If you know my Mom, you know how she is attached to food as the source of comfort. She loves to cook and lives to cook. I am not sure I can find the dividing line between cooking to share love and cooking to receive love.
In her younger days, she was a legendary whirlwind in the kitchen leaving the room looking like something of a war zone. She rarely if ever used cookbooks or recipes. Baking was a specialty and there’d be flour splotches all over her and most any available surface. When not baking, country-style cooking ruled: meat, potatoes and lots of gravy, pot roast, pork chops, fried chicken, canned vegetables, casseroles and Jello salads. On creative days, she’d whip up a giant pot of spaghetti that would last for days.
When my brother and I were young, she was nearly obsessed with cooking to please our Dad. We’d eat what he wanted, or when for some unknown reason she wanted us to eat something he didn’t like, she’d prep a separate meal for him. The best example I can remember is liver — he refused to touch it and we were given no choice. I covered mine in ketchup and raced to get it over with.
By the time I hit my teen years, she was cooking for the tribe of friends who would come and go from our house. She loved it and never balked at adding someone or many someones to the table at the last minute. There were times when I was gone and friends would wander over to our house at mealtime. Neither the friends nor my Mom seemed bothered by my absence; her cooking was the reason for the visit.
When my kids were growing up, she became known as “the Cinnamon Roll Grandma.” She’d overtake our kitchen and practice her craft. Word would spread and neighbors, family and friends would stop by to “visit.” There would be fresh, hot treats for all and the favored would leave with a platter to enjoy in the coming days.
After my parents divorced, Mom worked as a sorority house director. Although not part of her job she usually had fresh baked treats for the “girls” and nearly anyone on campus who would stop by. She was passionate about caring for those she viewed as lonely or left out and her baked goods were how she’d start a friendship and keep it growing, often for many years. Security staff and delivery workers would route their daily rounds to meet her baking schedule. And she didn’t always wait for people to drop by the house. She’d often take a tray or basket to pass out her gifts of love as she’d wander the campus.
Mom eventually purchased a small house in a retirement community and remarried. Anytime I’d visit, she’d prepare what she thought was one of my favorite meals. There was always more than enough. My brother and his family live near and would usually join the meal. With aging, her skills began to drift and the quality of her efforts became unpredictable — well, actually, maybe predictable in a less-than-positive way.
Her love of food goes beyond her own cooking. She loves trips to buy groceries, going out to restaurants and talking about food. Tell her about a trip or vacation and she’ll ask about restaurants you visited and what you ate. All family gatherings are rated on some inner “food scale” for which only she knows the key.
About eight years ago my Mom had a stroke, actually her third stroke that we know of. Initially she seemed to recover well — that is, until her sight started to diminish. Now she is essentially blind.
She tried to keep cooking. She and George attempted forming something of a tag-team with her instructing and him trying, for the first time in his near ninety years, to navigate a kitchen. The results were not always pretty.
Mom is painfully aware that she no longer “has it.” She laments the loss and it only adds to her questioning the value of living.
A while back I took my Mom for a day exploring Portland. Portland was the city of her youth and my childhood. I let her guide the trip, which was a bit of a challenge because of she was never good with directions and further complicated by her lack of sight.
Mom would try to describe a place and I’d start driving. We visited former neighborhoods, homes of friends or family members and our old church. She’d reminisce and ask questions and I’d try and remember with her while also telling her the current state of affairs.
A highlight of the day was finding restaurants of her choosing. We talked about many but ended up at a fondly remembered place. She knew what she wanted and was ready to critique. At the end of the day I had tears in my eyes and a sense that if this was the last time I was with my Mom, it would be a wonderful finish.
My memory is that Mom was a bright light at most any gathering. She’d flit from person to person and conversation to conversation making sure that all were included and cared for. She introduced strangers, encouraging new friendships. She called everyone to gather for a feast or roam the crowd extending the gifts of her love.
My Mom was always about more than food. Yet food and her passionate relationship with it were indicative of her broader approach to life. Giving and seeking love, serving and caring for others were her hallmarks.
Like the proverbial fish out of water, she now thrashes gasping for some sense of hope and purpose for life. She struggles trying to find some meaning in her physical and emotional darkness.
I have no idea how I will respond when, if I live long enough, my comfort and identity are stripped away. Will I be complacent, letting others guide me into the dreaded unknown? Or will I fight like a cornered cat, trusting no one and ready to battle to the finish? It is easy to think I will handle it in some better manner. But that is all projection and reality can be a viscous taskmaster. I’ll get my turn, and as they say, “Time will tell.”