When our children were old enough to make it practical, my wife went to the midwest to visit her family, by herself. She left the children home with me. This not only saved money on airfare, but gave her a critical break from the kids, at a time when she really needed one.
Since we are talking about my wife, you should not be surprised to hear that before leaving, she had scheduled childcare/babysitting for the kids, written down a list of where they had to be, at what time, and had generally foreseen every problem that could arise in her absence.
Well, almost every problem.
We had been without my wife for a couple of days, and I had just put the children in bed, when the phone rang. It was my brother. Our mother had collapsed, and had been transported to the hospital. It didn’t look good. She was still unconscious. He didn’t have any definitive information, but he promised to call back when he knew more.
So, I stayed awake for the next several hours, unable to concentrate on anything, waiting for a phone call. I felt like I should have joined my father at the hospital, but it was 90 minutes away, and I didn’t have anyone I could call in the middle of the night to come watch my kids. I didn’t even know how seriously ill my mom really was. But the phone finally rang, and my brother told me that Mom’s prognosis wasn’t good, but her condition hadn’t changed much. In short, get some sleep, but come down in the morning as soon as I could.
The next morning was a bit of a blur. I hustled the kids off to their childcare provider as early as I could drop them off, then quickly ran to work. I was responsible for an application that had to be filed that day. At this point I wasn’t going to file it myself, but I had to make sure that someone else would take responsibility for it. So, I got to work, ran in, got an associate to cover for me and file the application I had prepared, and ran back to my office to shut down and hit the road. As I entered my office, my cell phone rang. It was my sister, and from the tears in her voice, I knew Mom was gone.
She had started going downhill rapidly in the morning, until she was gone. She never woke up. I hadn’t made it down to see her, and felt badly about it. Maybe not so much for myself, but because I knew my father would have wanted me to be there.
So I drove down and met my family at the funeral home. Mom’s body had been transported there, and we had some time with her. Dad didn’t look good, which was to be expected. I think we went back to Dad’s place and got some lunch. Fortunately, the older siblings were coordinating things with the funeral home.
I don’t remember the details of the next few days, but it was a heck of time for my wife to be 2,500 miles away. I was moving in a bit of a daze, dropping off the kids, going to work, picking up the kids, fixing dinner. I usually took advantage of my wife’s absence by fixing things for dinner that she didn’t particularly care for. It had been a long time since I fixed skillet-fried pork chops, which I liked but she didn’t.
So, after work one night, I found myself fixing dinner. I put some green beans in a steamer, and sliced some onion and potatoes thinly. I dredged the pork chops in seasoned flour, and pan-fried them. I began to fry the potatoes in another skillet, while I made a light roux in the pork chop skillet, then made a batch of cream gravy.
Suddenly, like someone smacking me on the back of the head, I realized what I was doing. Fried pork chops, fried potatoes, cream gravy, and green beans. One of my mother’s favorite meals, and one that I had eaten countless times growing up. I was preparing comfort food, simply enough, but it was even more than that. This meal was a connection to my mother, to the way she had fed me for half my life. Food was how my mother showed love, and how we, in turn, showed our love for those close to us. With no conscious thought at all, I was preparing one of the most appropriate meals I could have envisioned for a remembrance, a farewell, and a consolation.
Upon receiving this epiphany, I could feel my throat clenching, and tears welling up in my eyes. I buried my face in my hands, and began to sob. It was the first time I had cried for my mother, who I would never see again. My daughter, alarmed, came into the kitchen and asked me what was wrong. I told her I was sad because my mom had died. I don’t think she had ever seen me cry like that before, and I think in some way it made her grandmother’s death suddenly more real for her.
Of course, my wife flew back to me, and we had a funeral service for my mother. To no one’s surprise, all of the children spoke of how much she loved her children, how much she loved to cook, and how important food had been in our relationship with her.
As we prepare for Thanksgiving this year, I think about the importance of food in our celebrations. Certainly the food we eat is fuel for our bodies, but it is so much more than that. It is sustenance for our souls, and a comfort for those in pain. You can help endure a nasty breakup with a pint of Haagen-Dazs, or confront the loss of a parent with a menu from your childhood. Food shared is hospitality, food in the pantry is security, and food prepared with love is love.