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When I was growing up my mom stayed home. She worked, and worked, and worked. At home. She had 10 children. Twins were born at the end, myself and my sister Wendy. My mom was a master of talking on the phone, cooking, and carrying on multiple conversations with me or one or two of my siblings and looking out for us at the same time.
Before computers and the internet, she was the original multi-tasker.
Her work benefitted me every day. I can’t recall the number of times that I came home from school to the smell of baking bread or homemade cookies, and dinner already in the oven.
I grew up in the kitchen talking to her. All of my best recipes are ones that I inherited from my mom. I remember, without anything written, how to make bread, how to make chocolate chip cookies, how to prepare a roast, how to make pie crust, how to make caramel. You name it, pancakes, waffles, taffy, and caramel popcorn, all from scratch.
My mom doesn’t remember those recipes anymore. She is in her 80s now.
A couple of years ago I called to ask her about a recipe that I used to know by heart: no bake oatmeal cookies. They are simple, delicious goodies prepared on the stove and dropped on wax paper or tin foil (now aluminum) if you must. The recipe used to appear on the underside of the lid. The ingredients are basic: oleo the size of four walnuts, sugar, salt, cocoa, oats, and a touch of vanilla after the mixture has boiled. If you drop them at the right time they look shiny when they set up. The pioneers made them while they traveled from the east to the west. No oven required. It was a recipe that my mom must have made a thousand times.
“I don’t know, Warren,” she said. “I always baked my cookies in the oven.” When I told her that she used to make them, she apologized with tears in her voice. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You’re probably right. I just don’t remember anymore.”
My mom has dementia. With Louis bodies. Not Alzheimer’s like my father had. Dementia like her mom lived with for 15 years into her 90s.
She realizes that her mind is going. She grieves it. She has a hard time saying the names of my sisters who took her to Norway earlier this summer to visit the home of her mother and our ancestors. She can’t recall which of them took her to visit Illinois, a Mecca for the religion that she believes in, a fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
Besides working, working, working at home, she performed in front of audiences. She would edit books down to a 90 minute one-woman show where she would recite the content word for word, interrupted only by musical numbers that she sang or played on her violin. I interviewed her for several days two years ago and asked her how and why she started doing her “book reviews,” as she called them.
“After having you and your sister, I was down in the dumps. I saw a woman give a book review at the library and thought I could do that,” she said. “I had to do something, I felt like my mind was turning to mush.” Quickly, (because she did not want me to think that having so many children wasn’t fulfilling enough or that my birth had caused her a burden,) she added that she loved being a mom but that she felt like she wanted to do something else too.
She gave hundreds of “book reviews,” as she called them, over the next three decades. Better said, she gave hundreds of dramatic literary, musical performances. I was lucky enough to watch her perform them from the time I was in second grade. And I remember.
When I talk with my mom on the phone now, she has to hunt for words. She forgets what we have just talked about. She gets confused. I try to comfort her when she can’t remember, I try to take away some of the embarrassment that she feels when her beautiful mind fails her. She is much more comfortable talking about the distant past.
Now I can’t call my mom for help in the kitchen. Instead, I learn recipes in the grocery line from women who remind me of my mom when it comes to cooking: they love preparing good food from scratch. They give me delectable ideas that I’d never dreamed of before living in Florida. I get recipes by talking to people in Cedar Key and by attending festivals and events throughout Levy County. It’s new and fun for me. I come from a landlocked state, Utah. Having fresh seafood at hand is a completely different experience. What people take for granted here, I had to pay handsomely for in “fancy” restaurants back in the west. Coastal living provides plentiful and inexpensive access to seafood, a luxury that this desert Bedouin appreciates.
Even with all of the new recipes that I’ve tried since moving here, each night as I prepare the dinner meal for my family, often using recipes my mom taught me, I remember conversations that we had while preparing food. Even when I make a recipe that she wouldn’t be familiar with I think of her and what she’d say if she tasted it. Every cooking implement, every smell, every motion contains a memory. I can’t get a wooden spoon out without thinking of her. I’m glad that I remember. When it comes to cooking and my mom, I feel lucky to remember her past too.