Brilliance Fades, But the Recipes Remain
‘All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia. With Refreshments’
How many of us, when, as children, we first became aware of death also implicitly understood the order of things—that, we would, most likely, have to lose our parents before we faced the Grim Reaper ourselves? Author Alex Witchel was preoccupied with that potential loss from an early age. “When I was younger and I used to cry, afraid of death in general but of Mom’s in particular,” she writes, “she would just laugh. ‘I don’t have time to die,‘ she’d proclaim.“ That‘s the admission that got me—or, it’s the first of a number of admissions that got me—as I read this memoir. We may, as kids, always know, in the backs of our minds, that one day our parents will leave us. For awhile, we’re usually able to keep that knowledge at bay. But it resurfaces. It becomes harder to ignore as we—and our parents—get older.
When my father’s father died, I cried more than I’d expected to. I wasn’t close to my grandfather. The tears weren’t so much for him; they were for my father, for his loss, and for the next logical loss—mine, of him—in a future less distant than before. My grandfather died of Alzheimer’s disease. It was painful to watch him go through that, and, of course, to watch my dad have to take care of his father as the disease took its toll. Maybe that’s why Ms. Witchel’s account of losing her mother to Dementia had such a strong impact on me. Or, maybe, it’s because she’s as good a storyteller as she is a daughter who wants only to recapture and record her mother’s life. Or, maybe it’s because she uses the 20 recipes her mom left her to conjure the latter’s spirit. I’ll let you decide as you read the following excerpt—Chapter 2—from All Gone (Riverhead Trade; Oct. 2013)
My first memory of my mother is of her standing in front of the open refrigerator, head thrown back, laughing. She is huge—tall and rounded under a great swath of flannel; she must have been pregnant with my brother Greg. She is holding a glass bottle of milk—this was when we lived in our house on Terhune Avenue in Passaic, New Jersey, in the days when the butter-and-egg man left his delivery at the side door.
Why was he called that, I wanted to know, when all he brought us was milk, and Mom bought her butter and eggs at the supermarket? Because in the old days, Mom said, before there were supermarkets, he would bring butter and eggs to your home. Delivering milk was an innovation that let him compete with the milkman. So even though he brought milk, he was still not the milkman. In our house, it was always the old days.
That I asked the question, though, was what made her happy. Getting to the bottom of things was a worthy pursuit. Every day when she and I would come home from school, she would sit me down at the kitchen table. “Tell me everything that happened today,” she’d say. That meant recounting every last moment, starting with the school bus that morning. If she asked questions, I had to have answers. She praised me for my recall, for noticing tiny details.
She always liked telling her own story about bringing me home from the hospital as a newborn. “Your father and I were sitting at the breakfast table and I looked over at your carriage”—she drew herself up, surprised—“and there you were, lifting your head up, trying to see what was going on. Three days old and you didn’t want to miss a thing. So alert!”
“Alert,” “bright,” “aware”—these were the words that made my mother happiest. “Quick on the uptake” was another pet phrase. Anything that proved you were on top of your game. Not that you were “doing your best”—a slick excuse in her book—but that your best got results. On the first day of school, Mom would kiss each of us, hold our heads in her hands while looking deep into our eyes, and say, “May you be brilliant.”
The first rule of brilliance, certainly, was knowing that Mom was always right. She lived her life as an act of will, and her will was formidable. My father posed as the ultimate authority, as most fathers did once upon a time. But a few well-placed whacks aside, Mom ran the show. “Did you wash your hands?” she would ask us routinely. We stopped saying yes routinely when she made us hold them out, palms up, in order to gauge the degree of gray, then flip them, to spy the telltale grime beneath the nails. She peered deep inside our ears, wielding Q‑tips. When we protested, she told us that if she didn’t clean them out, peas and carrots would grow there. She washed our hair in the bath, which we hated, tipping our heads back and back to rinse out the suds with cupfuls of water. When we complained, she said that if our hair got too dirty, it would get up and walk off our heads. Every day, she would stand me in front of her and run her thumbs over my eyebrows, training them to go in the right direction, she claimed. No detail was too small for her inventory. Even in my incipiently bratty teenage years, when she signed off on a letter she sent me at sleepaway camp as “The One Who Always Knows Best,” I did not scoff at her use of rhetoric. I accepted the self-designated title as the statement of fact I knew it to be.
She was meticulous in the way she dressed, and in the way she dressed us. I remember her lifting me off her in the front seat of the car on a summer day, catching my swinging feet in one hand, and setting me back down, none too gently, beside her. She was wearing a white pleated skirt, and I must have been climbing on her in that unconscious way kids do, as if their parents are well-padded jungle gyms built specifically for their use. Somehow I hadn’t considered that the soles of my shoes were a potential danger to the skirt. I assumed Mom would remain perfectly Mom, in spite of my transgressions.
The rigor of her work schedule shaped our days. Mornings were a blur of fights about oatmeal, Wheatena, or Cream of Wheat, which she served salted, a cold lump of butter melting into a pool of yellow slime at the center of the bowl. I refused to eat any of them. Finally, both of us would have to leave for school. I would leave tearstained but triumphant. It was one of the few things she couldn’t break me on.
Mom was not home most days when our school ended, but she found a way to turn every minute of our downtime into activities. I had Hebrew school and Brownies, ballet and piano lessons, and Monday afternoons at the public library. Evenings were an early dinner for me, Greg, and Mom, followed by baths that were simultaneously spelling bees. There I wormed my way back into her heart after the hot cereal standoffs of the morning. I was good.
Her greatest, and vainest, hope was to dump us in bed by seven, so she could unfurl her papers—exams to grade or her doctoral thesis in progress—across the expanse of the dining room table. We had other ideas. The first was awaiting the arrival of my father, who came home to a plate of food that looked infinitely more wonderful than ours ever did. Mom saved him the biggest, most burnished piece of meat, the fluffiest pile of mashed potatoes. I eyed that plate like I hadn’t eaten in weeks, begging for tastes, which he gladly gave me. Often he brought home some exotic piece of fruit for dessert—mango, papaya, one time even a coconut that required a hammer to crack it open. She may have resented his sabotaging our bedtime, but in our house nothing but God was holier than education, and even tropical fruit was education of a sort. We made it to bed soon thereafter, and Mom’s papers unfurled only slightly behind schedule. She managed never to be more than momentarily derailed in the endless budgeting of her time or the equally endless minding of our manners.
She was adamant on good posture and our saying “yes” in answer to a question, never “yeah.” “Please,” “Thank you,” and “Excuse me” were mandatory. When I see children now running rampant through restaurants or whining at their mother as she speaks to another adult—
or, God forbid, pulling at her sleeve—I think of my mother and fear for their lives.
Outbursts or interruptions from her own children evoked The Look: tight mouth, slightly narrowed eyes telegraphing an absence of mirth tinged with the long dark shadow of eternal damnation. To be on the receiving end of The Look was worse than an actual punishment; hanging in the balance between Mom’s good graces and bad was an excruciating purgatory where the dread of the potential fall was its own particular pain. She had no hesitation about spanking us, yanking us, or yelling at us if we misbehaved. And if someone else’s children misbehaved, she felt free to spank, yank, or yell at them, too. She just missed the current fashion of not disciplining other people’s children, and I have no doubt she would have scorned it. In her book, bad behavior was bad behavior, and the only way to eradicate it was to punish it, especially if others were too soft—or lazy—to do the job themselves.
She turned her own downtime into activities, too. At the house on Terhune Avenue, she kept a lush flower garden that ran the entire length of the backyard. She spent hours out there on her knees, ministering to a rosebush or a row of hyacinths, her rough gloves encased in dirt, using her forearm to scratch her nose, the same way she would in the kitchen when her hands were full of onions. In the colder months, she volunteered, reading books for the blind. When she was seven months pregnant with Emmett, she went up and down the block to every house in the neighborhood with a political petition. When she sat in front of the TV, she hooked rugs. And in her spare time—when was that, exactly?—she took a sculpture class.
She could be as hard on us as she was on herself, but most of the time she treated us more kindly and gently. She would spend hours coloring with me, and even when my periwinkle Crayola went outside the lines, she praised my efforts effusively. She bought me Meet the Beatles! letting me play it over and over again, and took me to see the movie version of The Odd Couple at night, like a grown‑up. She taught me how to play checkers and chess and never to cheat at Monopoly. When she took me with her on her errands, we often ended up side by side at the counter of a candy store in Passaic, watching our chocolate malted drop, as if in slow motion, from the metal canister into our waiting glasses.
On Halloween, she could make me look like a cat with only an eye pencil, and was so delighted by her handiwork that she called me Pussycat forever after. When she put makeup on me, just for fun, she could see into the future, how pretty I would be when I grew up. She dabbed my wrists with Joy, as she did her own, and when she went out at night she also put some behind her knees. “Someone lovely just walked by,” she’d say, laughing at how silly that was. But she said it every time, which was part of the fun. She was fierce in her protection of us, and I was equally fierce in my devotion to her.
She was smarter than Donna Reed, even nicer than June Cleaver, and if not quite as hilarious as Lucille Ball, no less resourceful. One time she needed a new outfit—maybe for a presentation or a class. We sat around, just us girls, scheming about how she would persuade Dad to pay for it. I had recently compiled a list of odd jobs I could charge for, and to it I’d added Problem Solving, 1 cent. She tried me out, but in the end it was her plan that prevailed. When Dad got home, she said, she would put on some music to relax him, then sit and talk to him in the living room. It sounded like a movie. I was dying to see it.
That night, I slipped out of bed and crouched midway down the stairs leading to the living room. There was music. There was conversation. I couldn’t hear much of it, but it sounded boring. No mention of clothes. I went to bed. The next morning, I braced myself for defeat. “All set,” she said, smiling. I was awestruck. She could get exactly what she wanted by talking about something else? She was magical.
I wanted to be magical, too. In the backyard one day I told her I was going to become a doctor and needed to examine her. She seemed quite interested in this news. I asked her to raise her arm, which she did, and I scrutinized the stubble in her armpit, murmuring some diagnosis. She burst out laughing. I was crushed. This was not funny! She was working so hard to become a doctor, I wanted to be a doctor, too! Frustrated, I stopped scrutinizing her armpit and started punching it. I can still see the lawn passing beneath my squalling face as she hauled me back to the house and dumped me in solitary.
The one thing she remained resolutely humorless about was honesty. She loved it when the things I told her about my day made her laugh—that is, if they were true. To be clear, what she loved was accurate reporting. She did not love storytelling. Making things up was a sucker’s way out.
I learned that lesson hard and early on the unfortunate day I told my first-grade class that sheep lived in our basement. That was not my finest hour, but I was suffering envy in the extreme. My teacher, Mrs. Israel, had asked each of us to describe our pets. One after the other, kids talked about their dogs and cats and hamsters and turtles—which were legal then, I know, because we had two of them until Mom moved the couch to vacuum and squashed one into the wall-to-wall carpeting.
The other kids told story after story featuring frisky puppies chasing balls or backlit aquariums adorned with zebra-striped fish and miniature castles moored in the sand. Finally, there was Stacy Silverstein, who had a Saint Bernard. She said he was so big she could climb onto his back and ride him like a horse. Well, I knew I’d never succeed in persuading my parents to get a Saint Bernard, but in the unlikely event I did, I would never be allowed to ride him like a horse. We had no dogs of any kind, and no cats, either, because Dad was allergic to them—or he claimed to be. I suspect he was allergic to the cost of their upkeep.
Our sole pet, after the demise of the turtles (the second one must have died of loneliness, or fear of the vacuum cleaner), was a yellow parakeet named Specksie. This was after Mom’s childhood dog, who was black and white and had specks around his face that looked like freckles. It was not an imaginative name for a dog, but at least it was a logical one. Specksie the bird had no specks. No matter where I stood, she made no eye contact. The only thing she ever did that was remotely interactive was to escape her cage when it was being cleaned and fly to the top of the drapes in the living room. This sent both my parents into waves of hysteria, because the last thing the living room was meant for was living. It was mostly for show, and the show did not feature avian excrement.
So Specksie was a bust on the companion front, though I did think of her years later while interviewing a woman for a magazine piece. She told me that if you took the name of your first pet and paired it with the name of the first street you lived on, that would be your stripper name. Which meant that if I had ever become a stripper, my name would be Specksie Terhune.
But in first grade, I had no idea about strippers. All I cared about was competing in the sweepstakes for the greatest pet of our times. I raised my hand and announced that in our basement lived a family of sheep. There was a mother sheep and a father sheep and four baby sheep. I described them in great detail—their curly white hair and black hooves and bulging eyes that looked like grapes. Mrs. Israel’s own eyes bulged as she asked me question after question. I answered them all.
And then the bell rang and I forgot about it. I went home for lunch, where Mom was actually in residence that day, serving peanut butter and jelly on Wonder Bread and pouring milk, just like Donna Reed without the apron. I always wished she would cut the crusts off the Wonder Bread, like some other mothers did, which made the sandwiches seem like more fun, but she found that wasteful. So while I chewed the crusts dutifully, the phone rang and she left the table for what turned into an awfully long time. I heard her voice in the other room shift from bright and cheery to low and serious, with lots of drawn-out hmmmms. Then she was back. In those days, she wore her hair in a black Jackie bubble and sported glittery blue cat-eye glasses that looked pretty with her red lipstick. But at that moment, her red lipstick was not smiling and the glasses took on a sinister glint. I stopped chewing.
That was Mrs. Israel on the line, Mom said. She had been so taken by my account of the sheep in the basement that she wanted to arrange a field trip for the class to visit them. What did they eat? she’d wanted to know. How often? Did they go into the yard for exercise?
In retrospect, I have to wonder whether Mrs. Israel was one gullible broad, or saw me for the bold-faced liar I was and called Mom to bust me. I never did find out. After an endless session of sheep interrogation, Mom delivered her verdict: overactive imagination. Well, okay, maybe I did have one. What was wrong with that? What was wrong, she countered, was that it was just another way of saying I was a liar. And how many times had she told me that lying was a sin, equaled perhaps by no other?
I had quite a few days to ponder that question, since whenever she was mad at me Mom gave me the silent treatment. I chose the basement as the appropriate site to lick my psychic wounds. This was a finished basement, as it was called, with a bar built into one wall. The bar remained distressingly bare for the five years we lived in that house; in their early married years, my parents prided themselves on their abstemiousness when it came to hard liquor in the home.
Anyway, my point about the basement was the floor. It was covered in some sort of green rubber and branded in the middle with a big black swirling P, enclosed in a circle. That was for
Pashman, which was the name of the family from whom my parents had bought the house. Why hadn’t they changed it to a W when we moved in? I had asked. Too expensive was the answer. The eternal answer.
Well, my six-year-old self reasoned, down there in the cold green Siberia of the former Pashman residence, was it not a lie that we lived in a house identified with the wrong letter? If it said P, didn’t that mean it was still the Pashman house, and they could move back any time they liked? What about that? Maybe those sheep belonged to the Pashmans.
I don’t remember making much progress with that argument. Then, when my report card came, I got a “Needs Improvement” in “Following Directions,” which, on top of my overactive imagination, just about did Mom in. So she established some structure. That was when she instituted the Monday trips to the library, where I would take out exactly six books. Until I could read alone, Mom read them to me, one a day for a week with one day off for good behavior. When I could read on my own, I had to finish all the books I had chosen, or present a full-blown case for an exemption, which might or might not be granted.
Then, errands. Mom ran lots of errands and she took me with her. It was her job to shop for the family and make sure everything in the house worked, and she made sure I understood that, too. First we would go to the butcher. The butcher shop was one of those battlefields that Mom was forever fighting on. You would think she could simply say, “I want four rib-eye steaks,” and watch the butcher lift them from the glass case. But no. Nothing in the front of the shop was good enough. That was for the goyim, those sad fools who didn’t know the difference between good meat and great. (Why non-Jews would be shopping in a kosher butcher shop that was more expensive than a non-kosher butcher shop and was missing so many delicious meats and appealing cuts was never explained.) The great meat was always in the back, tucked out of sight. Fresh. Special. If you were in the know, you requested to have it cut in front of you.
Mom did not manufacture this myth herself. Nana, my father’s mother and the greatest cook in the family, thought this, too, and so did the other women at the synagogue. All these years later I can only surmise that the poor butcher kept most of his inventory in the back so that when these lunatics approached he could give them the exact same thing everyone else got, except that he walked three extra steps for it, which made them happy. What made me happy was that every time I came in, he put a fat bologna in the slicer and handed over a floppy piece, wide and pink and fragrant with garlic. That slice of bologna was one of the most perfect foods I would ever eat, and I knew that at the age of six as immutably as I knew my own name.
On Thanksgiving, we picked up our specially ordered turkey—stowed in the back with all the rest of them—then went on to the florist for the centerpiece. Mom oohed and aahed over every last arrangement as I stared at the tightly curled long-stem roses behind the closed glass doors, because I didn’t care about plants and pots and dirt like she did. At last she would take her cornucopia, a dark brown wicker horn filled with autumn leaves and rust-colored chrysanthemums and yellow and white carnations, and hold it stiffly in front of her, while the owner rushed to open the door. When I grew older and discovered from posh people who Know About Flowers that carnations are cheap and repellent, I was chagrined. They always smelled clean and gardenfresh and looked like the best party you could ever look forward to. I loved them.
If it was an ordinary day of errands, we’d skip the florist and stop at the dry cleaner. The shop was stifling, and I hated the whirring of the mechanized rack and the hot chemical breath of the plastic-wrapped clothes as they whipped around. Once, when we got back into the car, Mom discovered that the man behind the counter had given her four dollars change from the ten she gave him to pay for eight dollars’ worth of cleaning.
“You made two dollars!” I crowed.
“No, I did not.” The iron door of disapproval slammed down.
“Listen to me,” Mom said. “That man is in business to support his family. He has children just like you to feed and clothe. He made a mistake giving me too much change, and if I take it, that money comes out of his family’s expenses. We are going back.” Okay, okay. I could not, would not, tell a lie.
Inside the house, Mom’s biggest responsibility was cooking. With the exception of the all-too-
Infrequent pot of My‑T‑Fine chocolate pudding, which she allowed me and Greg to stir, she and I never cooked together because she never considered cooking fun. It was her obligation to feed four, then (as Phoebe and Emmett came along), five and six people, three times a day. By Sunday brunch, except on the special occasions when there were bagels and lox, you could actually taste the hostility she imparted to a tomato omelet: the pale, cottony tomato shedding clumps of watery seeds into the rubbery mat of eggs expressed exactly what she thought about every single one of us at that moment when she would rather have stayed in bed.
Though she did teach me how to bake cookies and tell when a cake was done, she generally encouraged me to learn by osmosis, watching her. Occasionally I had a brainstorm on her behalf, like spiking the pot of Le Sueur peas with a few shots of A. 1. sauce; though come to think of it, she never asked me to repeat that one. Mostly, she cooked and I watched.
Though Mom could be fearless when cooking from scratch—the homemade crepes for her cheese blintzes were a thing of beauty to behold—she usually favored shortcuts. Like most women of her generation, she was obsessed with convenience foods—frozen or canned vegetables, bottled salad dressing, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, and Accent, the now reviled MSG. The bomb-shelter mentality of the late 1950s and early 1960s pervaded our house; Del Monte was her farmer’s market. Everything was in season, and syrup, all the time.
The worst food product (or imitation food product) Mom insisted on using was Bac‑Os, which were made with soybeans and were the color of dried blood. She mixed them into scrambled eggs because they were supposed to taste like bacon. Their meatless, acrid saltiness tasted nothing like bacon. Just hearing her shake them from the jar into a bowl of beaten raw eggs was an invitation for Sunday night blues to begin at noon.
Along with her fondness for synthetic food products, Mom loved modern gadgets, like her electric can opener, a contraption I never understood. Using it took the same amount of time as the manual one did. Also in this category was the electric carving knife, operated by Dad, which seemed most effective as a shredder. But these are people who slept with electric blankets, so at least they were consistent.
Mom dealt with the drudgery of her kitchen chores by plotting two great escapes each week: dinner out on Fridays and Sundays. Early on, she and Dad fell into the pattern of claiming alone time on Friday nights; he would go to his health club after work, or to see a foreign movie that didn’t interest her. She would take Greg and me out to dinner—at least until Phoebe and Emmett came along, by which time she was just as glad to collapse in front of Dallas.
But back then she drove a convertible, silver with red leather seats. She’d wrap a scarf around her hair and put the top down, signaling the start to a great adventure. Tonight it might be Pompeii Pizza, where Greg and I would each get a slice, a Coke, and a quarter for the jukebox. Or Giuliano’s, where we two kids would eat pizza but she would pull out the stops for sausage and peppers with spaghetti on the side. The highlight of Giuliano’s was the wishing well at the entrance, its bubbling water lit pink, piles of pennies twinkling at its depths. Then there was Ding Ho Palace, where she and Greg would start with spare ribs and I ate an egg roll before we moved on to her favorite, lobster Cantonese. Wherever our evenings started, they usually ended at Dairy Queen in a haze of bliss.
Sunday dinners always included Dad and ranged from deli to fancy French or Italian, the latter usually reserved for birthdays or other special occasions. Whatever the restaurant, we were not allowed to order from the children’s menu, a point on which Dad was even more strict than Mom. Dining out was an opportunity for education, and he didn’t want it wasted on a hamburger. Mom would always begin with a cocktail—Dewar’s on the rocks with a splash of soda and a twist of lemon—and always end with dessert—chocolate cake, chocolate mousse, or banana splits with hot fudge.
Wherever she ate, in fact, Mom’s daily reward was something sweet. Sugar was the chink in her armor. She kept an entire kitchen drawer stocked with a rotating selection of Oreos, Vienna Fingers, and Mallomars, and every Friday she bought her “downfall” from the Scarsdale Pastry Center: a loaf of marble cake coated in dark chocolate. There was never an evening school event that didn’t end at Baskin-Robbins, and never a breakfast in a diner without waffles crowned with butter and syrup or, even better, whipped cream. When the concept of junk food was introduced in the 1970s, it made almost no impression on her. She stocked the kitchen drawer the same as always, though she was forced to replace Oreos with Hydrox when Oreos stopped being kosher for a while. She did start to bake a few things herself—like mandelbrot from a Manischewitz mix that had all the same additives the packaged cookies had.
Diets were more theoretical than actual in our house, the continual talk about them a low-
Grade lament, background music to both snacking and feasting. Mom tried Weight Watchers when she was pregnant with Emmett. It kept her weight gain reasonable, but once he was born, her efforts to stick with it were spotty. Once I became a teenager, I joined in. For me, the Scarsdale Diet was the worst; that water-packed canned tuna with lemon and vinegar lunch on Mondays was so upsetting. Lemon and vinegar? Was that really necessary?
Trying out for cheerleading in high school, I went to a practice at another girl’s house. When we took a break, I reached for one of the cookies her mom had left on the kitchen table. Two of the girls physically recoiled, so repelled were they by my vulgar appetite. One of them had been on the cover of Seventeen magazine, which made her the gold standard for all things beauty-related, so of course I was instantly disgraced. I was also surprised. I thought skinny girls were born skinny and stayed that way, eating anything they wanted. Mom always talked about having a fat gene, and I knew that having one meant that diets worked only so much; there was nothing really to be done. Nor was there anything to be done about my lack of coordination. I did not become a cheerleader.
I eventually took up jogging, as was the fashion then. Surprisingly, Mom joined in for about a year, mustering her famous will, losing weight and looking fabulous. She cut down on smoking so she wouldn’t gasp her way around the track at the high school where we ran. But soon enough, her innate orneriness kicked in. The elemental idiocy of running in circles rankled her. The pack mentality ended up irritating her, as it usually did. She retired her sneakers, lit a More cigarette—the longest ones on the market—and settled into her black leather recliner with a vodka and grapefruit juice in an icy wineglass. What do the doctors know anyway? she would snort. After all, when her grandmother, my great-grandma Tessie, turned eighty, hadn’t she famously polished off six bagels with cream cheese and lox at her birthday party, not to die until eighty-eight, after breaking a hip?
That was Mom’s role model, certainly. When I was younger and I used to cry, afraid of death in general but of Mom’s in particular, she would just laugh. “I don’t have time to die,” she’d proclaim. And she never did seem to get sick. During the sixty years she smoked half a pack a day, I remember her having a cold or sore throat only a handful of times, and the flu, never. She annually postponed her annual checkups. In the mid-1980s, when her doctor told her she was morbidly obese, she shrugged. Ran in the family. Sure, she had chronic bellyaches—“aggravation, that’s why”—so she kept Maalox in every bag she owned, briefcase or peau de soie. If she didn’t feel well, her fallback position was to take a hot shower and two aspirin. She’d revive, like a plant. The woman was unstoppable.
Or at least I thought she was. Until that moment in Weinberger’s office when she placed the bags of pills on the desk. Before that day she never let me accompany her to a doctor. She hadn’t wanted Dad to go with her, either. Why should she? Was she a child? There wasn’t the slightest thing wrong with her.
Really? Then why was she so tired?
I believed her.
When I finally realized she needed real help, I centralized her care at Mount Sinai, where I could keep track of who was doing what and why.
A CT scan ordered by Weinberger showed she had suffered ministrokes, transient ischemic attacks. The scar tissue the strokes left in Mom’s brain was anything but mini; because of its location, it was not only impairing her memory but trapping her in a state of exacerbated depression. Additionally, her circulation was poor enough that she required aortobifemoral bypass surgery. This referred to the aorta located in the abdomen (who knew?) that was blocked, so blood was not flowing to her lower extremities. She needed prosthetic veins transplanted in her abdomen and down through her legs to move the blood or she risked amputation.
Clearly, we needed to act quickly. For the mood and memory problems, Weinberger referred us to Martin Goldstein, a doctor new to Mount Sinai. He was both a psychiatrist and a neurologist, reputedly brainy and cutting-edge. He would part the Red Sea, and we would walk through it.
When we sat down in Goldstein’s office for the first time, I watched Mom size him up. He was young, good-looking, and shy, short on eye contact and long on medical jargon. As he explicated the CT scan on a computer screen before us, he looked up for a split second. “Are you married?” Mom asked. I shot her my version of The Look, incredulous and warning. She widened her eyes innocently in return.
Goldstein blushed. “No, I’m not,” he said courteously, smiling just a bit. From then on he addressed her directly. Soon, she started answering. As a lifelong reader of Scientific American, my mother appreciated a good brain image herself. When we left, he called her Dr. Witchel. Her face changed, and for a moment, it seemed she might cry. I could see her remember she actually was Dr. Witchel.
I so wanted her to be. And with a purse full of prescriptions—the right prescriptions at the right dosage—maybe she would be again. We left the office and I walked her to the corner, where she caught a cab to Grand Central. I went home. An hour or so later, the phone rang.
“Alex? It’s Dad. I just got a phone call from the doorman at the apartment building next to the doctor’s office. He found your mother’s wallet on the sidewalk.”
“He did? I was with her in front of that building and had no idea that happened. Where is she now? How is she going to get home?”
“Beats me. I haven’t heard from her.”
He did soon after. He drove in and picked her up, then together they retrieved her wallet.
It turned out that when she got to Grand Central and realized the wallet was gone, she explained this to her cabdriver and promised to send him a check, taking his name and address. The next day Mom put cash in an envelope and mailed it. “He was such a nice man,” she told me. “I’m sure he thought he’d never see a dime.”
“I thought you were sending him a check,” I said.
She hesitated. “I don’t want to identify myself,” she said curtly.
“By the way,” I asked, “how did you manage to call Dad?” Neither of my parents used a cell phone.
Her voice was small. “The driver,” she said. “He gave me a quarter.”
In 1997, still firm in the belief that my mother could be found on the other end of the phone for all eternity, I had asked her, as a birthday present to me, to write down twenty of her recipes. We’re talking basic 1950s housewife food, kosher division—roast chicken, spaghetti and meat sauce, brisket. With a few exceptions, I had never gotten much past the meat loaf. My limited success had made me cocky: I was her and she was me, and if and when I decided to try out other of her dishes, I’d have the same results she did.
I had yet to attempt her chicken soup, the three-day affair she made for Rosh Hashanah and Passover, echt Jewish Mommy food. Simon first tasted it when he was six, and we all laughed, watching him scrape at the flowers imprinted on the bottom of the bowl to get the last drop.
Nor had I made the chicken and prunes, another all-time favorite. Think of it as the shtetl antecedent to The Silver Palate’s celebrated Chicken Marbella. It’s a chicken cut in quarters, cooked in a pot with onions, salt, and pepper, the prunes thrown in toward the end for a sweet counterpoint, served on white rice. The last time Mom made it for me was in 2001, the year I later learned she had had her first strokes. The chicken was good, but I was both distracted and disturbed by the Minute Rice she made to go with it, instead of her own. It was chalk white and tasted vaguely synthetic, each grain standing separate and alien from the others. It was easier, she said with a shrug, annoyed I had even mentioned it. I often think of that rice and wonder why I didn’t recognize it as the harbinger of disaster it was, the culinary equivalent of the mismatched buttons on my dress. What constituted chaos for me.
I kept telling myself I would try these recipes and they would be just as I remembered. Or if for some reason they weren’t, I would do as Mom instructed in the note she enclosed with the folder: My darling Alex, Here are the recipes you requested. Try them, adjust seasoning to taste, call me if these don’t work. Happy, Happy Birthday! Love, Mom.
But as the years passed, I didn’t try them. I didn’t want to eat them without her. Part of the power of home cooking is that everything tastes better when someone else makes it for you. But the other part is being together, sharing it. The farthest I was willing to go was to make her dishes while I had her on the phone, complaining all the while about the inaccuracy of her measurements while she just laughed. “So if you want more salt, use more salt!” she’d say. That was the closest we came to cooking together, and she still didn’t find it fun.
These days, when I make her food, watching the familiar dishes take shape over the heat, smelling the signature Mom‑is‑home aromas that signaled safe harbor at the end of the day, it brings her nearer, yes. But even as I imagine her over my shoulder, watching me as I used to watch her, I know I am cooking alone. It is not home cooking without the home. She cooked for me because she loved me and wanted to take care of me so I would grow up to be big and strong. And I thought I had done just that, until it came time for me to take care of her.
Chicken with Prunes
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper, plus more as needed
1 chicken (about 4 pounds), quartered
2 medium onions, finely diced
26 pitted prunes
White rice, for serving
Place a kettle of water on high heat to bring to a boil. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix together the paprika, garlic powder, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper. Thoroughly dust all sides of the chicken pieces with the mixture and set aside.
Spread the onions across the bottom of a Dutch oven or other large, deep pot with a tight-fitting lid. Arrange the chicken pieces in a single layer on top of the onions. Add boiling water until it comes halfway up the sides of the chicken, being careful not to get water on top of the chicken.
Place over high heat to bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, covered, for 45 minutes. Taste broth and adjust salt. Cook, covered, for another 15 minutes and correct for salt again. If the broth is still light yellow, increase heat and boil, uncovered, until the liquid has deepened in color, about 5 minutes.
Add prunes, submerging them in the liquid; if necessary, add just enough water to cover the prunes. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 25 minutes. Taste broth and add salt if needed.
Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Remove cooled chicken from the pan and discard skin and bones. Return the meat to the liquid with the prunes. Reheat and serve over rice.