusion about our past husbands or old friends’ names. But the conversation never went further than Alexis saying: “She’s good.” or “He’s good.” There were no cute stories about her grandchildren, nor did she ask questions about my daughter Sherry or grandson Noah. She repeated that she was going to move soon—“I’m going to blow this joint.” This reminded me of all the times I had heard yet another plan for life—methods for earning a living and where she would live.
We were finished eating when Alexis commented again on how nice my hair looked: “The color is pretty.” She had already complimented me five or six times using almost the exact same words. I needed to get away. It was scary to remember how similar we once were. I hugged her goodbye and walked to my car swearing to cut down on my drinking.
As I drove back to Philadelphia, I knew I would have been sad if I had attended her funeral. At the visit, she was still alive, but lost to me. For the next seven years, I sent birthday and Christmas cards and called on her birthday. She was happy to hear from me but within minutes was eager to get off the phone.
When I want to remember my friend Alexis, I recall her visit to St Augustine in March 2009. Mid-afternoon, I see her sitting on the floor playing Chutes and Ladders with six-year-old Noah. Wish I had taken that picture. I do have a photo of Alexis and me sharing a meal that evening—surely one she cooked.