Normally, my mom starts e-mailing 3-4 times a day just after Thanksgiving. I’ll see subject lines like “Here’s What I’m Freezing,” and “Food!” and roll my eyes, thinking I don’t have time to think about all that yet if I’m going to tidy up work and take off for the holidays.
Except this year, I got a call from my dad on December 7th that my mom had had a stroke.
The days that mom was in ICU (in Connecticut) and I was in California, the lack of e-mails felt empty and depressing; their ongoing absence a constant reminder that this Christmas—and perhaps the indefinite future–would be very different than my family had envisioned.
I craved comfort food that week. I made Buttermilk Oven Fried Chicken with mashed root vegetables unexpectedly one weeknight, and a taco salad (a Mack family staple) the next. There was something in those foods that connected me to my mother, who I longed so fiercely to be with.
Now that I’m at my mom’s bedside, food continues to play a central theme. She tells me what I should be defrosting and had me bring in the pile of recipes she’d picked out to make. While her roommate, Margaret, and my brother talk classic movies, my mom and I plan Christmas dinner. A recipe, in fact, was the first thing my mother wrote with her therapist.
Not that any of that has translated to my mom’s kitchen yet. To me, it still feels too quiet and too empty without her and, to be honest, I’ve done all I can to avoid it. But I can feel that changing too. Over the past few days I’ve had time to mourn. Now it’s time to hope.
There are the recipes of my own that I’m printing out to cook for my daughter and husband and brother and dad (Alison’s Brussels Sprouts Carbonara and No-Knead Rosemary Olive Loaf are among them). There are the nuggets of nutritional advice that my mom is finally open to hearing and truly adopting.
“But I love potato chips, I love fried food,” Mom said to me pleadingly one afternoon when we were having a chat.
“I know,” I said. “And you don’t have to stop eating them entirely.” I talked about putting a handful of chips on her plate, closing the bag, and focusing on squeezing as much pleasure out of each bite as she could. A lightbulb went off and I could see her process the possibility that by giving herself less (potato chips) she was actually giving herself more (pleasure without guilt, a favorite food without endangering her health). She looked visibly relieved.
Mom was quiet for a moment. Then she turned to look at me (which is a feat these days). “That Kale and Feta Tartine looked really good though,” she said, referring to a demo I’d just showed her that I’d recently filmed. “I want that on the list for when I get home.”
I’m still not sure when I’ll be able to serve Mom that sandwich at home, but I do know that I’ve already gotten the two greatest Christmas gifts I could ask for (or maybe one’s a birthday gift … I turn 40 today!): that my mom is here with us and that she’s willing to make changes. I’m holding out hope that mom and I (and Noe) will be in the kitchen together for many more Christmases to come.
Sometimes, the best gifts of all can’t be wrapped.
ON THE MENU THIS WEEK