Monday, Mar. 21, 2005
The Christmas Cookbook
I know it's not Christmastime, but a note from tuckandsophi brought back a brief, bittersweet moment related to Christmas.
My mother died two years ago last September, after a prolongued illness that left her incapacitated physically but at full mental capacity. She could write, albeit in the shakiest of script, long after Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (also known as ALS or Lou Gherig's disease) stole her ability to speak.
My mom was perhaps one of the most unique individuals I've ever known, her heart-shaped face framed by curly brown hair, her chocolate-colored eyes bright and inquisitive. She was always petite, and only wore dresses and skirts until after she retired, having been taught that no lady ever pulled on trousers. After she retired to a cooler climate, she conceded to wearing sweatsuits, but she was never at ease in them. I never called her mom - she was always "Mother" to me. I'm not sure why, as she certainly wasn't formal about much of anything. Maybe it was family tradition. She always called her matriarch by the name "Mother," too.
Mother was a singer and a pianist and a professional seamstress. She could read music only by reading the old-fashioned shaped notes, and I guess I inherited her musical abilities, because harmonizing came naturally to me. I think I was maybe six or seven when she started singing and I automatically accompanied her, for the first time picking up the second soprano voice.
The last three years of her life, my mother could do none of those things. She was locked into a failing body that denied her the ability to express her hurts and frustration. Since my parents retired to Texas, none of us kids could visit her with any kind of regularity. As a result, she was effectively imprisoned with my father. As any of my regular readers know, my dad exists to bully and harass, which he did up until the day that my mother drew her last labored breath. Then he had the temerity to expect his children to worship at his feet over his grand sacrifice, and apparently to this day doesn't get why we don't obey his edict.
Despite some very real issues with my mother, I loved her, and even now there are moments when I would give almost anything to be able to pick up the phone and talk to her, to say the things that I wanted to say but never did. Of course even if she were still alive, I wouldn't say them. They were reasons I never told her, hurts too deep to expose to the light of day. I don't regret the not saying nearly so much as I regret the reasons for not saying them.
Ironically, though, what prompts me to miss my mom the most is when I cook. I used to call, even long-distance, and ask her for the recipe to something she made when I was growing up. Red velvet cake, or maybe divinity; always the kitchen creations that departed from the standard-issue recipe, things modified slightly by her sure hand.
Which brings me to Christmas.
A year or so before my mother died, my oldest daughter, 00, gave me what remains the most unusual Christmas request I ever recall getting. She asked me to make her a cookbook. Not a purchased one, but one in which I wrote down the recipes to all of the things that I make for which there's no recipe on boxes or bags. Some of my family's favorite recipes are known by such eclectic titles as "Rice and Stuff" and "Beef and Cheese Casserole." Those are the meals I created in the days when we would go periodically hungry, when I couldn't work enough hours to feed us and the kids' dad would be selling our food stamps to feed his drug/alcohol habit. There were others, too, more traditional foods like my homemade pizza and lasagna, enchiladas, and so on. 00 said given her grandmother's incapacity, she wanted a record of the little things that contributed to making us a family.
00 got her cookbook, hand-written in a little blank journal with its attached ribbon bookmark. I wrote down everything I could think of, some recipes with exact measurements and directions, some that relied heavily on the "pinch of" philosophy. I've even added to it a couple of times since giving it to her.
But as I wrote back then, more than a few tears fell. Some of those recipes were cobbled together from hard times; others carried forward from my mother, and she got them from her mother. It was a poignant reminder of the things that are most precious; the underlying, invisible glue that holds us together on so many levels. It's familiar foods, warm and filling if not gourmet. It's quilts hand-made with love and color-matched to the recipient's tastes. It's playing checkers with broken pieces and counting the victories more important than the quality of the board. It's hand-me-down clothes and sitting through school concerts that should include ear plugs as a party favor.
I'll be contributing a recipe to tuck and sophie's recipe book, and hope that some of the other Diaryland folks do likewise. I'd like to see a heart-based cookbook, one that's built around the recipes tied to family and memories. Because those are the ones that are priceless.
Before - After
In the grander scheme of things, no soul can truly be replaced. Each one of us has a place in the universal tapestry. We each contribute our own color and texture. When one thread is snipped too soon, it distorts all the threads around it. Other lives can unravel and tear. If the wrong thread is ripped away, the whole fabric of life becomes dangerously fragile.
- LeiLani, aka Radiogurl aka Bright Opal (1957 - )