Mom (Patricia Brachowski Ryan) Peeling Potatoes
From Maureen’s upcoming “cookbook memoir” How She Fed Us: Reflections on the Recipes of a Perfectly Imperfect Mother
When I heard my mother’s familiar “Hello, dear. How are you?” that summer afternoon, I thought it was an ordinary phone call. Then I realized her voice was shaking. “If you know you have a disease that will kill you, should you tell your children?”
“Oh, Mother,” I said. Then, “Of course you should. Please tell me.” That may have been the hardest request I’ve ever made.
Was this in 1998 or 1999? I don’t remember anymore. I don’t remember the words she used to explain her illness, what my siblings and I said to each other, how I told my children. I do remember that, when I told friends and acquaintances my mother had dementia, the first question they typically asked was, “Does your mother know who you are?”
I’m sure my siblings got asked this, too, and that it was as hard for them to see the lack of recognition in Mother’s eyes as it was for me. Mike wrote about his experience for our family cookbook:
My last real communication with Mom came when I went to visit after they’d been in the assisted-care apartment for about 5 months. Mom would fade in and out, but mostly she was lucid and entertaining, if a bit embarrassed by the forgetfulness caused by her disease. We had a very nice time just talking and I had great fun cooking for them. As I turned to wave goodbye after I had given her a hug, Mom looked at me with such a mixture of love and pain it broke my heart. I knew that her disease was progressing rapidly, but I wasn’t aware how fast it really happened. Mom stood there and looked at me as if it was the last time she would see me. I guess she knew more than I—because it was the last time she was lucid enough to recognize me and really communicate. When I saw her 6 months later, she really didn’t know who I was.
For me, whether my mother knew who I was was not a “yes” or “no” question. I was always looking for any small scrap of my mother that snuck out from behind her illness. I took Supersaver weekend flights up to Erie to be with her as often as I could. On one visit, her face lit up when she saw me. “I know you,” she burst out. By that point, I’d known better than to ask, “Who am I?” The last time I’d done that, she’d answered, with complete confidence, “You know. You’re my mother.”
Instead, I gave her a hug and said, “I know you, too.”
On many of my visits, I’d get the great comfort of at least one moment when a flash of recognition crossed her face. But sometimes, there was no proof at all that my mother knew my name, or the fact that I am her daughter, or even that my face looked familiar. And how much did that matter? Why?
Here’s the thing. I’m a big fan of finding the right questions, questions that add to the quality of one’s life rather than subtracting from it, questions like this one from a woman named Oriah Mountain Dreamer: “What if the question is not why am I so infrequently the person I really want to be, but why do I so infrequently want to be the person I really am?”
Who was I, really? For that matter, who was Mother? And who could I be for her? Maybe that was a better question than “Does my mother know who I am?” Because, beyond all doubt, when I was with her, my mother knew, at some level, that I was someone who loved her.
Granted, this was often small consolation while walking the path of losing her. I wanted the mother she had been. A shiver went through me when I read a poem by Mary Oliver called “Ice” that describes how her father, during his last winter, fashioned pair after pair after pair of ice-grips out of scraps of metal and inner tubes and gave them to everyone he knew. After her father died, her mother wrote to say she’d found “so many pairs” of them in his workshop. “What shall I do?” she asked. The poem ends with Oliver’s reply: “Mother, please/save everything.”
I have been trying to “save everything” of my mother. Each of her multitudinous recipes. The breakfast ones alone could fill a large book. A new question: What shall I let go?
Who, besides my beautiful sister, who already has the recipe, needs me to include the Plum or Apple-Topped Coffee Cake out of Mother’s original 1950 Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook with its cheery red and white cover? Mary was always the one who sliced and arranged the fruit on top, just like Mother taught her. And she’s the one who reminded me how much of Mother is in all of us. “You know, all the ways we are come from Mother,” she said. “I’ve been realizing that more and more.”
That’s worth saving, this gift from my only sister. What matters is that we remember, as long as we are able, what Mother gave us, and who we are—to ourselves, to each other, to the people whose lives touch ours.
An award-winning poetry and nonfiction writer, Maureen has also been a commentator on Public Radio Station WFAE 90.7. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Texas Review, The Charlotte Observer, St.Anthony Messenger (Ohio), Potato Eyes (Maine), Kalliope (Florida), Chelsea (New York), Cincinnati Poetry Review, Catfish Stew (South Carolina), Catalyst (Georgia), and Calyx (Oregon). She is the author of Spinning Words into Gold, a Hands-On Guide to the Craft of Writing, a grief workbook entitled How Do I Say Goodbye?, and two collections of poetry, This Scatter of Blossoms and When the Leaves Are in the Water. Her essay “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin” appears in Marlo Thomas’s The Right Words at the Right Time, Volume 2 (Atria Books, 2006) and her poem “Such Foolishness” is included in Thirteen (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2003).