Mother’s Day is bittersweet. For all intents and purposes, I’ve already lost my Mom. She is 6 years into dementia and no longer remembers who I am. She imagines she loves me. She even says so sometimes, just like she tells everyone she encounters from staff to stranger. She used to hug me back. Now she stands limply in front of me with her arms dangling by her side, this passive yielding a different kind of better than the years of confusion and denial.
Her sense of Southern hospitality has been robbed from her. Rudely snatched a bit at a time while she wasn’t paying attention. A life invasion of the cruelest kind.
Long gone are the cherished possessions that used to define her. Gone is the fashion sense. Gone are the table manners she worked so hard to imprint on us just in case we were invited to dine at the White House. Gone are the family stories and memories. For us kids, ours are riddled with holes. We depended on her, and Dad, to fill in the gaps. I now regularly email my brother and sisters asking “Does anyone remember….?” Or “What year was ….?” I should have been a better keeper of the archives. Written it down. Not relied on my own often, now worrisome, forgetful memory. Only three things make her smile now. Food, singing, and little children. Eating is her happy place, especially when it’s mashed potatoes or baked sweet potatoes. They say it’s because they are soft and easy to swallow, but I’d rather believe her love of sweet potatoes is a hold over from the year she was named the Yadkinville, NC Sweet Potato Queen.
At lunch one day last week, I watched her face soften and her eyes close over a spoonful of strawberry ice cream. For that one bite, she was having a full and meaningful moment. My heart twinged a little and I blinked back tears. The CNA standing beside us placed her hand on my shoulder and gave it a light squeeze. A memory began an instant replay and I burst out laughing, startling all of us in the dining hall.
One spring Chapel Hill evening sometime in the late 50’s (or early 60’s), Mom called us four kids in to supper. It was unlike her, but she placed a pie smack in the center of the round kitchen table without saying a word. None of us can remember what was for dinner, but we knew that we’d never get a bite of that pie unless we cleaned our plates. None of us could take our eyes off the pie. Eat a bite. Stare at the pie. Sneak the dog a bite. Stare at the pie.
As she cut and handed out slices, she reminded us not to take a bite until the hostess, her, had picked up her fork. She had barely lifted the fork before we were shoveling pie in our mouths. She started laughing as she yelled out “April Fools” just as we were realizing she had used salt instead of sugar as a joke. To make up for it, we all drove up to the Dairy Bar on Franklin Street for ice cream. Everybody came home happy and it became an often-told, always laughed-at family story.
Face it, Mom, Home Economics degree aside, you never really were a very good cook, but you could stretch a pound of hamburger into next week and knew that Campell’s Soup was the secret ingredient for every casserole. Feeding a family of 6 in those days meant dinner was routine and predictable. Tuna casserole, hot dogs, chicken casserole, meatloaf, spaghetti, “It Smells to Heaven” (which only smelled heavenly, but tasted terrible), the even-worse Hambolaga, and a Sunday roast that went in the oven before we left for church that was cooked-to-well-done-sad-shoe-leather by the time we got home. But, we never went hungry and we always had dinner together. It was a family rule. That, and when we had chicken, Daddy always got the breast.
It was a borderline joke the year we compiled a family cookbook. I mean, who really wants the recipe for tuna casserole made with frozen peas, and Saltines? The goal was really to capture the handful of family favorites –Christmas Pie, cobbler, Mudhens, fruit compote, and baked rice – and to showcase how we’d each developed our own culinary skills in spite of, or maybe because of, growing up in a Betty Crocker world.
Mudhens were Mom’s go-to-to dessert and everybody loved them. A close cousin to Blondies, they didn’t last long in our house. Mine never turned out as good as hers and I teased her about leaving out an ingredient or adding a secret one without telling us. The recipe card is worn and smudged with greasy fingerprints, and I often hold it to my nose as if to recapture her essence.
I’m making her some for Mother’s Day and hope they trigger a memory, but I know not to be disappointed if they don’t. The funny twist on the April Fool’s pie story? Each of us kids remembers a completely different pie and are now laughing at whose memory is correct – chocolate, luscious lemon, lemon chess, or lemon meringue pie.
1½ cup sifted flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 cup sugar
½ cup butter
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup brown sugar
Sift flour, salt and baking powder. Cream butter and white sugar. Add 1 egg and yolk of other egg. Blend sifted dry ingredients and add to butter and sugar mixture. Add vanilla. Put into baking dish. Mix unbeaten egg white and brown sugar with hands and crumble over mixture in dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until center tests gooey with a broom straw. Let cool completely before cutting.
Luscious Lemon Pie
1 9″ regular Pet Ritz prepared pie shell -or- homemade pie crust
1 cup sugar
3 tbs corn starch
1/4 cup butter
1 tbs grated lemon rind
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
3 egg yolks, unbeaten
1 cup Carnation evaporated milk
1 cup sour cream
1/2 tsp lemon extract
Bake pie crust according to directions. Combine sugar and corn starch and stir. Add 1/4 cup of butter, lemon rind, juice, egg yolk and stir in milk. Cook in top of double boiler until thick, about 10-15 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and let cool. Lightly fold in sour cream and 1/2 tsp of lemon extract. Fold gently into pie crust. Cover with Saran Wrap and chill overnight. Just before serving, top with whipped cream.
A Taste of Home, One Memory at a Time by Deborah Miller was originally published by NC Food, May 9, 2014. Reprinted by permission of the North Carolina Folklife Institute.
Mama, Can I Shuffle?
Julia – The Beatles
Please Call Home – Greg Allman
Saint Behind the Glass – Los Lobos
Lullaby – Mandolin Orange
Your Momma Don’t Dance – Loggins & Messina