96: The Recipe

96: The Recipe

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dreams and the Unexplainable

The Recipe

Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.

~Harriet Van Horne

Like all widows, I’ve slowly and painfully made the transition from two to one. Since Tom’s passing, the kitchen has been quiet. Dinner preparations for one are modest and quickly finished. The exception is Christmas, when our daughter Kathleen arrives to take over the kitchen in her father’s place.

My husband had learned to make pasta sauce as a child in Brooklyn at the knee of his Italian grandmother. Several times a year, he would come home laden with garlic, onion, anise, oregano, tomatoes, and several bottles of wine — “A little for me, a little for the sauce.” The well seasoned “spaghetti pot” would make its appearance, Italian tenors would burst onto the sound system, and the house would fill with steam and tantalizing scents. Sauce making was an event, so for many years I dutifully operated as sous chef. I chopped, stirred and sautéed as specifically directed, and was always thanked with a kiss and a waltz around the kitchen.

This dynamic changed when Kathleen, the youngest of our six children, arrived. Always her father’s shadow, she was squeezing tomatoes and measuring spices while still in diapers. As she grew, I quietly stepped into the background, leaving the two of them to bond while perfecting their art. Vigorous Sicilian-style discussions sometimes emanated from the kitchen: “No, no, no! You have to use whole nutmeg and grate it yourself!” “San Marzano tomatoes, nothing else!” Appropriate adjustments were evidently agreed upon, and the sauce evolved. Nothing was ever committed to writing, however. In fact, the word “blasphemy” was used to describe the very idea. One daughter-in-law was insistent, though. Grumbling, Tom finally scribbled out the recipe by hand, with many verbal embellishments. “Sauce is an art!” he warned her. “We don’t clone, we create!” Amused, she gave him a copy. I never saw it again.

Every time we moved, the spaghetti pot moved with us. And even while he was battling three bouts of cancer, Tom still created his masterpieces with Kathleen. She was staying with us, finishing her graduate work, when Tom passed in December 2012. Her personal memorial to him was, of course, a large pot of pasta sauce, prepared for her siblings for Christmas dinner a few days after the funeral. She stepped forward to take Tom’s place as the guardian of tradition, the keeper of the flame, and suddenly the pasta sauce meant more than just a meal. It was now the link between the children and their father. It was a celebration of love and remembrance, repeated every Christmas, even when Kathleen, too, had married and moved away.

Last year, however, the phone rang the week before the holiday. “Mom? Catastrophe! Work has gone crazy. I won’t be in until the night before Christmas, and the sauce has to cook for several days!”

Like any mother, I jumped right in. “Don’t stress, honey. Give me a shopping list. I can get the sauce going, and you can do the final spice adjustment when you arrive.”

I could hear the concern in her voice. “Are you sure? You’ve never done it before.”

“Never done it before? Who do you think assisted Dad before you came along? I’ve helped with the sauce many times! I can manage.” And then I remembered. “Besides, I think Dad wrote out the recipe way back when. He scanned a lot of his papers into his old laptop if I can find it. I’ll look in the attic tomorrow.”

After jotting down the shopping list, I sat down to think about what I had just done. I was about to make Tom’s pasta sauce — for Christmas, from scratch — on the strength of my experience in stirring and tasting. You’re out of your mind! I told myself. My heart began to pound. This means so much to the children. It’s their link with their dad, the day each year that he would have wanted them to be together and remember him. I can’t mess this up, I just can’t. I looked around the empty kitchen. For a dizzying moment, I almost heard the music and laughter, smelled the spices, felt myself twirl in a dance spin — but no, there was nothing but me and the silence, as always.

“Tom,” I whispered, trembling. “Please. Please help me. I’ve done so many things alone since you’ve been gone. I’m tired. Tired and nervous. I want to do this for the children. I want to do it for you. I just can’t do it alone.” I took a deep breath, then another, and began to feel a sense of peace stealing over me. It’s okay, I thought. I just need rest. Tomorrow I’ll feel better. I’ll hunt down the laptop and find the recipe. I’ve got this.

Quietly, I moved around the house, straightening up and turning out the lights. At the bedroom doorway, I turned to let the dog into the room before shutting the door. As usual, I read for a bit before turning off my light. I slept soundly.

At 3:30 a.m., I snapped awake. The dog was scratching at the closed bedroom door. I sighed. Evidently, I was about to make a long, chilly trip through the empty house to the kitchen entry so that he could go outside. I snapped on the light, thrust my icy feet into my slippers, and reached for my robe while the dog danced in anticipation.

Throwing open the bedroom door, I looked down to avoid tripping over the dog and stood rooted in astonishment at the sight of an object lying white against the wooden floor. My heart reacted, leaping wildly in my chest, before my mind recognized that it was a sheet of paper, folded several times. It looked so much like a note deliberately meant for me that I froze.

Could someone have left this here on purpose? I wondered, in rising panic. No, I know I’m alone in the house. I mentally retraced my steps of the night before. Don’t be silly, I scolded myself. It’s plain you dropped something when tidying up before bed. Shaking my head at my foolishness, I scooped up the folded paper from the floor as I followed the dog to the kitchen. I opened the trashcan, but something made me pause.

I looked down at the creased note in my hand. Surely, surely if it had been lying outside my door when I went to bed, I would have noticed. Good heavens, I would have had to step right over it! I knew I must not throw this message away without reading it. So in the dim kitchen, I slowly unfolded it. The creases in it were heavy, as though it had been folded for many years, as in fact it must have been. It was a page I had not seen in twenty years — nor thought of until that evening.

It was the pasta sauce recipe.

~Loreen Martin Broderick

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