3: My Mother’s Recipe Box

3: My Mother’s Recipe Box

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

My Mother’s Recipe Box

Let your tears come. Let them water your soul.

~Eileen Mayhew

My husband reached it for me. It was on the highest of our kitchen cabinet shelves, the one that remains out of sight/out of mind. My mother’s no-nonsense green metal recipe box had been stashed there three years ago, after her death at 97. And there it had stayed.

So many of the other objects in her household had been carefully sorted out, distributed to family members, donated to charity. But this box—this humble, ancient box, remained with me, untouched. I couldn’t have explained to anyone exactly why.

Somehow, that afternoon, I was ready.

My first thought, as I touched the box and pried open its lid, was a guilty one. Why hadn’t I seen to it that Mom had a prettier recipe file? Why hadn’t I found a cheerful one for her, something sweet in floral or gingham?

Guilt is a handmaiden of sorrow, and I’d had plenty of both since the December day three years ago when we stood at my mother’s grave and said a last goodbye.

There had been those awful wrenching times when I’d reached for the phone at dusk for our usual pre-dinner conversation, and forgotten that the number I was calling was “... no longer in service,” as that awful, disembodied announcement reminded me.

There had been the presence of that empty chair at the table for family milestones, the proof that we were no longer going to be graced by the sweet face of our matriarch, beaming because family was her taproot, her greatest source of joy.

And there had surely been those moments when I thought my heart would break from missing the tiny blond woman who had loved all of us so unconditionally, and had asked so little in return.

But opening that recipe box... that was a long-overdue marker on the journey to healing.

Mom was a legendary cook. The sort who didn’t actually need a recipe to guide her. Instinct was her best teacher, and somehow, she could make a meatloaf taste like filet mignon, or raise a simple roasted chicken to lofty heights.

But over the years, Mom had fortunately reduced some of her recipes to writing. “Someday, you may want these,” she had said prophetically.

“Someday” had come.

Sitting at the kitchen counter, I began my search for remembered pleasures... for the taste of my childhood, at least figuratively.

As I scanned the categories—main dishes, side dishes, holiday foods, cakes, cookies—there was Mom’s familiar scrawl. Her loopy letters, the “t’s” left uncrossed in her haste, the crowded script—all came rushing back. It had been so long since I’d seen that familiar handwriting, now that her anniversary and birthday cards signed “With all my love,” no longer arrived in our mailbox.

Mom had no patience for fad diets. So I sifted through detailed instructions for making a rich lasagna, a brisket swimming in gravy, for meatballs and spaghetti with her own “secret” sauce ingredient—brown sugar.

There were recipes for everything from a simple egg salad with pimentos to a noodle pudding that she had learned from her own mother.

Mom’s parents—my maternal grandparents—were Eastern European immigrants, part of that vast wave that had arrived on these shores in the early years of the 20th century. And in this golden land, food—lots of it—was their solace. It soothed the loneliness, bewilderment and fear of lives forever changed.

So much of my own history and heritage was in that green metal recipe box.

I spent one long afternoon with it, smiling, remembering, and yes, weeping. So much of Mom came flooding back. Decades later, I was back in her kitchen—and it was so clearly HER kitchen in the days when fathers seldom strayed into the inner sanctum. I was smelling her amazing pot roast, her sour cream/apple coffee cake, her split pea soup.

And I was wishing—how I was wishing—that she was back, too, in her aqua cobbler’s apron with the white ruffle.

“Do NOT overcook, Sally,” I found on one recipe card for pot roast. It made me laugh out loud, because that was, after all, my high culinary crime. And Mom knew it.

Hours later, when I’d rummaged through the last of the recipe cards and newspaper clippings stuffed in the back, I felt a kind of peace I hadn’t in too long. It was the sense that somehow Mom was in my life again.

She was peering over my shoulder, checking, re-checking, scolding, advising, and yes, teaching. She was handing down her traditions in the most loving way—through food as love.

Mom-food. The best of all possible cuisines.

And I carefully, deliberately placed that green metal box with its stubborn lid on the kitchen counter. Front and center.

Exactly where it belongs.

~Sally Schwartz Friedman

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