She was supposed to be my funeral activity director, managing the couple of minutes allowed each family member and friend so inclined to say something nice about me. She felt up for the task, fairly confident there wouldn’t be a long line of volunteers. I told her she might be surprised, and she just shook her head.

That’s not going to happen now because her funeral is Saturday. Carol Stark died last Wednesday — she died on her terms, and that was of great importance to her.

I was one of Carol’s huge circle of friends. She and I were friends for more than 30 years. We shared raising our kids as her son Craig and my daughter Sarah were in school together, and Carol lived a couple of miles from me during that time. That close proximity led to us meeting at 5:30 on weekday mornings for a 2-mile walk.

Our shining early morning moment was spotting the nationally sought blue Thunderbird from the Oklahoma City bombing at a local motel. Carol was in her element, steering the operation from a nearby store.

Even a week after her death, I am trying to process it. Just two weeks earlier, we spent three days in St. Louis. One of those days, Tuesday, was her 61st birthday. I picked her up soon after her birthday chicken video was posted, and we had a great day celebrating. That evening, we went all out for her birthday dinner. Her request? McDonald’s french fries.

The next day was long and tiring for her, spending 11 hours at the clinic. Between infusions, transfusions and X-rays, we had lots of time to just visit and laugh. The highlight was my singing of “Soft Kitty.” That may not have been her opinion because there was no encore request.

On our trip home Thursday, Carol introduced me to McDonald’s frozen Coke. She said I would love it, and she was right. We finished with a nice lunch at Bamboo Garden. So thankful to share this trip with her.

Once a month, we played Bunco with a great group of friends. The evening routine is dinner, Bunco, dessert and then a game of Left Right Center. Carol liked Bunco, but it was LRC that she looked forward to playing. When she didn’t feel well or was tired, we would eat, then play LRC so she could leave early. We were glad she could join us for even a short time on those evenings. We made Bunco Babes shirts with the number 34 on the back to support her journey in St. Louis.

Carol and I were good travel companions. We cruised Alaska with the Duke Mason Band, and she rented a new Mustang for me to drive her to a Nebraska speaking engagement. Before this cancer bout, she talked of wanting to travel cross-country on Route 66. That would have been wonderful.

On road trips, we liked to regularly stop at convenience stores and get scratch-off tickets. On a Kansas City trip last year, we were positive we had won $50,000. We had to anxiously anticipate the winnings because it was several miles before we found a place to verify the numbers. Found out we hadn’t even won a free ticket. But that didn’t stop us from continuing to try.

Just about every time we were out of town together, we had at least one person ask if we were sisters. We always laughed when we told them no and they didn’t believe us.

Carol loved gardening, especially growing her beloved day lilies. I showed her pictures of my silk flowers, stuck in the flower bed until the end of summer or they became sun-faded, whichever came first.

I have already thought a couple of times that I need to call or text her to tell or ask her something and selfishly wish I could. I imagine that will happen for some time to come because I want us to share grandchildren stories.

During Carol’s first battle with this terrible disease, beginning in late 2005, each Sunday evening I would deliver dinner to her house. Per her request, dinner always had to include hash brown casserole. After several weeks, Carol conceded that she had felt fine for a while but she had delayed sharing that info with me because it would mean an end to the casserole being delivered.

I continued to randomly deliver the potatoes over the years, and they were always welcomed with a big smile. In Carol’s honor, I’m sharing her favorite recipe of mine, and I will always consider it Carol’s casserole. So many memories that make me smile. I hope she knew how many people loved her. I’m glad she knew I did.

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Hash brown casserole

2 pounds frozen shredded hash browns, thawed

1 (8-ounce) carton sour cream

1 can cream of chicken soup

2 cups grated cheddar cheese

1 teaspoon onion powder

Salt and pepper to taste

Half stick butter

Mix all except butter together. Pour into sprayed 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Dot with butter. Bake, uncovered, for 1 to 1 1/2 hours at 350 degrees. Yields 6 to 8 servings.

Address correspondence to Cheryle Finley, c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802.

Cheryle Finley is a food columnist for The Joplin Globe. Address correspondence to Cheryle Finley, c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802.

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