Cooking lessons for life
On the first night, my father made chicken piccata. Flour and lemon, bouillon cubes, the funny-looking hammer. He had no idea what he was doing.
Usually my mother would have helped — she would have done it herself — but that evening, and over the next three in the fall of 2009, she sat on a stool across the kitchen counter, close enough to observe but far enough that she wouldn’t be tempted to step in. Neither of them had said it, but both had known that eventually this time would come. He had to learn to cook for himself.
My mother knew it as soon as she saw the scan strewn with tumors — “my assassins,” she called them. She came home from the doctor, cried for a long time, and then made two lists. One list of all the women who would be suitable matches for my father when she was gone. And one list of his favorite dinners. Turkey chili. Split pea soup. Wheat nut loaf. Chicken piccata.
Also, tuna fish sandwiches. “That was the other thing she told me,” he said the other day. “It was OK to have tuna fish sandwiches once a week.”
I’d asked him to tell me about those four nights in the kitchen four years ago. I knew about the cooking lessons at the time, but I wasn’t allowed to help or even to witness. No one was.
My father is proud and shy, and he doesn’t like to broadcast what he doesn’t know. So my mother pulled out the dinner list, and it was just the two of them, an hour a night for four nights. Forty years of a shared life, boiled down to a few simple instructions: Keep the knives sharp. Put all your ingredients in little dishes. Read the whole recipe. Always wash your hands.
They had tried something like it decades earlier, when everyone was free to be you and me and the world was without end. “She was going to take over the finances, and I was going to take over the cooking,” my father remembered. “And we both hated it so much that we said, ‘To hell with this! Let’s enjoy our lives.’”
They returned to their corners, and they stayed there. As far back as I can recall, my father never entered the kitchen when the stove was lit. He came downstairs to eat when he was called, and at some point he started doing the dishes. But his physical involvement with food preparation was limited to starting the grill, carving the turkey, and cobbling together an occasional plate of salami and cheese to go with his early-evening martini.
As the days shortened, his regret grew. “She often asked me if I would stay in the kitchen with her when she cooked,” he said. “I was always too busy working.”
That fall, at last, he stayed. And he liked it. “I work to rule,” he told me. “I do exactly what I’m told to do. I found it comforting that there were rules to follow.”
But then the lessons were over, and in the first week of November, my mother climbed into bed and pretty much didn’t get out again. She desperately wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving; it was the most meaningful holiday to her. By mid-month it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. She warned us that if we had anything important we wanted to say to her, we had better do it now.
I tried my best. So did my sister and my uncles and my aunt, my mother’s best friend. Who knows what any of us said?
On Thanksgiving Day, I spent the morning cooking the parts of the meal we hadn’t already ordered from the supermarket. My uncle sat upstairs, watching my mother breathe. That was all that remained of her, the breathing.
My father needed small tasks to keep him busy, so I pulled him into the kitchen to help me with the brussels sprouts. He shook one of those cardboard canisters of salt over them, gently at first, and then the top popped off, and a pound of salt poured out. He cursed and left the kitchen.
I put the food out at 6 p.m., just as my mother spiked a temperature of 106. Nobody ate. She stopped breathing on Friday.
I asked my father about his last words with her. There weren’t any, he said. “Everybody talks of these times they shared with her toward the end, and I didn’t. I can’t think about what I would’ve talked about.”
But he has the cooking lessons. Knives sharp. Ingredients out. Read the damn recipe. “It was the way we could have a conversation,” he said.
“Every time I cook, she’s in my head. Even when I see the little dishes, I think about her. She’s just there, on my shoulder, when I’m cooking.”
Jesse Wegman writes for The New York Times.