Awesome Pandemic Cooking With My Mother in the Kitchen

My mother helps me cook now more than ever, even though she’s gone.

I’ve always liked to cook, but since the Michigan lockdown in March, I’ve been spending lots of time perusing cuisine websites and the online food sections of the New York Times and Washington Post for new ideas.  All those hours in the kitchen have made me feel as if my mother was with me while I turned pages and scrolled through website recipes.

She was a meticulous but relaxed cook and I loved watching her in the kitchen.  She broke eggs one-handed with casual grace.  Her omelets were perfect and seemed effortless.  Sugar cookies always came out just right and when she baked marble cake, she poured batter as if she were an artist finishing a canvas.  Her sausage and cream lasagna took hours to assemble and was the favorite dish of an opera singer she admired.  It sure tasted operatic: big, bold, unforgettable.

Some years after she died I found out from her surviving brother in Israel that she had actually given piano lessons in Poland before the Holocaust, a secret she kept to herself for some reason.  It made me wonder if there was music in her head when she composed her meals.

Look at this omelet

photo by holytoastr*

My father once said that because she grew up with a maid and joked that she barely knew how to boil water when they got married.  I think she learned to cook after the war from a neighbor in Brussels who was a street walker (prostitution was legal in Belgium).

Both my parents were Holocaust survivors.  They met in a displaced persons camp in Germany and had absolutely nothing except the aid and clothes they started out with that was given to them by various relief organizations in Germany and then Belgium.

They lived in a rundown part of Brussels but above a bakery and woke every morning to the heady aromas of fresh baked bread.  One story my mother told me was that every day an elegant, well-dressed beautifully made-up woman left from a nearby apartment.  My mother asked her what she did.  “Je fais les boulevards.”  I walk the streets.  That wasn’t an idiom she was familiar with and when she asked other survivors she had come to know they were horrified and afraid some pimp was trying to recruit her.

She also told me that this woman sometimes baby sat for my older brother who was born in Brussels.  That’s what makes me think the same woman helped my mother learn how to cook, since my parents must have liked her and trusted her.

My mother gave me many gifts.  A love of languages, since she spoke half a dozen; a joy of reading; a fascination with art, music, history and current events.  The gift of savoring every moment of preparing food is something she probably didn’t realize she was passing on.  But whenever I dice, whisk, sauté, or bake–she’s there.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books from memoir to mystery.

 

*”Look at this omelet” by holytoastr is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

My Mother’s Last Phone Call

I had never believed in ghost or spirits or anything like that until my mother came to me after she died.

Actually she called. From New York.

A heavy smoker, my mother had suffered from multi-infarct dementia for almost a decade.  The last time I had heard that voice, she was speaking soft Russian baby talk, having returned to her first language. It was strange but oddly comforting because she was in a mental hospital for observation, yet as calm and affable as a hostess at a party trying to put an awkward guest at ease.

The deep smoker’s voice I remembered speaking many languages besides Russian when I grew up became more and more distant over that decade she was ill. I missed talking to her, which was deeply ironic, because my mother was such a voluble, excited, intelligent talker that she often ignored whether you were interested in what she was saying.

Opinionated and extremely well-read, she didn’t just love the sound of her voice, she reveled in the workings of her own mind. She was like Katharine Hepburn who once told an interviewer that she didn’t drink, “Because cold sober, I find myself absolutely fascinating.”  And she had that actress’s steely determination.

katharine-hepburn-9She was also a fierce believer in my talent as a writer who never got to see my career take off. Perhaps most bitterly for me, the woman who had been reading mysteries for as long as I could remember succumbed to her dementia before she could read even one of mine.

I didn’t miss the conversational juggernaut my mother could sometimes be, but I missed her voice. And then I heard it again. I was in Michigan in bed and the beige retro phone by my bed rang around 3 AM. “Cookie?” It was one of my mother’s childhood nicknames for me, and I hadn’t heard her use it since I was in elementary school.

“Mom, is that you?” I repeated it several times until she said “I’m all right.” Then she hung up.

The phone rang again. This time it was my brother telling me that our mother had died a little while ago.  “I know,” I said sleepily. “She just called me.” He didn’t ask what I meant, though later he told me how disappointed he was that she hadn’t spoken to him after she died since he was one of her caretakers, so I assume he believed my story.

Right after my brother’s call, I couldn’t figure out if I’d been dreaming, or if somehow she had actually called me, or if I’d been dreaming and she had entered my dream. Whatever really happened, the shock of her being dead was assuaged by the fact that I more and more believed she had in some way reached out to me from somewhere to comfort me. Better still, she had given me a precious gift: the sound of her voice.

Now, you could say that my mother was ill and had been in a rapid decline for weeks, so this was nothing more than a wish fulfillment dream, just my longing to be in touch with her one more time. You could say that my subconscious created the illusion of the call to make accepting her death easier, and that I was easily persuaded because I wanted to be connected to her.

But I wouldn’t.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books ranging from memoir to mystery and you can find them on Amazon.