I miss her fried chicken.
I miss her lasagna.
I miss her dessert inventions.
The fried chicken was brined overnight, battered by hand, and crisped in an ancient cast iron skillet greased with lard. I usually only got such a treat once a year as my birthday supper request. Mary spent the bulk of an afternoon working on it, flour spread about the kitchen, grease splatters near the stove. The results were ethereal: crispy, tasty outside, juicy, tender inside. Heaven.
The lasagna featured a sauce often made at least a day (or a few weeks) before, which gave it time to blossom into bountiful flavor. She made it ten pounds at a time, it seemed. It didn’t come out of the oven so much as it emerged, bubbling with ricotta and mozzarella goodness. When Kelly and I had kids, and when we decided to leave out grains and pasta from our kids’ diets, Mary reinvented the lasagna to include mandolin-thin sliced zucchini, which to our astonishment improved the recipe. She made Dad slice the zucchini.
The desserts…well. Mary had a knack for sweeping together whatever ingredients happened to be around and conjuring out of thin air a delicious treat. It was like a magician’s act: she made cobblers and pies and cakes with whimsy, folding in leftover fruits or spices, anything handy. We never had the same dessert twice, it seemed.
She died the day after St. Patrick’s Day, the day after Dad had taken her to the hospital after she woke up feeling unwell. Cooking was one of Mary’s favorite things to do, and every Sunday evening she fed our family well. That was–and still is–our tradition: Sunday supper was at their house. We never had to bring anything. We always brought home leftovers. Last year, St. Patrick’s Day was a Sunday, so the regular Sunday supper we always ate together was canceled.
An E.R. visit that began as a moderate concern–Mary had a few health issues, and she’d been hospitalized before–accelerated over 36 hours with merciless speed into something that I recognize now as trauma. We awoke that morning not having considered that by day’s end, we would be attending death.
The morning after she died, I went to my father’s house and made him breakfast.
He was sitting on the front porch, lost, moreso than the rest of us. As I went inside and rummaged about the fridge, I saw the potatoes and corned beef and sauerkraut Mary had set aside for our annual St. Patrick’s supper.
I miss her corned beef reubens.
I was a child when Mary first entered our lives, only nine, and so I don’t have a lot of clear memories of what those first years were like. It’s easier to center on the relationship I had with my stepmother as an adult. Not because my relationship with her as a nine or fourteen year-old wasn’t worth remembering, but mostly because it isn’t fair. One, because we were still learning about and figuring each other out, and two, because any criticism I might ever have had about Mary could be matched two-fold by the difficulties I probably radiated as an adolescent boy.
Our adult relationship was different. We enjoyed each other. We laughed about the same things, quoted the same goofy lines from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, appreciated the same jokes. I knew she loved movie theatre popcorn, and wind chimes, and fresh flowers, and garden tomatoes. We were the only two people around who loved chocolate cherry cordials at Christmas, so I always picked up a box from the grocery store, and we spent the holidays eating each one.
She loved our children dearly. (The lasagna is evidence. She changed entire recipes, cooked entirely differently for them.) She laughed with joy when our kids were around. She would hide away little treats for them. She would tell Kelly that she was doing a good job.
If cooking was Mary’s love language, her fluency was beyond any mortal’s comprehension. An offhand comment from one of our kids on Sunday evening would inspire her meal planning first thing Monday morning. If Thomas said he missed Granny’s “tiny beans,” she would begin compiling the list for a pot of baked beans. The woman who helped raise me with a firm hand was suddenly taking short orders from our toddler son.
Sunday supper was our family’s weekly moment of zen, our chance to gather around the kitchen and spend time together. Mary’s greatest lesson to me is the importance of creating that recurring touchstone, of providing the lure to being there, of always planning for the next meal.
Dad cooks Sunday supper now, and often someone will bring something along. Sometimes, we’ll bring a side dish. Brian and Heather will bring roasted vegetables. My stepsister, Andrea, will bring a cake. And Kelly has taken to cooking supper for Dad one evening during the week. The meals are different–everything is different–but that’s not important. It’s that we are still there, where we belong, together.
For the first few months, we all had to deal with what to do with the meals she had made and frozen, each package marked in her handwriting. We knew not to waste them, but we also weren’t ready for them all to disappear. Dad eventually made the corned beef, potatoes, and cabbage that Mary was going to make before she died. Day by day, week by week, we learned and processed and adjusted to a fractured world that still somehow turns.
I struggled all year to write here about what it meant to lose my stepmother. Whenever I attempted to do one of the things I do best–that is, to set down something appropriate in writing–the effort quickly became too heavy. I rarely made it past the first paragraph. A couple of weeks ago, I found myself longing for lasagna, and that was my entree into these paragraphs*.
In the corner of the kitchen is a candid snapshot I took of Dad and Mary one Thanksgiving. Dad’s preparing to carve the turkey, and she’s watching him like a hawk. It’s her turkey, the look suggests–she’d spent the time preparing it and tending it as it baked throughout the day–and he’d better not mess it up.
These days we keep our eyes open and look for and welcome that warm feeling on our shoulders, that light that shines down on us. Every day, every meal, every gathering at the table, we are putting to work the truths that Mary taught us, doing all we can to carry on, to make her proud.
*I can confidently assure you that pun would have made Mary’s eyes roll.