Last June, two weeks after my mother passed away, I stood staring into her refrigerator and wept.
On the middle shelf was an opened package of lox, just a few slices left. I could see my mother sitting at her kitchen table as she did every morning, sipping a cup of coffee reheated from a pot made earlier in the century, taking bites out of half a toasted English muffin topped with the thinnest layer of cream cheese (the store “it’s-good-enough-for-me” brand) and a single, folded slice of lox.
Nestled on the inside of the refrigerator door was a jar of apple sauce, sealed tight, never opened, never eaten, but always chilled and ready to go — ever since that fateful meal some 20+ years back when my husband innocently asked if she had any applesauce. She did not. But from that day forward, suffice it to say, applesauce became as ever-present a fixture on the dinner table as napkins.
There, too, stationed on every shelf of the refrigerator were her faithful platoon of glass jars. Black coffee in the gefilte fish jar, chicken soup in the pickle jar, orange juice in the borscht jar. I’m consolidating, she would say. A curious exercise, given that in recent years she lived alone and rarely had more than a half-full fridge at any given time. Once, a visiting granddaughter, well versed in the code of the jars, thought to fix my mother a mug of coffee and unwittingly handed her instead a piping hot cup of Manischewitz sweet Malaga kiddush wine. Black coffee and deep purple wine look an awful lot alike from the outside of a herring jar.
In the fruit bin, wrapped in tin foil, were the remnants of a quarter of a pineapple cut up into triangle slices. No, the sections weren’t stabbed with toothpicks half wrapped in frills of bright colored cellophane — the way she prepared them a lifetime ago when it was her turn to host the weekly mah jong game in our Brooklyn apartment. But I could still feel the same sense of anticipation that ran through me — and my brother and sister, too — as we waited for the final click of the tiles so we could raid the pretty cut-glass candy bowls filled with mixed nuts, coconut-encrusted dates and Jordan Almonds.
Now, of course, there were things missing from my mother’s fridge. Sidelined by old age and illness, it had been awhile since she had made her sweet “lukshen” kugel or her tangy “cholobshes” – her old-world stuffed cabbage. There was no cholent kept warm for Shabbos on a “blech,” or blintzes made special for Shavuot with the creamiest of cheeses. As one of her granddaughters recalled in eulogizing her, my mother didn’t have a single recipe that didn’t begin with “stew an onion.” It had been awhile since she had made any of her signature dishes. Still, after she died I stared inside her fridge and I could see them all there clear as day.
Two months later, we drove to Washington, D.C. to deposit my son at college. The moment we arrived in our hotel room, as my husband set up his laptop and my children checked out the mini-bar, I settled on the bed with my cell phone in hand. My mother would worry until I checked in to say that we had arrived safely. But I no longer had a mother to call. No one to check in with.
And then it occurred to me that for so long, as I nursed my mother through her illness, I would tell people that if we live long enough the parents become the children and the children become the parents.
But I was wrong. Our mothers never really stop being our mothers. Our fathers, too. They may ultimately rely on us to take them to doctors’ appointments; to tend to their finances; to pick them up when they fall. They may need us to come quick when a light bulb needs changing or the lawn needs mowing or the toilet overflows. But they never really stop being our parents. They are still the ones we count on to worry that we’ve arrived safely.
And when they’re gone the world feels less safe. At least it does for me.
Happy Mother’s Day, Ma. It won’t be the same without you.
(This is reprinted from the May 7, 2009 issue of the Jewish Ledger.)