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Whipping up a feast in the house of grief.

When the R.N. at the nursing home told me Mother might die any day, I hit the Emily Dickinson hard, even keeping a collection of her poetry open on the kitchen counter for easy access. Through that cold winter I stood there making coffee, reading the familiar words about Death--

After great pain a formal feeling comes--

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs--

Poem by poem, I marked the days. At Pine Haven, Mother lay in her narrow little bed, unresponsive, unable to move unless a staff member moved her, a figure draped--as forgotten furniture is--with a sheet. Kidney failure was the diagnosis. A "quartz Contentment, like a stone," the inevitable prognosis.

Months went by. The R.N. kept saying, "Any day, any day." Spring blossomed forth--and then here came summer. Mother's hair was a scrubby tangle, befitting someone whose head never left the pillow, and I coaxed a soft brush through her silver strands. She did not stir. The R.N.'s mantra remained unchanged.

I was okay with the word "any."

Just what did she mean by "day"?

Dad, at 86, was blind with macular degeneration and wheelchair-bound. He shared the nursing home room with Mother, their twin beds touching. Persuaded by the oracular R.N.--"any day, any day"--he asked me to pick out two or three dresses for Mother just in case.

In a splash of midday light I opened her closet back at the house and began looking through the garments. Blouses draped on wooden hangers, others on padded ones, slacks still sheathed in dry cleaner's clear wrap. Everything was more or less the way it had been the last time Mother had dressed herself, two years ago.

It was odd to handle clothes a living woman would wear when she was dead.

A satiny peach dress caught my eye, its bodice trimmed with ivory lace, and I wondered if I had ever seen her in it. A pink linen ensemble was suitable, as was a mint-colored outfit in summer-weight wool. A pale blue button-down blouse hung from a hook, and I smiled. Mother had favored short-sleeve shirts like that for everyday wear. The thing about life in a nursing home--nobody wears button-down shirts anymore. They're too much trouble for the staff, especially if a resident needs a full change of clothing twice or more each day.

In a nursing home, everything slips over the head--shirts, undergarments, vitality, Time.

Standing before Mother's closet, I took the pale blue blouse off its hook and pressed it to my face. When I hugged and kissed her at Pine Haven her scent was tinged as everything there was with the shampoos, soaps, laundry detergents and various liniments endemic to an institution that receives federal aid. The warm scent of her skin was something I no longer remembered, and this blouse, one of her favorites, yielded only the dry, closed-off smell of dust, disuse.

Any day, any day ...

Grief is such a private thing. People don't know what to say to those who grieve. They change the subject. They look away. They murmur, "It was a blessing." When grief hits, you sometimes don't recognize yourself. You mope about, forget to eat, don't sleep. Emily D. understood:

I measure every Grief I meet--

With narrow probing eyes;

I wonder if It weighs like Mine,

Or has an Easier size--

Because I didn't know what to do, expecting Mother to die any day, not sure how soon, how distant, how long, how much pain, I pilfered things from her kitchen. A cutting board here, some Ginzu knives there, the Farberware food mill she'd used to make fresh tomato juice. Also, a brushed nickel mango-splitter. The ceramic citrus reamer was easy to abscond with, as were some coffee mugs, a milk frother, her ice cream scoop.

Is theft an expression of grief? If so, then I was profoundly expressing mine. Like some tacit Law of Newtonian Physics: nothing gets created or destroyed in the grieving process, just redistributed.

The Open-Sez-Me plastic package slicer, proven to cure "Wrap Rage," lay in the utensil drawer, a raggedy little sliver of Saran wrap still snagged on its blade. I had never had Wrap Rage. At age 50, I doubted I ever would. Aren't there some things it's simply too late to feel? What the hell, I thought. It was easy enough to tuck it into my coat pocket.

I can wade Grief,

Whole Pools of it--!

I'm used to that.

Mother had been a serviceable cook--not a truffle-oil-fennel-pollen-Plugra-butter fussy kind of cook, but a by-the-book sturdy one. If a recipe called for a teaspoon of vanilla, she didn't eyeball it. She pulled the aluminum measuring spoons from her utensil drawer--click, tap, clink--and found the one with "tsp" engraved on its handle.

She wasn't happy in the kitchen; she wasn't happy anywhere. I remember her bearing down hard on a circle of pie dough, her fists clamped around the rolling pin's handles. I remember her fingers flitting nervously over the noodles that lay drying on a tea towel. When she moved from stove to refrigerator and then from refrigerator to sink, her feet sometimes shuffled numbly along, as if she were walking the floors in a haunted house. Bouts of depression erased her joy. A chemical imbalance interfered. Panic attacks destroyed any pleasure. "Pure and Terrible," as Emily D. might say.

Making off with the Kitchen-Aid mixer didn't help me understand her any better--and liberating the Rabbit corkscrew of course did not change anything--but itchy fingers were upon me, and I pilfered, pilfered, pilfered anyway.

While gardening one morning I got the call. "She passed quietly," my brother, Fred, said, "without suffering." The corn plants were already shin-high at that point in the summer, and I scattered some morning glory seeds among them. For you, Mother.

Dad was in such bad shape that all the funeral arrangements fell to Fred and me. It was reminiscent, in a cryptic way, of playing house or Army when we were kids. Let's put on a show! we'd say back then. Our basement was full of pianos (inventory from Dad's music store). We'd drape the "main stage curtain" over the clothesline and get ready to accompany our exuberant show tunes on the baby grand or the spinet or on one of the uprights.

Now we had a solemn event.

The children are putting on a funeral!

She looked lovely in the peach-colored dress, laid out like a stately matriarch in a white and gold casket on whose lower portion rested a spray of ivory roses. My first glimpse of her in death was like my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon: a heel-rocking stunner. The long, plushly carpeted room, painted a serene blue and cream, separated me from her. It was hard to walk toward her coffin.

The Soul selects her own Society--

Then--shuts the Door--

To her divine Majority--

Present no more--!

I needed every inch of that room.

My fifteen-year-old son, Isaiah, big, strong and tall for his age, was one of the pallbearers, and my brother's three daughters, ages twelve through nineteen, cried and keened and sobbed for Granny, a good and appropriate response, her death inspiring maidenly tears. The graveside service in full sun and humidity left each of us with a pink rose to press in our Bibles at home. I took Dad back to the skinny little Pine Haven room where my parents' twin beds had stood. Mother's was now shoved up against the wall, its mattress stripped. Thinking of him alone there, trying to fall asleep next to that empty space, pained me. It was tougher than seeing the men with shovels, smoking off to one side in a quiet cemetery grove when we left Mother's grave.

As imperceptibly as Grief

The Summer lapsed away,--

I'm an orphan, I thought.

Deep magenta morning glories twined up the corn stalks in August, greeting the sun at dawn with trumpet-like blooms. The vines eventually coiled above my head, their blossoms like velvety beacons at each tip: my mother as I preferred to remember her. Jean-Paul Sartre once said that a symbol stood in place of something that could not be present. Yep.

By September, I had composted the faded vines along with the cornstalks. By October, I had reshelved the Emily Dickinson. By November, I was falling in love. December saw me trading garden clogs for cross-country skis, and I got out in the snow everyday. My new love, Kathy, was a devoted skier. When we couldn't be together, I liked skiing as a way of feeling close.

As if to encourage our romance, the winter after Mother's death delivered record-breaking blizzards and storms. These weren't tame or domesticated snows, but the kind that seemed to remember the Ice Age and wanted it to return, fiercely, decisively, all at once. Sometimes the snow had the consistency of vanilla soft-serve, giving our skis a creamy glide through the open cross-country field. Other times it was like feathers, and our skis disappeared under the downy fluff, only the tips poking through the whiteness, like the prows of a longboat cutting through surf.

Every day was like a shaken snow globe when Kathy and I were together.

We'd skiff girlishly along--sailing across the frozen surface of a lake side by side, or skiing for hours on a thousand-acre prairie site, stopping at one point to rest on a snow-covered fence rail and taking off our gloves to compare hand size. We acted like love-struck teenagers, not women in our fifties, splaying our fingers out against each other's, examining our thumbnails, our life lines, studying the beloved's palm as if we could read our quite-special future written there, all of this while sitting in the snow.

The white months for Kathy and me had a simple feel. When we skied in the field, I pointed out the tiny paw tracks a rat or a vole had left on the surface--same distance from each other, same frequency. "They look like a quilter's stitches on fabric," I'd say--a gift for my love, as if I had made those stitches myself! Kathy would sidle close to me on her skis, and we'd share a kiss. Mica frost twirled in the air around us, like slow-motion glitter. We were celebrating. What were we celebrating? Being in love, of course. Everything was smooth and easy.

The snow that never drifts,

The transient, Fragrant snow--

That comes a single Time a year,

Is softly Driving now--

When I was alone, however, the raw, funereal architecture of whiteness built itself once more. Bitter subzero winds strafed our lovebird snow, burnishing it to a treacherously icy gloss. The dual ski tracks Kathy and I had left were in themselves a testament to our romance--Look! Here's the place where we skied side by side! Look! Here's the place where we kissed!--but these harsh winds were reductive. They erased our tracks under drifting snow, which piled up in stark crusty mounds, like crouching winter beasts.

Days like this would pass without revelation, the sun eventually inserting itself into a narrow slot at the western horizon without fanfare or color. The snow picked up sullen charcoal hues that gave off a monastic, impenetrable feel, winter keeping all its secrets. Heavy and dense, the sky looked like it could tumble at my feet, a crumbling monument. Low clouds reflected back the dark opaque dullness of well-handled pewter.

Death and winter clasped hands all season long.

Skiing was not a refuge. Kathy was not a refuge. Grief had left something I couldn't dislodge. Not even cooking could offer refuge for very long. I leaned against the kitchen counter, staring out at the snow.

Aren't there some things it's too late to feel?

One weekend I baked a double-crust pot pie--lovingly studded with parsnips, Brussels sprouts, fresh green beans, corn off the cob, turnips, potatoes and roast pork. I frosted a carrot cake and made fresh fettuccine with the pasta maker.

Cooking my way through grief, I called it.

But no matter the ingredients or the temperature of the oven--no matter how many pilfered utensils I used from her kitchen--the heaviness remained, like a dark shadow self who moved alongside me in a fog, potholder in hand, shuffling, shuffling.

This is the Hour of Lead

Remembered, if outlived--

Mother ...

It wasn't that I was hiding from grief. I wasn't sure where it was. Or what to do about it. Eighteen inches of snow had lain atop it, had compacted itself down, thawed slightly on the few warmish days, refrozen at night and crusted over and then begun a process of ice lamination: melt, refreeze, melt, refreeze.

Plus, I was in love! My days were so filled with bursting joy there was scarcely any room for reckoning. We skied. We feasted. We made love.

The reckoning waited for me nonetheless.

Each day, each day ...

Sometimes when Kathy was in the shower I browsed through her shirts and blouses, ones I'd seen her wear, ones I'd not yet seen her wear. My hands lingered on the fabric--this one rough, this one nubby, this one smooth. Kathy's collared shirts hung on white plastic hangers, the top button fastened. I looked at those shirts, noted the button. I imagined her pulling them from the clothes dryer, sliding them onto the hanger and then buttoning them at the top. It was not something I did. I felt such tenderness for the woman whose life had begun to entwine with mine. Silk, linen, cotton, wool. I rummaged through her clothes. We wore the same size, but it wasn't like I was looking to borrow anything. Corduroy, rayon, denim, lace. I was just looking, looking.

Six months before, I had stood in a sunny bedroom and gone through a closet, searching for something, trying to find it, hoping to fill myself somehow with an essence beyond words. Mother's closet still existed, of course--and all her clothes were still hanging in it. My brother and I hadn't had a chance yet to sort things, to decide what to keep, what to donate, what to throw away. The peach dress wasn't there any longer. Neither was the woman who owned the peach dress, who owned any of those clothes. She was gone, gone.

I meant to find Her when I came--

Death--had the same design--

But the Success--was His--It seems--

And the Surrender--Mine--

Each winter day I used the tip of a ski pole to tap the back gate open far enough to glide on through, as if slipping away from Sorrow or an old life. Sometimes a narrow ridge on the snow's surface greeted me, looped and curved, where a creature had tunneled in the cold, its back humping the snow up so that the ridge looked like a wound that had healed badly and left behind a scar.

I was surviving a relentless winter. Surviving in midlife, falling in love again. Surviving the dark, cold hours when grief was as constant as the snow, as blank as the drifted whiteness--and there were no signs, no relief, no clues.

Some things that fly there be--

Birds--Hours--the Bumble bee: of these no elegy.

Some things that stay there be--


Kathy laments coming into my life too late to have known my mother, never having been able to hear in my voice notes of my mother's voice or to see the gestures Mother and I shared. Another loss that death drags with it.

Her mother is an energetic ninety-one-year-old who still drives a car and works twenty hours a week. When I clasped her to me at the family reunion, she warmly hugged me back. It didn't surprise me to sit around her kitchen table for hours one day while Kathy's brothers and sisters banged in and out the screen door as they must have done as kids, and watch Ma serve up plate after plate of kielbasa and eggs and bowls of fresh blueberries, her kitchen the epicenter of culinary love. A black iron cook stove dominated one wall, the sort my grandmother once toiled over, the kind you regulate not with dials--low, medium, high--or temperatures--300, 350, 375--but with sticks of wood you feed into it. Although Kathy's mom no longer performed kitchen magic with it, using instead a sleek ceramic range just inside the pantry, it nonetheless remained: sturdy, solid, immovable.

Can you construct a woman from her appliances?

Can each kitchen utensil be a stem cell from which you generate a portion of a living woman?

I stand in my kitchen, holding an ergonomic cherry-stoner in one hand and a long-reach pickle fork in the other. It has been nearly a year since Mother passed away. The answer is no, no, no.

A Cuisinart is not a mother.

A grapefruit spoon is not a mother.

Emily D. never wrote a poem about cooking, though she herself won Second Prize for Bread at a cattle show in 1856. If she had known that a woman in the twenty-first century would need her poetry to grieve a mother's death, she might have written:

Her Soul Dwell't--supercilious and Free--!

In the Minutiae of kitchen Gadgetry--!

Windows open, I putter about, singing. Sea scallops simmer in a bechamel of taleggio and cream. I grate a little fresh nutmeg over the pan. A raspberry pie cools on a rack, its lattice-woven top sparkling with crystal sugar, like new-fallen snow.

That's for Dad. Kathy and I will enjoy a slice with him at Pine Haven later.

Bread bakes in the oven. Lettuce drains in a colander. I luxuriate over a chocolate cake recipe, fingering the dog-eared index card, dreaming, remembering....

Mother's chocolate cake.

Her presence is steadier in death than it was in life, dependable and sure, like the aluminum measuring spoons she bought in the '50s. When I found a home for them in Kathy's kitchen, the spoons clicked and settled against each other, a familiar sound that comforted me.

Whisking a sauce or deglazing a skillet, I filter Mother's unhappiness into and through my happiness--a daughter's kitchen alchemy. It's just the two of us then, side by side at the counter or laughing over by the sink, making a mess, cleaning up as we go, peering in at the perfect meringue as it bakes beyond the tempered glass, whipping up a feast, joy from grief.
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Author:Haas, Barbara
Article Type:Essay
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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