Cooking Through Grief

My mother died two weeks ago, on my fiftieth birthday.

It was unexpected in a way, even though she had been ill for a while. She had been in and out of the hospital for the past few years, but she had always gotten better.

My sister texted me that mom had fallen out of bed and that paramedics were there. The text was a bit incoherent, but this is what I made of it. My mother lived in Maryland for the past few years, near my sister. I lived in Texas, nearly 1700 miles away. Last year, Mom had a particularly bad episode, and was on a ventilator. My girls and I flew up in the height of Covid to see her. By the time we arrived, she’d been moved to rehab. We were not allowed in, and we had to talk to her standing outside her window. It wasn’t ideal, but that was the last time I saw her. We joked around a bit, and she reminded my oldest daughter that she didn’t have any great-grandkids yet.

Two weeks ago, Mom did not get better. The door was locked, and had to be broken into. They could hear the beeping of her oxygen machine. She’d been gone several hours. I’m told she looked happy and at peace.

I am not at peace.

My relationship with my mom was very complicated. If we are honest as a family, we will agree that everyone’s relationship with her was complicated.

The funeral was last Saturday, and of course was very difficult. A few bright spots I will always remember: my best friend since high school, Joy, silently by my side the whole time. My kids and husband supporting me always. One of my best college buddies, Katie, surprised me at the funeral home. I haven’t seen her in at least 10 years, but she drove from Oklahoma City to be with me. Two of my best cousins were there without being asked, and two of the remaining aunts were also there. Of course they were mourning their sister. These are the people who hold me dear and in return, have my deepest loyalty.

I thought I’d be ready to go to work last Wednesday, but Tuesday night I knew I could not. I stayed home.

My mind is fuzzy. I’m not at my best. I’m forgetful. I’m in a fog. I’m exhausted all the time. I tried to lesson plan, and could not. I tried to read: it’s too hard to focus. I watched all of Season 7 of Alone, where contestants battle the cold Arctic winter for 100 days, in the hopes of winning a million dollars. They carve out shelters with their own hands and no technology or help. They battle the elements in a way Thoreau never had to. They suffer frostbite and starvation and wolves tracking them. Alone.

I sleep a lot. Or not at all.

I watched the rest of Handmaid’s Tale, my favorite quarantine show. I didn’t really enjoy it, but I finished it.

I went back to Alone. The Season 7 winner, a weird mountain man type, talked a lot about his relationship with his mother and how he didn’t do right by her. He talked about how he dedicated his win to her. Then he ate a bunch of really questionable food.

I don’t feel the same. I did the best I could with my mom. I called her as often as I could. She was manipulative, so I had to be in a good mental place to phone her. If I talked to her when I was feeling down, her comments would sting for months.

I asked her, when her health was failing, to move to Texas. I said I would pick her up, and move her near me. She declined.

My mom was a puzzle.

In my fog-brain, this poem by Longfellow keeps floating to the surface, like fish in a frozen pond:

When She Was Good by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (American poet, 1807-1882)

There was a little girl, who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead,
And when she was good, she was very, very good,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

She stood on her head, on her little trundle bed,
With nobody by for to hinder;
She screamed and she squalled, she yelled and she bawled,
And drummed her little heels against the winder.

Her mother heard the noise, and thought it was the boys
Playing in the empty attic,
She rushed upstairs, and caught her unawares,
And spanked her, most emphatic.

My mom was like that little girl.

She could be kind, sweet, and generous. She once brought a ton of groceries to my house when the kids were little and we were struggling. She sent me and her granddaughters home made quilts, just a few months ago, “To remember me by…”

She hugged me and wiped my tears sometimes.

Other times, she was harsh. Demanding. Mean. Suspicious.

She would get carried away in anger, and turn abusive.

She would get jealous if a family member became close to another, and she would make up stories to hurt them. To drive wedges, to harm most foul.

These were the yin and yang of my mother.

She was still my mother, and I will miss her.

These thoughts, they can harm me. I have to find a way to deal with them. To stay mentally as healthy as I can.

So I came downstairs to the kitchen, and I began cooking.

I baked soft white bread and served it with warm Irish butter. I baked peach cobbler with vanilla bean ice cream. I made comforting beefy Shepherd’s Pie topped with mashed potatoes and a pound of sharp cheddar cheese. I roasted a pork loin and served it with roasted broccoli, baby carrots, and cauliflower. I made cheesy sausage and egg breakfast tacos with home fries and served them with ripe, sliced avocado. I made Chicken Tortilla Soup with homemade tortilla chips I oven baked. I made a beef pot roast with gravy and pasta salad. I made cold garden salad with cheese and boiled eggs and bacon bits, sliced avocados and fresh tomato. Red onion and homemade ranch dressing. I made French toast and scrambled eggs and fresh brewed coffee.

Yesterday, I meal prepped lunches. I made grownup lunchables: pepper turkey and sharp cheddar cubes, black olives and a cold dill pickle. Boiled eggs. Sliced red peppers. Chilled broccoli salad with cranberries and almonds. Fruit salad with peaches in their juice, pineapples, oranges, ripe strawberries and blueberries.

I have to go back to work tomorrow. I can’t take any more days off.

Although I’m going back to work – for better or for worse – and won’t have time to cook through the grief, but I know this: I’m not Alone. I’m not in this Arctic circle of grief by myself. I have my husband, my three kids, my friends and relatives. Though the snow may swirl and my marrow become leaden, I am not Alone. And I will be okay. We all will.

Eulogy for My Mother

Me and Mom in 1971

For anyone who doesn’t know me, I’m Tina. Mary’s oldest daughter. I have been an English teacher and a writer for a long time, and so it makes sense that when I need to write something, I think about quotes from books and the art of storytelling. This little passage kept raising to my consciousness, because its relevance is too telling. It is from Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club,” and it has to do with the complicated relationship of mothers and their daughters.

“What will I say? What can I tell them about my mother? I don’t know anything. She was my mother.” The aunties are looking at me as if I had become crazy right before their eyes. Not know your own mother?” cries Auntie Anmei with disbelief. “How can you say that? Your mother is in your bones!” “Tell them stories of your family here. How she became success,” “Tell them stories she told you, lessons she taught, what you know about her mind that has become your mind,” “You mother very smart lady.” I hear more choruses of “ tell them, tell them” as each auntie frantically tries to think what should be passed on. “Her kindness.” “Her smartness.” “Her dutiful nature to family.” “Her hopes, things that matter to her.” “The excellent dishes she cooked.” “Imagine a daughter not knowing her own mother!” And then it occurs to me. They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant.”

As for me and my mother:

I will tell her story, but not the way she would have, because I cannot. I can only tell it the way I know it: how it resounds in my bones, in my marrow, in every beat of my heart.

As I sit here drinking my coffee black,  at the kitchen table, the way she did, listening to old 80s country (like she did), I start thinking about my mother’s life and her legacy. The memories have been strong the last few days, enough to almost break me. In my mind’s eye, I see her in the yellow kitchen on Highland Street, drinking black coffee from her favorite mug, and reading a book, listening to the Judds. The day of my wedding, back in 1989, I woke up to the smell of potatoes boiling and the sound of “Going to the Chapel.” Momma was singing along as she prepared dishes for my reception. The kitchen was as hot as the gates of hell—you know we barely used air conditioning—but she was still standing at the stove. In that hazy memory, edged with a dreamlike quality, I remember Momma turning to ask me if I was ready to get married. I hold this in my heart as a piece of my time with her.

As for my mother’s life, I only can speak to the parts I saw, that she revealed to me. A woman never reveals her whole heart to anyone. A woman knows that to do so makes her completely vulnerable to attack and brokenness. And as far as I can see, a life is many pieces of a whole: a puzzle.

Some say that a life is reflected in a person’s occupation. My mother did many jobs throughout her life. As a kid, she and her siblings often picked crops for money. She was a waitress at Neal’s Café, and at a fish market in Tulsa. She would walk home from work and become irresistible to stray cats. She worked at an insulation company in the summer, and her towel would contain fibers that she rubbed from her skin after her nightly shower. She worked at Tyson’s for a long time, layering up to stand in the freezer for twelve plus hours a day. None of these jobs were particularly fulfilling or rewarding, but my mom didn’t think that work should be that way. She saw work as a means to an end: paying the bills. Having not finished high school limited her choices for jobs, but she didn’t waste time complaining about it. She simply worked.

Some say that a life is reflected by a person’s interest and hobbies. My mom liked to grow things. Flowers and vegetables, plants and gardens. I still remember her dragging us kids to grandpa and grandmas to weed that huge garden of his (seemed like 10 acres) and to dig potatoes and pick tomatoes. Not my favorite, and I’m sure I was such a joy in the hot summer sun. She liked to work in the dirt with her hands, coaxing life from dead soil. I have not inherited this talent. I can kill a houseplant in under 24 hours if anyone needs this service.

My mom also liked to read. She loved all kinds of books: Erma Bombeck was one of her favorite writers. She also loved trashy books, joke books, and most books…just not a lot of horror.

 I don’t know if you know this, but my mom used to be a writer. She inherited this from her mother, who wrote poetry and short stories and letters. I remember seeing Grandma’s poetry published in her church’s bulletins. I know this made her proud.

As a child, I would stumble upon my mom’s short stories in notebooks, some finished, some just began. The notebooks were never just stories, they were catch-all things, places for grocery lists and letters. Places for plans and notes to herself. Her stories were mostly about her life: growing up in the country. Stories about her mom and dad and y’all. Stories of childhood memories: swimming in the Gar hole, stories about sneaking into the drive-in in the trunk of somebody’s car (!), and seeing a scary movie and being afraid walking home, so they would have a couple of them facing front and a couple of them facing back to keep the murderers away. Stories about others who have passed.

 I remember one story about a bill collector or somebody from the law…I can’t remember the details, I just remember it was an authority figure that was somehow threatening who showed up to grandma and grandpa’s house and how all the kids lined up on the porch and how grandma showed the law  the way out with a shotgun. My mother has passed this love of storytelling on to me.

Another story she wrote was about meeting and falling in love with my dad. Even though they divorced, she always did love him. She confessed that to me many times over. Sometimes relationships fall apart, but the heart doesn’t forget. I have inherited Momma’s love of writing, and if I go too long without it, I actually feel it in my bones. Lee says I am happiest when I am writing.

All these pieces of my mother are parts of her, and by extension parts of us. But the most important legacy my mom left was us, her family. The family she came from and the family she made. I think it’s a fair assumption that everyone here can agree upon: family is messy. It’s love and caring, but it’s also fighting and making up (or sometimes not). It’s hurt feelings and sometimes false accusations and misunderstandings and brokenness. Some of this can be avoided, but many times, it can’t. We are all imperfect humans. My mom was not perfect, you all know that. She was difficult, and hard-headed. She was sometimes a giant pain. She sometimes inflicted pain upon others. I cannot make amends for her. I cannot defend this. But I can say she was harmed in many ways from the time she was a small child. This affected her in many ways seen and unseen.

I will say that one thing that I will never forget is her devotion to Grandpa. She took care of him until he died, and although I only saw bits and pieces of this, it was a hard road. Grandpa was not always appreciative, and often mean. Still, she drove out and stocked his groceries. She took him to the doctor. She listened to his complaints. She balanced his checkbook. He didn’t say thank you. Seeing this devotion has left a tattoo on my heart.

My mom is survived by all of you, and by us, her immediate family. She was so proud of our family.

Mom was very proud of Sherry and your starting your business from scratch. Sherry you were always good at organizing and making things beautiful, and you cleverly found a way to make a living from this skill. Mom also connected to Sherry with her love of plants and small pups. Sherry is a very good dog mama. Those pups are lucky.

Mom was also proud of you, Crystal and your service to this country, as well as your college degrees. How you served in the Air Force, like daddy did. How you were deployed to Baghdad and many other dangerous fronts multiple times, and I know we all breathed a little easier when you made it back to American soil. Once an airman, always an airman. Mom loved Andy and the whole family, and I am eternally grateful that her last days were spent with Crystal, Andy, Lizzy, and Kat. I know these moments brought her joy. It’s not easy taking care of an aging parent, and we all know that at her best Momma could be difficult. Thank you Andy and Crystal. I will never forget your kindness. My heart is full.

I don’t know Lizzy and Kat (Crystal and Andy’s daughters and my nieces) as well as I would like, but I know that Lizzy also inherited Momma’s love of gardening and plants, and that Lizzy also is a writer. You’ve  already published a book, of which I have a copy. I know this is just the first of your many successes and can’t wait to see how your life unfolds.

Little Kat was such a joy to Mama, and it’s so nice that she is her namesake. I’ve seen pics of them together, and it’s very sweet. With Crystal and Andy as your mom and dad, and big sister to guide you, I’m sure you will also take the world by storm one day.

My daughter Jody is also part of her grandmother’s legacy.  Besides looking almost exactly like Mama back in the day, you’ve inherited Momma’s love of music, and so you’ve earned a master’s degree which you use to teach middle school kids to love music. Momma’s love of music is being passed on to other families, and who knows where that ripple in the pond will resonate.

Me, Jody, and Sarah at my birthday this year.

My daughter Sarah also loves music, and you also went to college to be a band director, also passing on the love of music to other people’s kids. Sarah you are  also very artistic and creative, and I’m so proud that you are a published illustrator. I can’t help remembering the times I saw Momma buy those books that teach you how to draw. She would spend hours drawing, or doing paint by number projects. Sarah shows these skills in her crafts.

Nathan, Momma’s only grandson, is going to school to be an engineer. You’ve got a mind for numbers, like Momma. I sadly did not inherit this skill. You and I spend hours listening to 80s country music together, and I made sure you knew all of Momma’s favorite artists: Willie Nelson cautioning mamas about their sons being cowboys, Tammy Wynette standing by her man; Johnny Cash burning in the ring of fire and Alabama and their childhood in high cotton. We listened to Hank Williams Jr. being proud of how country boys can survive and Loretta Lynn being a coal miner’s daughter. We listened to John Denver reminiscing about country roads and of course, Elvis. Every Elvis song known to man. I love how you have taught yourself guitar and one of your first songs was Can’t Help Falling in Love.

Nate playing guitar at the luncheon after the service.

I’m finishing up my remembrances on a different day from when I started because I had to take a break midway. The memories were overwhelming. I’m sitting here with a new cup of coffee (black) and seeing my reflection a bit in the screen of my computer. My mother’s eyes look back at me, and I feel her next to me. Momma, we will miss you. We already miss you, but as Amy Tan put it, I can’t forget you. You’re in my bones, in my marrow, in every beat of my heart.

Please rest in peace, and as Willie says, “I’ll meet you on the other side.”