French epi with pull-apart leaves left on the counter. Croissants flavored with chocolate, raspberry, almond, and cheese. Deli trays, brownie bites, and fruit-filled bouquets. Loaf after loaf—rye, sourdough, wheat. Frozen pizza pies for late night snacks. Mixed field green salads, black tubs of dressing. Pasta and assorted cookies (nutritionist disapproved), brick by brick, filling the fridge, light blocked, no reprieve. Gifts brought from West end to East. Chocolate. Green things. A foil covered basket of some homemade recipes. Home into gallery, museum of ignored tapestry. Try to sneak by.
These were the foods that filled our home. The foods that carpeted every surface, attempting to fill a void. The food I could not bear and would not dare to touch.
+ + +
Food is a language. It can be used to say I love you or I’m sorry. Food can reveal a simple hey, I’m thinking about you or something deeper. Food is able to mold an emotional conversation without words. The casserole that sits in the fridge waiting for hungry mouths to return from after-school activities speaks of dedication. Of planning ahead. Of rearranging an entire day just to make sure a hot meal graces the table the moment our busy schedules realign. The grilled carrots and chicken blackened by the gas-lit grill, marinated for days in soy, lime, and mounds of ginger rubbed delicately behind her ears, becomes an expectation for invited guests, but never a bore. We aim to please. And when a perfectly timed pancake is flipped to reveal a surface of amber velvet, without a peek to check for ripeness, it lands with just enough space to fit three on the aluminum griddle.
The way a meal is prepared, the temperature, the memories associated with it, the colors—each part of the food preparation process takes time and thought in order to combine separate ingredients to create a particular dish just the way we want it, the way we also select and arrange individual words to craft a sentence that articulates our intent. And when words seem stuck in the throat or out of reach, food is there to connect one person to another through something physical, something nourishing. Food can also be a mechanism of distraction, piled high and devoured to suppress specific emotions from tipping the balance. Food is there when words aren’t enough or when they sting. Sometimes words last too long. Food nourishes our bodies, it keeps us either strong and healthy or guides us on a downward spiral of destruction. Food feeds more than the body. It feeds our humanity.
+ + +
The trail of digestible gifts that week lacked the one piece of comfort I always found in food: her touch. Claustrophobia and anxiety described my Shiva call. Only we didn’t have a name for it. After all, my family is Roman Catholic.
When a member of the Jewish community dies, ritual ensues. It is customary to bring food to what is known as a Shiva call, to sit with mourners, pray by their side and simply be. The Shiva practice is commonly a seven-day process. The community gathers together and organizes visitors to sit with those who are grieving and say Mourner’s Kaddish, traditional mourning prayers. Tradition calls for the importance of having at least ten people present to say Kaddish, which requires communication and planning bound by hospitality. The practice allows those grieving to know they are not alone. And such moments of comfort center on meals because the act of sharing food presents love in a concrete form.
+ + +
The elevator sank one floor down as the stinging odor of sanitation crept into my bubble and erased all other thought. Walking down the short hallway to her room, I released my hair from a low-tied bun cinched to minimize the late July heat. Mom liked to see my hair long against my face in a waterfall of color she lost long ago. Pushing through the door, the room was lit by the mid-day sun shining through a large window by her bed. She sat with a slightly hunched spine and drooping chin in a chair next to the window. Feet parallel to the floor, one foot shaking impatiently. Her right hand folded in between her thighs slightly suffocated by a white, plastic band that screamed “FALL RISK.” Her left hand clenched into a platform under her chin, interrupting the beautiful waves of silver gray hair brighter than the many metallic surfaces in the room. Tears watered the blue eyes mine were molded from. Her creased brow turned toward with three words in an exhale: “I need you.”
+ + +
After hearing about her brain tumor, I struggled to choke down her favorite pizza—a large gourmet pie with shaved fennel sausage and Kalamata olives. A bag filled with movies beneath my chair nudged my foot as a reminder: it’s family time, stick to the plan. Tears ran down a redirected path to the back of my throat to camouflage the anguish of my mother’s now-shortened life span. Pizza and a movie for distraction. Curling beside her on the creaky hospital bed that beeped when the weight exceeded its limit, I folded carefully into my second to last motherly embrace. With my right ear pressed against my mother’s chest, the moment beat unknowingly fast towards collapse. A ticking time bomb.
My back led me out of the room at the end of the night clinging to her blue eyes with what was meant to be an “I love you, see you soon.”
Had I realized it was “goodbye,” I wouldn’t have left.
+ + +
Having spent a summer away from my boyfriend, I clung to my New Jersey ticket, blinded by a desire to stick with our reunion plan. If I had listened a little closer I might have heard my mother asking for me to stay. The plea was in her eyes. Instead, I left with excitement.
I wanted just one weekend to hand in my overworked hosting apron for a house-guest tag. One weekend to meet a new piece of family, to cook them a meal, or even have one cooked for me, while mine juggled life between home and hospital. I hated those trips to the hospital. I resented them. Not seeing my mother’s face or making her smile, but the flood of responsibility that consumed me as soon as I left the room. Did the boys eat today or drink any water? When was the last time laundry was done? Slow down and breathe. Have the plants been watered? What was that assignment from work I had to do? I thought the list that grew in my mind always had an endpoint. It would stop. I could breathe. Just as soon as she got home. I had to escape. I ran, leaving the pile of responsibility home to be picked up by someone else.
I avoided my father’s eyes in favor of a day at the beach. Dripping ice cream cones, ice-cold lemonade and overpriced nachos drenched in the unnatural yellow of road signs. I left my family at home to deal with the emergency trip back to the hospital two days later, the ensuing code blue situation that flung my father from her side and into my brother’s arms, and a final seal of her blue eyes that would not open again. If I had known then, I would have stayed. With what I know now, I am grateful for the distance. Her scrunched up face and the pained clench of her husband’s faithful hand are cemented memories for my Dad and brother. For me, they are just stories.
The ensuing week of hospitality and grieving offered a chance for me to redeem myself. I would get drinks for people, take their coats and purses, put out homemade hummus or artfully arranged cheese boards. But no one let me. I was the patient, the customer, the guest in my own home. No one would let me reclaim my resentment or lack of empathy in that time when my mother needed me most. I have been making up for it ever since.
+ + +
The forcefully stocked chest freezer in our basement sagged from the weight of Digiorno’s Pizzas. Two of each boring flavor adorned with pepperoni, three cheese, and whatever “original” might mean. Shaved fennel sausage was nowhere to be seen. This pizza delivery arrived with a man who pages through his Greek and Latin Bible every Sunday, kisses my hand each time he sees me, and lives each day praying for a child he lost years ago. His coke-bottle glasses anchored his wild eyebrows as he unloaded the frozen pies onto the counter. Vic attended the seminary with my dad, earning him the title of “Dad’s oldest friend” and arguably his strongest. Hauling in six bags of frozen necessities with his pot belly cinched by a leather belt the thickness of a boy scout salute, his sudden presence demanded attention. And left little room for anyone else. “Shiva!” Vic bellowed in his best Viking growl. An exasperated breath signaled my exit and replacement by my brother, who has always been more patient.
The mass of food came in the reverse direction as it had my entire life. My mother’s homemade hospitality reached countless mouths, from school friends and church members to anyone needing a little something more. Entire pans of chocolate chip blondies presided at my cafeteria lunch table, enticing high school girls from all corners. Back porch potlucks in the summer had the porch table resembling an overstuffed cornucopia. “Better a loaf too much than a crumb too few” she would say. My talent for cooking directly in proportion to the amount of people present always left her dumbfounded and puzzled. “How did you do that?” she’d say, clenched fists thrust to her sides to match the sarcastic grin on her face. While she may have been jealous of my culinary “guesstimation,” her ample generosity was felt far and wide. She mothered many more than her two children.
The pizza imposters joined an entire squadron of food parading through my house that week in August. A neighbor threw over bags of French bread. An old family friend sent a truck load from Giant Eagle of all the pieces needed for an Italian sandwich. Salads from Whole Foods were forced in to counter the weight of carbohydrates and sodium piling up in Mom’s kitchen. The food avalanche in our home was in fact the lowest on my list of irritations. What tightened my already wrenched gut was the label of assumption on each piece of food. It was assumed that I would have no energy or interest in making food for myself let alone house guests. The edible gifts assumed I was fragile, too weak to care for the people I loved. In reality, these normally mundane actions of planning, preparing, and creating food distracted my mind, calmed my stomach, and eased my pain. I tried my best to ignore the prepared food infiltrating my space. To me, it was all plastic. Inedible to the last crumb. One loaf of rye bread still sits impatiently in the freezer. It will most likely be thrown out in pieces for the birds.
+ + +
By 4:30am on August 8th, I faded into a restless sleep after toasting with a glass of red wine I didn’t drink.
By 9:00am my internal alarm shook sleep away. I awoke still clinging to the fleece blanket that held the last warmth from her body. Suffocation hung in a humidity that was produced by everything but the weather.
By 11:00am I had broken the news to twelve people, both in person and on the phone. Each admittance only cut deeper.
By 2:00pm the cushion of every sofa and each square inch of carpet was occupied by a living body. Forty percent family by blood, the rest by choice.
+ + +
People can say the wrong thing in loss, with both words and food. The daily gifts of casseroles and breakfast pastries that filled our freezer space intended to alleviate our grief, with less to handle or worry about. To me, they were just more reminders of her absence. Instead of living in moments of her memory through cooking family recipes, I was forced to eat food cooked by someone else’s mother. Ignoring the food was ungrateful and freezing it just prolonged repair. Besides, the food was never meant for my healing. In moments of tragic loss, our instinct is to act, to respond by helping those most affected. The act of giving food is meant to nourish the family, but the drop-off and dash technique mostly lightens the load of the deliverer. It is an act of catharsis for people plagued with a desire to do something, anything. They can unload a material item, receive a “thank you,” and leave feeling gratified in their own doing. While the intention is fueled by compassion and love for the grieving family, the gift often ends up helping the cook more than the consumer.
I never had a frozen pizza in my house when I was growing up, apart from the emergency item to satisfy a growing brother on the swim team. The pile that formed in the basement freezer not twelve hours after her flat line sat like an insolent middle finger. Laughter and tears fell around my body, protected by an invisible shield made from my unseen anger. Blurred masses of people walked by, offered a gentle “hello, how are you?” and “oh my dear, I’m so sorry.” Pairs of forcefully compassionate eyes desperately sought a link with my own. My unwillingness to hear another word of condolence bubbled through me and further agitated the nausea consuming my body. My cheek muscles twitched from an overused plastic smile.
There will be a lot of people in this house in the next few days, so we need to stock up.
Seeing me as having a depleted energy reserve, friends and family from all stages of my life told me I needed their help. They rushed in with everything they needed to say and do, but nothing I wanted. What I needed was gone. Since I was raised by the incarnation of hospitality, the drinks people refused to let me get them felt like a slap across the face. Food appeared fully formed on the counters lacking any evidence of preparation by humans. I was told to sit down or talk through my pain instead of molding ingredients together with therapeutic touch. The growing pile of food, disguised as help for my family, resembled a poisoned crumb trail left for more sickeningly over-compassionate intruders to follow.
Why don’t you send me a list of grocery items and I’ll run to the store for you?
Grocery trips are moments to bond with my mother, both in the car and through the aisles. Or at least they were. We talked and sang and planned for the future. Now, these solo trips to the store offer the closest connection I feel to my mother. Don’t take that away from me. You’ll just get the wrong ingredients anyway. She only taught me how.
What can we make for dinner for your family? I don’t want you to trouble yourself.
You don’t want me to go to any trouble to take care of my own father and brother? What the hell kind of daughter would I be if I let that happen? With a glass of chardonnay in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other, I always danced through the kitchen as her sous chef, chopping and slicing and stepping to the beat of Jason Mraz. Don’t take that away from me.
I will take care of them, I promise.
This phrase rebounded in my head like a broken record. Every action of exaggerated compassion for loved ones only made those final words to my mother grow louder. Just let me take care of them. Please.
+ + +
Her gentle placement of dishes on the dinner table or the constant hum of a busy kitchen obliterated the myth that nourishment is our only necessity. Nutrients can be received through a silicone tube, directly to the throat, bypassing the taste buds. The food she provided my family was not just nutrition. She woke up at 6:00am every morning to make me a hot breakfast she knew I preferred, not just to keep me growing. Her packed lunches were not stuffed to overfeed me but made sure no one at my lunch table was left hungry for the day. I did not thrive during my life with her because of the chemical makeup of the food I was given but blossomed from the way in which it was given to me.
Food is not just nourishment. It’s a form of love. Take seafood, for instance. Mom hated seafood, a truth she fully realized only when she arrived at the dinner table in Alaska for her honeymoon. The thought that an ocean-encased piece of land might be rife with seafood never really occurred to her. She only thought about my Dad. Her selflessness and dedication to her family continued to be shown nearly every day, most especially through food. Mom learned how to expertly cook the seafood she detested for her family even though she exaggerated her allergy to shellfish just for an excuse not to eat it. I remember her scrunched up nose and frequent sips of water whenever she peeled shrimp in the sink. The smell consumed the kitchen and forced her into the shower before she could sit down at the dinner table. In the same manner, the mushrooms listed in the beef stroganoff recipe never made it to my bowl. She knew my distaste for them. Even though she also grew up hating the taste, texture and smell of eggs, consequence of the scrambled eggs her mother blended to a pulp and only slightly cooked, eggs appeared several times a week on our breakfast plates. Fried eggs always prepared over easy for my Dad and brother, solid yolks for me, or perhaps just the whites.
The details she paid attention to have been passed down to me. I remember her choices and the way she provided food to those she loved. Each back porch picnic with neighbors and friends offers an opportunity for me to step into her apron and live in her world of hospitality. While some may resent the energy needed for hosting a party, I revel in its detail.
+ + +
I remember the way her wrist accentuated the flip of a metal spatula. How three pancakes fit perfectly on an ancient aluminum griddle. One hand hidden in her bathrobe pocket. I remember the way she leaned against the wooden doorframe, spatula in hand. I remember the way she always burned her own toast. I remember so many things. The way her smile widened at first sight of my morning face, the curled silver strands of hair littered throughout the house, what she sang. I remember her frustrations, the way she hugged her father and waited for a hug back. I remember the way she would rest and put her feet up, two hours before company came. The table set a day prior.
Sitting at the oak dining room table I watched my father’s eyes drift in and out of focus. Forced chatter ricocheted off the walls of our house. Several voices offered me a scone, a glass of lemonade or “anything, anything at all.” But anything was impossible. I wanted her voice in my ears. I wanted a taste of food printed with her touch. I wanted what I could not have. I want it still.
Sarah Kloos is a 2018 graduate from Hobart and William Smith Colleges with a Bachelor of Arts in English. She is currently living and working in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
story art by Esa Grigsby