(Photo: Barbara with her mother and two daughters)
It started as a labor of love, and evolved, gradually, into a weekly endeavor that made me wonder if I had bitten off too much.
As my mom aged and found it harder to bake the brownies, rugelach and chocolate chip cookies we adored, I took up the mantle and dropped off a good supply at her city apartment, two hours from my home in the country.
And then as she became more infirm and less able to stand and cook even the simplest meals, I took to doing most of her grocery shopping and food prep. Initially, her tastes weren’t demanding if there were no Brussels sprouts, eggplant, fennel or garlic. I’d make her favorite Midwestern macaroni and cheese, meat loaf, Julia Child’s more sophisticated boeuf bourguignon and a classic roast chicken filling its cavity with lemon quarters for flavor and surrounding the bird with cut-up vegetables and potatoes.
Her appetite waned as she grew older. She also became lactose intolerant, and I faced the challenge of reading labels and switching to the growing array of products that wouldn’t cause digestive issues, so she still might enjoy her favorite bowl of ice cream as dessert or special treat of an ice cream soda. “I dreamt last night about Schrafft’s (ice cream) sodas,” she told me, and I wondered if it were a dream or a plea. Or, she would share how she and my dad used to go to the now-shuttered Rumplemayer’s on New York’s Central Park South for ice cream on a hot summer night. I purchased all kinds of lactose-free ice cream, made from coconut, soy and almond milks. To her these choices became as precious as gems.
But gradually, her tastes changed, and she craved even more sweets of almost any kind, from New York’s iconic black and white cookies to Oreos, and sugar cookies she took home in a napkin from her temple’s Saturdaymorning Kiddush to squirrel away. She also started asking for ginger ale after never being a soda drinker. I still baked cookies for her but doled them out slowly after her dentist told her she was getting more cavities.
I found myself saying “no” or “you can’t have that” more, including when she requested a piece of a rich chocolate cake I baked for company that she wanted to eat for breakfast. Several friends didn’t understand why I had become a callous member of the food police. “What difference does it make what she eats when she’s 96 (97 or 98)?” they would ask me. I became defensive, even though I knew that the butter, whole milk and heavy cream made her sick, sometimes violently so.
Finally, when my patience with the questions had worn thin, I spoke up to one of her elderly friends, “The next time she gets sick, why don’t you come and clean up after her?” The friend acknowledged that this was a problem for her. For me, it had begun to take its toll. I switched to blander foods—even buying a variety of colorful Jell-Os—lime! orange! and added cut-up bananas to make it seem more exotic, just as she had done when I was growing up.
And then the lack of a filter, which seems to come with aging, reared its ugly head and it was voiced loudly. The result was that I became the one who needed a tougher stomach to withstand the criticisms that came my way—rat-a-tat-tat--frequently like bullets. “You should get your money back for that sticky bun. It was stale,” she recently told me. I had carefully picked it out from the case at a favorite bakery. I sweetly tried to explain that I had nothing to show the store as evidence that it was stale since she had consumed all of it.
Then, out of the blue she asked me not to prepare my homemade macaroni and cheese, once a favorite. “It wasn’t good,” she said, looking annoyed. I was hurt, trying not to take it personally but how could I not? This left me with a bad taste on my tongue. So I asked her, somewhat sheepishly, if she still liked the quiches with different vegetables I devised and my meat loaf that I lovingly shaped into a perfect architectural mound. “Yes,” she replied. I was heartened that not all my culinary talents were scorned.
I enlisted my beau who had started to cook, and together and separately we made soups from scratch so she would have less sodium —mushroom-barley, vegetable, chicken with matzoh balls and a pureed tomato/kale/faro, as well as tomato sauce from my home-grown tomatoes. All were easy to package into individual-size containers for her freezer and refrigerator, so she had something always to eat, especially since she increasingly found walking to a restaurant was too hard.
I took to reading my food magazines and new cookbooks with a focus on what would appeal to her. Melissa Clark’s new book Dinner piqued my interest with so many chicken, pasta and salad recipes. When I prepared a hot dinner and stayed overnight at her home, she seemed delighted and usually commented the next day, “That was a really lovely meal. Thank you.” Momentarily, we were back to the old days.
Yet, I found it harder to maintain the pace of cooking and delivering multiple meals weekly and shared this with my closest circle. Many suggested I switch to one of the city’s prepared food services that could cater to every dietary need and taste. But I knew deep down that the role of chef that I had assumed out of necessity had gradually begun to feed my need to care for her. I was helping my mother still enjoy what I considered—even if she sometimes didn’t--healthy recipes as she enjoyed fewer activities outside her home. Food had become the nourishment we each needed to share our love.