“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away,” my nine-year-old son Will read from a sign in my kitchen on a recent evening. It’s hung wherever we’ve lived for nearly four years, since just after the death of my dear friend Elayne.
I bought it in her memory, and to remind myself to live as she did: embracing who I am, living and loving fully and being both spontaneous and courageous.
That evening, as Will stirred ground beef in a skillet for tacos, he asked what the saying meant. He and my seven-year-old daughter Paige had been discussing it. I paused for a moment, and smiled. Elayne has been on my mind lately, ever since I saw her doppelganger crossing the street.
“It’s a reminder that it doesn’t matter how long you live. It matters how well you live. That’s what’s important: living your best life every day,” I said, after explaining why I’d bought it. “We don’t know how long we’ll be here so every moment matters.”
I don’t know if Will remembers Elayne, but he and Paige both knew her too. Not long before she died, she told him a story about me — one that all our friends, family and neighbors know well.
Elayne and I had met when I was a young child — maybe six-years-old — and I was drawn to her. She was different and vivacious and interesting. She grew vegetables in her small yard just across from a Connecticut beach, and loved to be in her kitchen. Her daughters, though much older than me, were kind and generous with their time — just like their mother.
As the story goes, it wasn’t long before I was leaving notes on her front doormat. I would run up the street, slip them on the mat, knock (or maybe ring the doorbell?) and run away. They would tell of snippets of my day, and share that I thought she was pretty awesome.
I thought I was clever.
She cherished it, telling that story again and again as I grew into a teenager, an adult and eventually became a mother myself.
I shared so many moments with Elayne, both on the beach where we both spent every summer for 25 years, and in life. We connected easily.
At one pivotal life moment, when she was gathered with my loved ones for a celebration, she hugged me and whispered how proud my grandmother would have been of me. My grandmother and I had shared a special relationship, but she died when I was 14 — before I could graduate from high school or college, start the career I always said I would, have kids and publish books. She missed so many moments I wanted her there for. That day, I was feeling her absence so acutely, and the words, which still bring tears to my eyes, were exactly what I needed right then. Elayne knew it, without me saying a word.
Elayne was 64 when she died suddenly, peacefully, in her sleep.
When I think about her last summer, I remember so many beautiful moments. The time she complimented my beach cruiser and matching helmet, not knowing that it was one of her daughters who’d finally convinced me to start wearing a helmet just weeks earlier. The afternoon when my kids, brother, sister and I were playing on the beach and my brother — running backwards — had run into her chair, and flipped over it. (Don’t worry, no one was injured, and we all laughed and laughed about it.) Sitting in the sand next to her, listening to a story about a time in her life when she would walk and walk and walk, for great distances, just because she loved to. And early that summer, when we gathered to celebrate the graduation of one of her grandkids. She was buzzing around the house in an apron, having prepared a delicious chili bar that everyone loved. I remember thinking how that kitchen had played such an important role in my young years — when I would sit at the counter and talk to her while she cooked. It was in that space that she opened my world to ideas I hadn’t considered.
Elayne didn’t live as long as any of us wish she would have, but she lived well. And, most importantly, she left all of us who knew and loved her with cherished memories. That’s a life well lived. I hope someday, when my kids and friends look back on my life, they can say the same: She lived well.
This recipe reminds me of Elayne. One evening when I was about 10, she spontaneously showed up at our house and asked if I wanted to go for dessert at a restaurant not far from us. We walked there, talking all the way and ordered big pieces of creamy cheesecake topped with sweet strawberry topping.
It was fun and silly. It was the simplest of things. But as a child, I felt so special that she’d asked me to go. And something about that night stuck with her as well — years later, she’d tell the story again, recalling that night as well as I did.
These individually sized cheesecakes are little bites of deliciousness to be enjoyed with friends and loved ones. They aren’t quite the thick and creamy cheesecake we had that night, but that’s okay — I actually prefer a lighter cheesecake.
Easy to make, mini cheesecakes can be whipped up in about an hour — though you may want to chill them before serving (I like cheesecake warm … not everyone does). Top them with strawberries and enjoy.
And when you dig in, remember that some of the best things in life are completely unexpected. You never know when you’ll meet someone you inexplicably connect with. Be brave. Be bold. Share yourself. Say yes to spontaneous moments, and to living your best life — even if it seems like the path you are choosing is far from easy. In the end, having filled your life with moments that take your breath away will mean you lived well.
- 3 cups fresh strawberries, sliced
- 1 cup, plus 1 tbsp sugar, divided
- 2 8-oz. packages cream cheese, softened to room temperature
- 3 large eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 20 ginger snaps
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 12-cup muffin pan.
- In a medium mixing bowl, stir together the strawberries and 1 tablespoon of sugar. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the cream cheese, eggs, 1 cup of sugar and the vanilla extract. Whisk on low speed for 1 minute. Increase speed to medium and whisk for 3-4 minutes, until smooth.
- Place 1 ginger snap, rounded side down, in each of the muffin cups. Fill each cup about ¾ full with cheesecake batter.
- Bake for 15-20 minutes, until set. Let cool for at least 20 minutes. Loosen edges with a knife and turn out onto a cutting board (hint: if you turn them out earlier, the cheesecake will stick to the board). Repeat with remaining ginger snaps and batter to make 8 additional mini cheesecakes.
- To serve: Top with prepared strawberries. Enjoy.