61: My Mother’s Kitchen

61: My Mother’s Kitchen

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

My Mother’s Kitchen

When you look at your life, the greatest happinesses are family happinesses.

~Dr. Joyce Brothers

Yesterday when making my weekly bread, I reached for one of my two wooden spoons — the ones I’ve now used for more than twenty years, and rubbed the smooth wood under my thumb.

I think of my mother’s worn wooden spoons and realize I’m recreating her kitchen: the large white mixing bowls, the red wood-handled wire pastry blender. I now have a copy of the silver-topped English jam jar I broke as a child.

I realize my three sisters are doing the same. When we gather in Maine in the summer we head for the collectibles stores and the treasures we find are those we grew up with. One sister collects restaurant ware and casserole dishes from the ’50s, another snatches up aged cast iron frying pans, and we all look for the one bowl that will complete our sets of primary-colored Pyrex mixing bowls.

My mother’s kitchen is still intact, but now when I visit her in New Hampshire I never know where I’ll find these well-loved tools. She has Alzheimer’s, and the disease has progressed to the point where putting away the dishes is a frustrating guessing game.

My father has taken over the cooking. We were stunned when we discovered he was watching Emeril. Now he calls to ask me for my johnnycake recipe, and to report on his latest culinary achievement — his quickie pineapple upside-down cake made using the old cast iron pan and (horrors) a cake mix.

This summer he’d call with weekly tallies: quarts of beans frozen, berries picked and turned into jam, reports on the plentiful rhubarb that became sauce, all with a pride we’d never seen before. Previously, all of the work to feed our family of seven was done by my mother.

But it’s more than pride I see. It’s good caregiving. My mother and father can spend time together in the garden and later in the kitchen because it’s familiar to her and safe.

Last summer they were more than regulars at the U-Pick blueberry fields. Their time spent together resulted in blueberry jam. He didn’t have to worry about her whereabouts, and conversations over blueberry bushes are always disjointed anyway.

My father has never taken a caregiving class, but he’s a remarkable giver of care, and maybe he learned that from my mother. As adults, my sisters and I have always called her for a recipe, for her healthy outrage over our broken hearts, or for her diagnosis of a middle-of-the night malady.

We’ve lost that now; asking her for the recipe for those brown-sugar pickles we called snakes just causes her frustration. So we don’t call her with those questions, and we try to mother each other instead.

My sisters and I continue to recreate my mother’s kitchen, surrounding ourselves with the familiar as she becomes a stranger. My kitchen is full. I don’t need another cutting board in the shape of a pig. And although the pie-crust-making gene skipped me, not only do I have one red-handled wire pastry blender, I have two.

But now I realize there will never be enough sets of nesting Pyrex mixing bowls in the world to hold our feelings of loss.

~Susan DeWitt Wilder

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