Sneaker Wave of Grief


It was just a little one. But it knocked me over all the same.

Growing up as a child in California, and both parents being native Californians, we spent a lot of time at the beach. Santa Cruz, Aptos, Half Moon Bay, San Francisco, Laguna, Huntington. My mother would always warn us about the sneaker waves, the little ones that would creep up and surprise you when your back was turned toward the ocean.

A sneaker wave knocked me over this morning when I was at my daughter’s school book fair. Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa, had a new cookbook out, and I thought, “Perfect! I’ll get that for Mom for Christmas to add to her collection!” As I reached for the book, my hand jerked back as the thought rushed forward, “But she doesn’t cook anymore. Because she can’t follow a recipe.”

My mother has dementia. We are calling it that now, instead of the name the Stanford neurologist gave it almost two years ago: Mild Cognitive Impairment, or MCI. It is beyond “mild” now. My parents live 400 miles north of where I live in Los Angeles, so I don’t get to see them as much as I would like, and my mom’s deterioration, especially when they made their most recent visit three weeks ago for my older daughter’s 11th birthday, came as a shock. She had lost a lot of weight. Her hair had thinned and was not colored the usual auburn. Those symptoms are a result of a blood disorder she has, but accentuated physically what is going on mentally with her. It is challenging for her to put together a sentence. She often leaves out the subject so it is difficult to know what she is talking about. She has forgotten how to apply make-up. She needs to be reminded to brush her teeth. She gets confused pouring a bowl of cereal. She is only 73.

My mom was a very talented and self-taught cook and baker. She made almost everything from scratch. She made dinner every night. Sometimes it was exotic (read: gross) things she or my dad liked - beef tongue, sweetbreads, curried shrimp. Most of the time it was what we loved – flank steak with baked potatoes, huge hamburgers with homemade potato chips, delicious pasta with sauce made from the tomatoes and herbs in our garden. And even when it was something she didn’t enjoy, like meatloaf, because she had it every Tuesday as a child, she would add her own touch. My mom’s meatloaf was covered with mashed potatoes that she piped on with a large star-shaped pastry tip and then she would pop the whole thing into the oven so the potatoes stars would become golden brown, a little crisp but still soft on the inside. Her meatloaf had mashed potato frosting!

And the desserts. Her desserts were amazing. When I was about five years old, I was having a tea party with my dolls on our front lawn on Valentine’s Day and my mother brought out a heart-shaped red velvet cake with a light pink frosting. All for me. I didn’t realize until I was much older when I would watch her make it how incredibly labor-intensive it is – sifting all of that powdered sugar (!), and what a labor of love it was for her to make it for me. To this day, I have never found a red velvet cake that has rivaled my mother’s. For every birthday and special life cycle event, we had beautifully decorated cakes. Her angel food cake with chocolate frosting was heaven. Her Mexican chocolate cake was famous. She made panorama sugar Easter egg boxes – those sugar shaped eggs with a hole in one end so you could peer inside to find a little scene of grass, flowers and a bunny – all made out of frosting, with beautiful frosting roses on top.

On our birthdays, we didn’t go out to a restaurant to celebrate. Even better, my brother and I got to choose what my mom made for us for dinner and dessert. My mom showed her love by cooking. Even having a friend over for a sleepover was something special – our friends got to choose ahead of their visit what they wanted for dinner and dessert. She taught me how to cook and how to bake. She was always my go-to person whenever I had a cooking question. When I moved into my first apartment after college, my mom gave me a beautiful oak recipe box with all of my favorite recipes written by her hand on the familiar yellow recipe cards. It is one my most prized possessions. That box contains my childhood. My mom could make everything. Now she can’t make anything.

Since the dementia has made its way into her life, she has had to give up her gourmet food line, Carol’s Culinary Creations, which she sold at seasonal boutiques for almost forty years. Friends and family loved getting her baskets filled with those items for Christmas – red and green jalapeno jelly, kumquat marmalade, olallieberry jam, scone mixes, dried soup mixes, herb-flavored olive oil, her 150+ proof apricot brandy and wonderful candies – chocolate covered peanut butter balls and chocolate covered brandied apricots. This is the first year she wasn’t able to make those items.

Last December, at the age of 46, I had to take over making the Christmas dinner because she was mixing up the recipe for her grandfather’s wild rice and the creamed spinach. I was happy to do it. And I was devastated that I had to do it. I am prepared to do it from now on.

So. What to do now with what I know?

I know I need to stay in the “work” of my own Grief Recovery. I have been avoiding it because I know it will be painful grieving my mother as I once knew her. I know I need to be able to meet her where she is now, not where I want her to be. I know that during this journey with her dementia we will experience a series of losses. I know that the hopes, dreams and expectations I had of what I thought my relationship was going to be like with my mom in my 40’s and beyond, is different. I know that she will won’t be able to teach my children to bake or cook. I know that all of this makes me sad. And I know that the amount of sadness I feel is because it is in direct proportion to the amount of love I have for her.

I know that to honor and celebrate her, I will be creating a cookbook of all of her recipes, with the stories and the memories that go with them, pouring as much love into it, as she did into preparing all nourishment she provided for us. So, keep an eye out for Carol’s Culinary Creations Cookbook, coming soon!


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