When you call, offer to make dinner for the four of you the weekend you and your husband visit your parents. Hear the relief in your mother’s voice as she thanks you. Scour your cookbooks for a special recipe, then make a photocopy to take with you. Gather ingredients at the grocery store. Don’t forget your mother’s pantry will have oils and vinegars and every spice known to man, as she would put it. Saturday, before leaving town, stop by the farmers market for a few last things. Buy a bouquet from the corner stall by the entrance. Add the produce to the cooler in the car, then place the flowers in the jar you’ve filled with a few inches of water and wedged among old towels behind the front passenger seat. It’s a five-hour drive, and you want everything to be fresh when you arrive. The bouquet will fill the car with a heady fragrance. Your nose and eyes will bloom with the scent, and will ever after, recalling this, though it’s been years since you made the drive.
Your parents will be on the lookout for you. Once they sat in the front hall on the steps going upstairs waiting to hear the gravel crunch and see your headlights as you pulled in. Kiss and hug. Hand your mother the bouquet. She will march with purpose to the kitchen for a vase. Follow her with the cooler and bags of food. As you put things in the refrigerator and on the counter, she will want to take a peek. “Mmm,” she will say, “it all looks so good. What are you going to make?”
When you begin to prepare dinner, invite your mother to sit at the kitchen table and keep you company. Remind her it’s her turn to do that now, the way you once did as she cooked. When the food is ready to go into the oven or to cook further on the stovetop, your mother will get up. She will join you between the sink and the stove, in an innate choreography, your familiar pas de deux, washing and drying pots and pans, bowls and utensils, returning them to cupboards and drawers until next time. When she asks what else she can do, say “Nothing.” But let her set the table when she volunteers: fork on the left, napkin folded in a triangle underneath, knife on the right, blade turned in toward the plate, spoon on the outside. You know, just the way she taught you.
Later, after the table is cleared, and the dishes are in the dishwasher, your mother will ask if she can keep the copy of the recipe you set on the counter when you began cooking. Of course she can. “Oh good,” she will say. “I’d like to make this sometime myself.”
Make this a habit: cooking for your mother when you visit. Make it a pact between the two of you. Something that no longer needs to be spoken. When your father becomes the one you call about your upcoming visit, remind him that you will do the cooking. He will be grateful—then sad: “I’ll tell Mom. She’s looking forward to you coming. I am too. But Mom especially.”
Pack everything. Secure the bouquet in the back. Drive five hours. Hug, kiss at the door. Your father will be glad to see you. Your mother will look surprised, or confused. Carry the bouquet into the kitchen, your mother following in a slow shuffle. Invite her to be with you as you cook. She will sit quietly at the table, sometimes present, sometimes lost somewhere you don’t know. You’ll set the table around her. She will tell you how good everything smells and tastes. She will eat with an old gusto.
One day, after your mother is gone, you will return to her kitchen. Gather her Joy of Cooking, long missing its cover; the Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, still dusty with flour; the green spiral notebook embossed with the label Kitchen Secrets and holding recipe cards for holiday meals and special dishes made by friends and family members you never knew. You will also find a manila envelope with recipes catalogued on the front in your mother’s careful hand. Open the envelope, pull out the recipes—some snipped, some clipped, some photocopied, some computer-printed. Here, there, you will find the copies of the recipes you cooked on your visits—French Composed Salad, Spanish Chicken with Saffron Sauce, Chard and Onion Omelet, Parmesan Potato Cake with Prosciutto, Almond Macaroon and Berry Cake—the recipes your mother wanted to keep but lost the time and place to make herself.
You will cry. Cry then. It’s all right to cry.
Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Zan Ready