(He Who is Hungry Thinks of Bread)
To be bereft, the late 16th-century past participle of bereave. With its idiot rhymes: to grieve, to leave, to receive.
Last night, I opened the Mexican cookbook I brought back to Madrid (which can’t really be called home) after I spent five weeks in — well, I can’t call that place home, either. It was just the place where my mother was living when she died in October.
(What’s this suitcase full of, books? the taxi driver asked me as he hefted my bag into the trunk on my way to the airport.)
Yes, it’s full of books, because books are all that’s left that I can take with me.
My mother’s Mexican cookbook is well-loved, held together with duct tape. In a homegrown repair, she Sharpie’d the first name of its author onto the spine. Its flyleaf is inscribed from my father to her, the Valentine’s Day of their courtship year. 1963, when JFK wasn’t dead yet, when my brother and I were still unborn, and all our parents’ falls and mishaps and patching ups and falterings and summons were in the future.
The summons. So many of them over the past 17 years! I stopped breastfeeding my youngest daughter before I planned to, because of a faltering of my father’s heart that sent me flying home, a faltering that, had I known how things were going to unfold, how many falterings I’d sit vigil through over the next 17 years — maybe I wouldn’t have heeded.
The heart, the falls, the infections, the broken bones. The inability to master the internet the cable the changes in insurance plan the tiny niggling indignities. Fender-benders and arguments about driving. It’s an exaggeration to say I went straight from childbirth into worrying about my parents — but not by much.
My mother’s Mexican cookbook is better-used than her bible, sloppy with stains of chicken broth. Slips of paper have been laid here and there within it. I’m brought up short when I look through it: my mother scotch-taped these instructions (how to seed a chili, how to make huevos rancheros) onto this page.
For the consciousness that has been there as long you’ve existed to be snuffed out is — inconceivable. Which is another solid doorstop of word. Back in the 14th century, when Inconceivable became part of the English language, the life of man was nasty, brutish, and short. In the face of that, we needed words we could sink our teeth into.
My mother stopped drinking 34 years ago, but before that, she wrote out a menu for a dinner party and left it as a bookmark in her Mexican cookbook:
This menu had to have been conceived in the late 60s or early 70s, when bean dip from a can and Fritos were a sophisticated hors-d’œuvre. A pallid tomato topped with a scoop of bright-green guacamole was the garnish I always ordered at La Fonda during our annual summer visits to San Antonio. San Antonio, which felt like home to my parents, because it was Texas, but at the same time was not-home, because by then they’d been gone from Texas for years.
In the late 60s, my mother sometimes wore a fall to augment her hair. She owned what was then called a hostess gown; she actually wore it. Wherever she might’ve been when she decided to host this dinner party, it wasn’t Texas, wasn’t home, because she left Texas when I was three and my brother was less than a year old, when she and my father decamped for Wisconsin so he could attend grad school.
Marking pages 223 and 224 of my mother’s Mexican cookbook is a single page from a letter written by my grandmother to her during that same period:
No one tells you — or maybe you’re unable to hear — how you lose the thread when someone dies. Of time, of narrative. It was October when I flew back to the States because there’d been an accident at my mother’s retirement community. Now, buds swell on the branches of the trees in the park, here in Madrid.
One of the first things you have to do after your last parent dies is plan the funeral. I knew, because I’d sat beside my mother while she planned my father’s, that my brother and I were going to be asked her favorite hymns.
The two of us were staying in the apartment she’d moved to only 5 months before. We were inhabiting some strange space between before and after. When I pulled the hymnal down from the living room bookshelf, I found post-its marking certain hymns. My brother and I assumed – as we’d assume so much, as we continue to assume — those hymns were our mother’s favorites.
She’s no longer here, of course, to ask.
A few days after that, I started sorting through her books in earnest. Because along with everything else, we’d lost any ability to walk out the door of our mother’s apartment and lock it behind us and come back and deal with everything later, when we felt more up to it.
Would we ever feel up to it? I had no certainty, about that or anything else.
As I began to unravel my mother’s life, my hand stopped on Emily Post’s Etiquette. When I’d been around 11 or 12, I’d found a rose corsage pressed between sheets of brittle waxed paper in this same book, my first evidence that my mother was a person in her own right, a person whose life stretched beyond the perimeters of our immediate family. For all I knew, that carefully-saved brown husk could have been pinned onto her dress by a suitor long before my father came along. There was simply no telling.
As little as I cared about Emily Post’s dictates, I knew the book couldn’t possibly go to Goodwill. I sat on the floor in front of the bookcase. In those first few weeks, I was pole-axed. By grief, by insomnia. More than anything else, I wanted a road map, a guide, a handbook, a set of instructions. I wanted my mother, in a visceral way that surprised me. I flipped to the section on funerals.
My mother must’ve underlined this paragraph after my father died, when she was looking for her own instruction manual — How do you learn to do what has to be done? But grief is selfish, grief is like a fiery furnace you won’t walk through unscathed. Every book I opened, every dress I bundled away into a black garbage bag to take to the Project Safe thrift store, contained a message for me and me only.
A few days later, I stiffened my spine and walked into her bedroom. Anne Lamott’s Almost Everything: Notes on Hope still sat on the nightstand beside her bed. When I picked it up, it fell open at a bookmarked page:
words fail. To say it again and again and again. To, in my version of the All work and no play make Jack a dull boy that Jack Torrence types over and over in The Shining, write it over and over and over again. For the words to fail is to have the foundation kicked out from underneath me, the scaffolding of my entire life dismantled.
But it comes to all of us in the end, this failure: in the face of it were constructed all —or almost all — of the world’s religions.
Our parents will die. Have died.
Words fail me.
The endpapers of my mother’s Mexican cookbook are printed with proverbs.
En el amor, el estomago siempre vence al corazon.
In love, the stomach always conquers the heart.
El que hambre tiene en pan piensa.
He who is hungry thinks of bread.
When I moved to Madrid two and a half years ago, after Covid reared its head and changed everything, I started calling my mother every day. When I called her, it would be morning for her, the shank of the afternoon, drawing towards dinner time, for me.
I called because I knew she missed my father. I called because she’d just traded the house where she’d lived for 50 years for an apartment. I called because her health was causing her (and me) worries. I called because Covid made her lonely. Was the lovely apartment with beautiful light where she now lived home? Not really.
The six-hour time difference between us meant as soon as I finished talking to her, I’d start making supper for my family. Partially because of what time it was, and partially because I wanted to distract her from the enormity of the new life she found herself inhabiting, whenever I called, I talked to her about food. About what’d I make for dinner in a few hours, or what recipe I’d seen in the New York Times that day or what fruits were in season at the market I’d walk to as soon as I hung up the phone.
Sometimes, a week or two after a particular conversation, I’d open our mailbox in the lobby of our apartment building to find an envelope from her with a clipping of some recipe we’d talked about (and which I’d long since read online and saved on Pinterest). No note attached to it, just newsprint.
I’d stand there picturing the work it must’ve taken her to get herself and the oxygen tank she despised to the post office. All for a recipe I could easily lay my hands on. She could’ve fallen, or caught Covid, or wrecked her car, I thought. She didn’t need to do that.
Next time you come home, maybe you’ll make me that baked Alaska, that soup, that bread that was in the New York Times, she’d say the next time I called her.
What faith she had — not only that I was capable of making Baked Alaska successfully but that I’d come, and that the place I came to could serve as home enough.
All my life, I realize now, through other people’s printed words, my mother and I had dozens and dozens of elliptical conversations. Words, one way or another, that don’t fail at all, but are ballast, and bedrock, and bulwark.