Wednesday, March 30, 2016

mashed potatoes

In most cases the progression of Parkinson’s includes dementia but that’s almost too simplistic to describe the hallucinatory dissociation and drug induced psychosis that was part of my mother’s increasing isolation and grim prospects. At some point she drifted from lucid to lost but even then, if I hung on her words I could shuffle them into something resembling conversation. I’d sit close leaning in my ear and guess at her mumbles and every so often I’d lean even closer and whisper I was sorry her life was so hard. It went on like this for years. Long spells without coherence. Her eyes shut, her face a twisted grimace, and then miraculously she'd look me in the eye and say clear as day she wished she were dead. 

Mostly, until the end, she knew who I was and I would feel that maybe, if nothing else, I brightened her day. You might call it love, but there was bleakness, and below that a layer of magical thinking; as if my presence could reverse broken neurons, as if it were a matter of will for her to pull herself together. As she lay finally dying the hospice nurses wanted to give her morphine to ease her passing. I withheld permission. I wanted her suffering over, I’d been saying that for years, but I wanted more to hold on to the dream that she’d wake up and tell me something. A loving last word. 

Making and eating her food memorializes her. The way the taste of foods I haven’t eaten for years carries me through time helps bypass the black hole of illness. 

Trying to remember everyday routines I close my eyes and imagine the kitchen of my childhood home. At the top of the room an assembly of avocado pits rooting in murky water sit on the sill of the air shaft window. Jammed down the narrow length of the room a four burner gas range and a chipped enamel sink face the harvest-gold floor-to-ceiling cabinets and the noisy Frigidaire. Some years there was a caged parakeet on top of the fridge--Skipper 1, Skipper 2 and so on. At the far other end there was the broom closet and the wall phone with its perpetually twisted cord, with a notepad and pencils tucked neatly on the counter. 

I see the white formica table and moulded swivel chairs in the center of the room but I don’t see us. I have no memories of arguing with my sister over who set or cleared, no memories of eating as a family. I can't recall what we spoke about around that table. The image of the kitchen is silent except for a memory of the ticking Modernist clock with no numbers that made it so hard for me to learn to tell time.    

What I can summon clearly are memories of things cooking—flank steak marinated in garlic powder and soy sauce, charred on a warped cookie sheet. A roasting pan with permanently blackened corners filled with chicken breasts topped with lemon rounds and parsley, and the ever present saucepan simmering, brimming with potatoes, or spaghetti, or stew. 

After my mother remarried and I went to college and they moved from the west-side to a smaller apartment on the east-side and my mother did less cooking, that saucepan moved to their week-end house upstate. There, the scuffed dented workhorse with its ill-fitting lid took on a patina of calcified lime from the well-water used for boiling, and when it came time years later to sell the house, the pot was relegated to the pile for the auctioneer. The stigma surrounding aluminum cookware and Alzheimer’s, even if discounted by further studies was enough for me to let it go.

Now, I wanted to make mashed potatoes the way my mother made mashed potatoes, and that is when I was hit with the longing that is grief. I couldn’t make potatoes because I didn’t have her pot. Of course I can cook them in my fancy stainless steel, or if I’d wanted to snap a genuine looking photo for this collection of stories I could stop by the thrift shop and pick up something old for nothing, but that's not the point. It is her pot I want and I made the mistake of letting it go.

1 comment:

  1. The patina of calcified lime a metaphor for the patina on her neurons, disrupting signal transmission, isolating her. I dread the day we'll have to clean my mother's kitchen. It includes the old food mill she used to mash potatoes.