The smell still makes my stomach turn. Burned honey and singed mustard. My mother’s signature chicken marinade was an initial success that lost its appeal after too many appearances. I’d catch a whiff from my bedroom as it bubbled away in the oven. Not again, I’d groan, without an ounce of gratitude. I can only imagine my mother’s expression, but expect it resembles the one I have when my children say the same thing.
Fortunately, I wasn’t always so obnoxious. Some of my mother’s inventions were a delight. I looked forward to dinner when it was a simmering pot of baked beans with sliced hot dog, and for years, I assumed everyone’s tuna salad turned orange from so much shredded carrot. She wasn’t a frequent baker, but she was famous for her crinkle cookies, and every Chanukah she’d make my entire Sunday school class chocolate lollipops in the shape of Jewish stars and dreidels, carefully painting the Hebrew letters in blue.
Our life was normal until it wasn’t.
One day my parents came home with news that my mother had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She was forty years old. I was twelve. Turns out her tripping and slow gait weren’t because of clumsiness or laziness, but from a disease. I remember how she stared into her lap while my father explained the news, trying to reassure us by making promises he couldn’t keep. Nothing will change, he insisted.
But soon my mother’s decline was impossible to ignore. It happened fast. Just when we got used to seeing her with a cane, she needed a walker, and then, not long after, an electric scooter.
By the time I was in high school, she could no longer drive or cook dinner. Her hugs were weak. Soon they would be entirely one-sided.
My father hired a woman to help. Her name was Lucie. She was a young single mother in need of a flexible schedule. We were in need. I remember watching her the day she came for an interview. She sat with perfect posture at our kitchen table. Her voice was soft and low, her eyes a liquid brown.
We were all careful around one another at first. But quickly the line between help and family began to blur. On the drive to swim practice, I’d confide in Lucie about boys and parties, things I’d never say to my mom. In the afternoon I’d stand by the stove and watch her cook, inhaling the heady aroma of garlic – real garlic, not the powdered kind – sizzling in a golden orb of olive oil.
Lucie became my mother’s hands. She cooked, cleaned, and drove us around, but even from the start she was more than an employee. Her kindness and love always shone through, perhaps especially through her meals. Homemade soups like hearty minestrone with perfectly cubed vegetables and fragrant pasta fagiole topped with freshly grated Parmesan.
When we asked how she made everything taste so good, Lucie’s eyes sparkled. Love, she said, I always add a pinch of love.
Almost two decades later, my mother was dying in home hospice. Lucie was with us. Not as an employee, but as family. One day I walked into the kitchen and saw my father sobbing in her arms. It was the only time in my life I saw him cry. Before I could leave, Lucie spotted me. For a moment all three of us embraced, and then she quietly backed away, leaving us to begin our mourning.
After the funeral service, she was the first to approach me. Her eyes were red and damp. I’m going to miss her so much, she whispered. We held each other up as we wept. Of all the people in that room, besides my immediate family, Lucie knew my mom the best. Not as a handicapped woman, but as a friend.
Nine years later, I’m a mother of two and the same age as my mom when she was diagnosed. I’m the one cooking for children who are sometimes grateful, sometimes not. My meals are inspired by not one, but two wonderful women, and I incorporate Lucie’s secret ingredient in everything I make. I know my mother would approve.
Dana Schwartz lives in eastern Pennsylvania with her husband and two children. She writes about navigating the sticky (sometimes literally) terrain of motherhood and writing on her blog, www.writingatthetable.com