CocoRay: my neighbor, my friend, a bright star in my life here on Ray Drive. Her name wasn’t really CocoRay, It was Kim. But Kim is such a quiet, calm name – a demure name, and she was anything but demure. CocoRay was the life of any party, and she knew at least something about everything. She loved to cook and to garden, to entertain and to teach, to create art and to help those around her. And, she adored her cats, whom she took for walks up and down the street. One of them, Coconuthead, was my inspiration for renaming her. Kim’s email address was Coconuthead, and since we lived on Ray Drive, why not call her CocoRay, a much more glamorous name than the one she had been born with?
I remember our meeting:
I met Kim (her name as introduced) even before I moved into my house. I had come by to see my future home while the renters were still living there. Upon leaving, I noticed a large, blond woman sitting on the porch across the street. What better way to get a sense of the neighborhood than to ask a neighbor, I thought. So, I approached with some hesitation, wondering whether this woman would be willing to share her impressions with a stranger, and whether she’d be someone who saw things the way I did. Her flaxen hair was loose and tousled, she dressed in old clothes, had a paperback by her side, and talked to her cats.
It turned out that this larger-than-life woman was not only a gorgeous blond who knew how to spiff herself up for any occasion, but she was well-read, vivacious, perceptive and kindhearted. CocoRay could talk intelligently about the latest popular musicians, obscure television shows and actors, the classics of literature, epidemiology of tropical diseases, the geography and cuisine of Tunisia, and the detailed history of local landmarks. Little did I think that someone who, on the outside, was so different from my skinny, little Jewish self, could become such a faithful friend and source of cheer.
I remember her love of creating fine food and drink:
Almost from the minute we met, she told me about her chocolate martinis. I barely knew what a martini was, and was leery about a cold mixed drink containing chocolate. Soon enough, though, she invited me over, pulled out her martini-shaped cocktail glasses, vodka and chocolate liquor, and mixed up a heavenly concoction. For CocoRay, presentation was key, so before filling each glass she dipped the rims in cocoa and carefully poured the mixture so as not to muss up her artistry. From then on, it was bottoms up, followed by gaiety and tales of love and life, sprinkled with tidbits of erudition.
Once she asked me if she could use my kitchen to make a fancy chocolate dessert – an elaborate recipe that required making cups out of dark chocolate and filling them with other forms of chocolaty decadence. For some reason, her kitchen was off-limits (or maybe it she was making a surprise for her roommates) and since I was away, she assumed that I wouldn’t be inconvenienced. Well, not only did she make my kitchen her home for the afternoon, so did the chocolate. Somehow the melted chocolate erupted beyond the confines of its pot and sprayed the ceiling, the walls, the floor, and even the kitchen curtains some six feet away. Even though Kit cleaned as assiduously as she could, I came home to little brown dots spattered about the room. My only regret was that I couldn’t (or wouldn’t…) lick the walls and drapery to savor every last spattering of rich dark chocolate.
I remember her passion for gardening:
Often, our conversations would take us to the bounties of nature, especially the flowers and lush edible produce in CocoRay’s backyard garden. She’d plant all manner of greens, juicy red tomatoes, mile-high fennel plants, and fields of catnip that her cats would bask in. If you wanted to see a tripped-out, perfectly cool cat, her backyard in mid-summer was the place to be. And, not only were the flowerbeds filled with verdant leaves and blossoms, her entire deck was lined with potted plants, some of which I’d never seen before. She’d have a story and factual information about each one, and was always more than willing to dole out the equivalent of a Master Gardener’s database of gardening tips.
I remember her taste for the bizarre:
CocoRay had a favorite insect – none other than the praying mantis. When she found one on her window screens or hidden among her chard leaves, she’d bring it inside and scrutinize it. She’d explain her fascination by describing their predatory habits; their ability to camouflage themselves or mimic their environment; their compound eyes composed of tens of thousands of photoreceptor cells; the female’s tendency to cannibalize males when mating; their dance-like threat displays when provoked; and their use as a form of biological pest control. You never left CocoRay without some newfound and intriguing bit of wisdom.
I remember her appreciation of history:
CocoRay introduced me to Forest Glen Seminary in Silver Spring (MD), one of her favorite haunts and a place that was (at the time) a truly haunting relic of the late 19th century and the early 20th. Forest Glen had been a dairy farm, a resort hotel, a finishing school for girls, and an army hospital. When she and I visited it in 1999 or 2000, it was clearly neglected – an unkempt forest, formal garden beds in disarray, broken statues, and a sundry assortment of dilapidated buildings. Each edifice was of a unique architectural style, including a Japanese pagoda, Swiss chalet, Italian villa, American bungalow and English castle.
CocoRay told me that the owners of the finishing school had chosen to create a whimsical campus by making each sorority clubhouse different. On our walking tour, she regaled me with stories of the girls – so very refined, but naughty, at times – who attended the finishing school, and of the grand balls that took place in the sumptuous ballroom. Since we could only peek through dust-covered windows to see rotting wood floors and moldy walls of this once-ornate great hall, we had to rely on our imaginations to envision the spectacle some 100 years before.
I remember her sense of adventure:
One bright fall day, CocoRay asked me to go apple-picking with her. Sure, I said, thinking we’d go to one of the “pick-your-own” farms in the western part of the county. No, she had a more unusual place – one where you could take all the apples you wanted for free. And, where thousands of perfectly good apples languished on the ground, ready to turn into mush unless someone collected them. It was a private farm where hundreds of trees were grown for espalier, the practice of training woody plants to grow into flat two-dimensional forms, to be planted against walls and for other decorative purposes. Who knew of such a thing? CocoRay, of course!
She drove us north on New Hampshire Ave., so far away that it became a country road, seemingly a country apart from nation’s capitol. And, she snuck us in among the rows and rows of fruit trees. We were trespassing, of course, but there was not a soul in sight. We gorged on apples, filling our bags until they ripped, and we danced in the autumn sunlight. I still remember the photo I took of her – dressed in blue overalls and a crimson bandana, her lush blond hair flowing, a huge grin on her face, displaying her bounty of bright red fruit. She was the epitome of abundance.
I remember her love of romance:
She would tell me of her past and current loves, and I would listen, wishful for some of the same. Three years after meeting CocoRay, I met Eileen – through a friend of CocoRay’s, actually. Eileen and I became friends – two women who went hiking, biking, and camping together – just friends, for a year and a half before we became partners. When we finally discovered our love, we were excited to tell CocoRay. We invited her over and built up the suspense about our news. Her response, though full of joy and good wishes, surprised us. “Oh, I’ve known that for a long time,” she said. “It was obvious.” Not to me, it wasn’t. Just goes to show how love is blind, and how perceptive a good friend like CocoRay can be.
Seven years later, when we told her that we were getting married, she became very excited. She was full of ideas for how we could dress, decorate the venue, and show off our love for each other during the ceremony. Most of all, though, she insisted on having a role. She chose one we hadn’t even considered – one that perfectly matched her exuberance and fun-loving spirit. She told us she would decorate our car and chauffeur us to our nuptial bed. So, she came to the wedding as the most stylishly dressed guest there – in a black and white dress, shockingly red high heels and purse, and orange hair. Near the end of the evening, she single-handedly blew up 25 red and white heart-shaped balloons, and stuffed my car full of them. She covered the windows with ‘Just Married’ signs, attached streamers to the bumpers, and set out a box chocolate for us. When we finally emerged from all the festivities, she crammed us into the back seat and drove us to our Bed & Breakfast. In no way did its historic dinginess match the buoyancy and pizzazz CocoRay had created for us.
I remember, and will always remember, her sunny spirit, her melodic laugh, and her loud and loving embrace. And I know that there is a praying mantis guarding her joyful spirit.