Birthday Dinner

Today is my birthday.

If I’m being honest, I’ve basically dreaded this day since Mom died.

Every year for as long as I can remember, Mom would give me a virtual play-by-play of my birthday – starting with the evening before. She’d call to tell me how her water broke on May 12, just after she had gotten into bed after a long night out at an event with my father. Apparently, I was in no rush to make my grand entrance into the world, so not much of anything happened after that. She’d end the phone call telling me that she’d talk to me tomorrow on my birthday…and then proceed to tell me that whenever she talked to me the following day that I still wasn’t born yet.

Sometimes she’d call me the morning of my birthday, sometimes during her lunch break at work, sometimes after work, sometimes around dinner. Depending on her schedule, she’d even call me all of those times during the day, if for no other reason than to tell me that I wasn’t born yet. “It’s your birthday, but you still weren’t born yet,” she’d remind me. Yes, Mom. I know. You tell me this every year. I know. I wasn’t born yet. Yes, I know I made you suffer through almost 24 hours of labor.

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My 1st Birthday

This year, I knew the “you weren’t born yet” phone calls wouldn’t come. I miss those silly calls. I’m not kidding. Sometimes I just had a message from Mom that said “Hi, birthday girl, you still weren’t born yet.” That’s it.

I’ve gotten lots of other phone calls and messages from friends today. All of them are very sweet. It’s not the same, of course. Nothing is the same. I’d be foolish to think otherwise.

I decided that I wanted to go to a familiar, comforting place for my birthday dinner. There’s a restaurant about 45 minutes away that I really enjoy. We’ve gone there before for my birthday and to celebrate our anniversary a few times. In fact, last year Mom was here visiting during my birthday weekend and watched Zack while we went to the same restaurant. I remembered this in the car as we drove tonight and started crying.

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Mom with Zack. Right before we left for dinner, 2016.

I’ve learned that about grief. I’m fine one second. Not fine the next. Out of nowhere, any memory, song, picture, trinket, etc. can ignite such a strong emotion that I’ll just burst into tears.

Then I started thinking about how this would be the first “nice dinner out” since Mom died. I can’t remember exactly when I started doing this, but I had gotten in the habit of taking pictures of meals (if we were out at nice restaurants) and sending them to Mom. Mom loved food and traveling and I think in some way, the pictures allowed her to experience these places with me.

When I traveled to Israel during college, back in the dinosaur days before smart phones, I remember taking photos of the food I ate just so I could show it to Mom. Photos on actual film. Crazy, I know.

As I was crying in the car, I was thinking that this would be the first dinner with no photos for Mom. I used to text them to her, then immediately call her to tell her to check her iPad for the photos so I could describe them in detail. Then, I cried some more as I let it sink in that I can’t do that anymore.

I can’t text Mom to share the photos anymore, but I can do it here.

So, here are the photos that I would have sent to Mom:

We finished dinner around 7 p.m. and I’m assuming I would have called her from the car shortly after. I would have told her about my meal and Mike would have told her about his. Given that it was still before 9:39 p.m., she would have told me that I still wasn’t born yet.

Yes, Mom. I know.

Caramelized Onions

Patience.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about cooking caramelized onions, it’s that doing so takes patience. It’s tempting to turn up the heat in an attempt to brown them faster. It’s hard to resist the urge to stir them around the pan. The key to delicious, caramel-brown, sweet onions is to cook them low and slow. Don’t rush. Let them simmer and wait. The simmering and waiting require patience. Patience isn’t something I have a lot of these days.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not like I had tons of patience before mom died. But now? Now I have even less.

My diminished level of patience likely comes from a muddled concoction of grief in general, current lack of sleep with a hefty splash of “all of these little annoying things aren’t really important unless it’s a matter of life or death.”

Knowing this, I am not quite sure what possessed me to decide to plan our entire dinner around caramelized onions. But I did. I took a little help from the store and purchased ready-to-cook turkey burgers. I asked the hubby to grill those up while I focused on the onions.

After coating a pan with a bit of olive oil and setting it on medium heat, I started slicing. I used two large Vidalia onions and threw those in. The instant sizzle is pretty satisfying. I’ve always liked that. I stirred them around to coat in the oil and turned the heat down to medium-low.

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Then, I walked away. I didn’t really keep track of time, but I let my nose decide when it was time to return to the kitchen to stir. The onions start smelling sweeter and that’s when I know it’s time. I repeated this process for about an hour until they were golden brown. I added a splash of balsamic vinegar, stirred, and then waited some more. Why did I do this again? This is taking so long. It’s delicious – that’s why. It’s also distracting and I think that’s probably really why.

For a solid hour, maybe a little more, all I had to do was think about these onions. Breathe them in, occasionally stir them around, go take a peek, resist the urge to stir, etc.

I piled them on both sides of my burger.

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Their sweet aroma filled the house.

The onions paired perfectly with the turkey and I was instantly proud of this “cheater’s” version of a homemade dinner. Thank you Whole Foods turkey burgers. And, in that instant, my distraction evaporated. I wanted to call mom and tell her about dinner. I used to do that all the time.

I used to call mom to tell her about new recipes I’d found (usually on Pinterest). Sometimes I’d call to tell her that I’d gotten a new cookbook from the library and promise to show it to her when she came to visit. I’d always call if my hubby was making “Mike’s famous chili” as she called it. He really does make the best chili. I didn’t just call at dinner time to talk about our dinners, though.

If I’m being honest, I was also calling to check in with her. My parents are divorced – they have been for quite some time, separating my first year of college. Ever since then, I’ve always felt like I needed to make sure she knew that she wasn’t alone. I called her every day. We didn’t always chat for long. Some days she was running out to go to book club or a friend’s house for dinner, but I always wanted her to know I cared about what she was doing and more importantly, that I cared about her and needed her and loved her. 

In hindsight, I should have picked up on the fact that something was really wrong. Instead of our usual chats, I felt like mom was rushing me off the phone. She didn’t sound like herself.

I told my husband that something seemed off. She sounded tired and when I questioned her, she told me she was tired. She said that she didn’t feel right and that she thought her thyroid medicine needed to be adjusted. She told me she went to the doctor and got new medicine. So, I let it go. She said she went to the doctor…what more could I do?

She did go. I saw the bill when my brother and I were going through papers in the house after she died. That damn bill (and the other doctor bills we found) made me angry. She went to a doctor, how didn’t anyone catch the fact that she had cancer? I digress. More on that another time. I don’t want to go down that road right now.

I’m trying to be kind to myself. I’m trying to focus on the positives. It’s not easy and I’m not always successful, but I’m trying.

Today’s weather was beautiful, so I suggested we take a family walk after dinner. We took our usual walk around the block. The kiddo stopped to pick some weeds flowers for me. He found a quarter on the sidewalk. I admired all of the plants in bloom. Can every evening be like this one please?

We came home, opened the door and I instantly smelled the onions.

Patience, I thought. Be patient.

 

Drowning in Recipes

What have I done? I am drowning in my mother’s recipe collection.

I’m wading through scraps of paper and stacks of index cards. It’s as if each one is a grain of sand and I’m sifting through to find the hidden treasures. Recipes clipped from newspapers, magazines, and food packaging. Index cards with recipes copied from cookbooks or passed along from co-workers, friends, and family. I’m trying to interpret scribbled notes in my mother’s infamously poor penmanship. There’s a secret code and I’ve lost the only one who can decipher it. I need her to give me the key. I’m now a crazy, recipe detective lady. I examine each scrap of paper, newspaper clipping, and index card looking for any sign that mom made the recipe. Is it stained with food splatter? Did she make notes about the ingredients? Do I recognize it? Does it spark any memories? And the Holy Grail: did she write “Good Recipe” or draw a little star to indicate it was a keeper?

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The Holy Grail: Food stains and the Good Recipe note with stars.
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Mom’s co-worker’s salad dressing recipe.
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Recipes with Mom’s notes.

I can’t keep them all – I know that. But, I can’t bring myself to throw them all away. Mom spent decades collecting these. She must have spent countless hours diligently copying recipes from cookbooks. Most recently, thanks to this little thing called the internet, she started to read cooking blogs, subscribe to recipe listservs, recipe e-newsletters and who knows what else. She printed them. She printed lots of them. I can guarantee she printed many more than once.

Looking back on it, there were times I tried to enable her recipe-collection efforts. I remember telling my mom about this new thing called Pinterest. She looked at my computer screen with utter amazement. “Oh, I know I can’t let myself do Pinterest,” she said. “I’ll get addicted,” and then she laughed. I remember chuckling because in a way, I knew she was right. At the time, I don’t think I realized that mom had a physical version of Pinterest already. Stacks of recipes, organized in bins – with index card dividers by category. Binders full of blog posts, organized with tabbed dividers. There were plenty of recipe stacks still waiting for their rightful place in the binders – I threw those in boxes and brought them home too.

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One of the many stacks waiting to be filed away in binders.

As we went through mom’s house, I told my brother that I wanted to save the recipes. Looking around at the sheer volume of paper, with wide eyes, I think he said something like “All of them?” Yes. All of them.

I’ve tried to make a little progress each day. I pick a pile and read through them. I keep the ones I think that I’ll make and I recycle the rest. It’s going to take some time doing it this way, but that’s ok- I’m not in a rush.

So, I find myself drowning in recipes. For now, that’s fine with me. It’s a welcome distraction from the sudden and often overwhelming tsunamis of grief.