This past December, while in Virginia to see my mother, Evelyn, on her birthday, I reached into a kitchen cupboard for an electric mixer and was greeted by a familiar sight. It was a recipe box; a wedding gift received just before her marriage in the 1950’s to my father, Al, lovingly prepared by its benefactor with a dozen or so carefully typed favorites, such as White Mice Cookies and Apple Dapple Pudding.
The recipe box was a treasured friend, although by then it had been at least four years since my mother had fingered its smudged index cards and haphazardly folded clippings, and many months since she had been placed under full care for Alzheimer’s disease at a skilled nursing facility.
In the 1960s, when I was quite young to be in a kitchen on my own, my mother taught me to cook. It was country fare without frills, just simple food to nourish the blended family of eight that was formed after my father died and my mother married a farmer with three children of his own.
The recipe box, always kept close at hand, was rarely required for family meals. Instead, it was the source of sweet desserts, baked goods, and preserves, while the box’s empty dividers for meats, vegetables, salads, and other unremarkable foods were shoved towards the back.
With Christmas just days ahead, I couldn’t resist the impulse to open the box and skim its contents, nor the urge to ask my stepfather, Sherman, if I could have it for my own. Suddenly, I couldn’t imagine anything more important, more a symbol of my mother’s influence, than the battered box in my hands.
When I think of my mother, I can’t help but remember she was the first leader in my life. My earliest memory is of a hot day at my grandparent’s farm, playing in the dirt at my mother’s feet while she looped tobacco with a handful of other women. I went everywhere she went and was totally dependent on her for comfort and care, especially the nourishment of my body and soul.
Now, as an adult, I can’t recall a single day of my childhood when I didn’t think I was the cat’s meow. She guided me and encouraged me, building my confidence and independence, even when raising three daughters as a single mom at the age of 31, when no day passed without grief and trouble.
My mother would never have considered herself a leader, but I think she would have recognized and applauded the strength of the family that cared for her in her final days and then reminisced with relatives and friends at her visitation and funeral service in the early days of May. And she would have been proud; in all the ways a mother should be able to be proud.
Alzheimer’s, as everyone knows, is a terrible disease. There is the heartache of seeing someone you love fail mentally and then physically, and there is sorrow because there is no hope for a better tomorrow. For me, there was also an unhappy sense of abandonment, since most of those beyond immediate family are uncomfortable with the sufferer’s mental aberrations and feel unable to help.
Sadly, modern medicine is not always our friend. Even with medical directives in place, my mother lived a life she would not have wanted in her last years. But I don’t hesitate for a moment to say that there are wonderful, self-sacrificing professionals, especially nurses, who meet and master challenges every day for the sake of others.
I want to tell you, too, that you should never doubt that you can provide comfort to someone, even when they don’t remember you, with touch and voice. Holding my mother’s hand, rubbing her arthritic neck, and singing “Jesus Loves Me,” first with her, and later for her, always helped us both.
When I arrived home to South Carolina with the recipe box, just days before a New Year’s feast of country ham and collards—fixed mom’s way, of course—I was eager to examine each recipe card, especially those in her handwriting. What else I discovered, however, was totally unexpected.
Behind those empty card dividers at the back of the box was a crumpled and torn receipt. It was dated a few days after my birth and noted a payment of seven dollars for her hospitalization.
The faded bits of paper didn’t prove anything I didn’t already know. I was always certain of my mother’s love. I knew, too, the day of my birth, and those of my two sisters, where among the happiest of her life.
I didn’t know, however, that my mother would whisper endearments even when she couldn’t speak, or that she would comfort me when she couldn’t lift a hand. And I didn’t know she would continue to nourish me, body and soul, even when no day passed without grief and trouble.