Beef Stroganoff

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I remember the light of the refrigerator spilling out across my mother’s kitchen floor as I stood, overwhelmed and frozen, staring at the contents. The half-empty gallon of milk, the bag of limp and withered celery in the vegetable drawer, the carton of eggs. The unopened garlic and herb dip stared at me, as if I were finally going to deliver on the implied promise of company and crackers.

My chest was too tight, and it was almost impossible to breathe. I willed my hand into the cold air of the second shelf to remove the carton of eggs. Printed on the carton was September 02, 2001, in the same bruise-colored ink that we had on mimeograph copies they gave us in school in the 70’s.

My knees gave out, and I sobbed uncontrollably on the floor, head in my hands as the carton lie open beside me, its twelve passengers creating a crime scene of yolks and shells all around me. Sobs racked my chest.  My mother bought those eggs, never suspecting for an instant that their expiration date would exceed hers.

I eventually regained my composure, stood and frantically began pitching items from the fridge into the trash before they had a chance to attach to a memory. The energy it took to clean out that refrigerator drained me to my core, but I knew I still had to tackle the freezer.

I pulled Mom’s vodka from under the sink and poured myself a double with tonic, even threw in an old piece of lime only because she had bought it with her own, living hand. This is her drink, not mine. I liked club soda and lemon, but I wanted anything that felt like her while escaping her at the same time. The freezer was not as bad, just freezer-burned chicken and a variety of other packaged foods, until the bottom shelf. Way in the back was a large, gallon-sized seal-a-meal bag labeled “Beef Stroganoff.”

I held the frozen package to my chest, tears uncontrollable with it against my heart, as if I would feel some of her energy through it. I screamed, but nothing came out except silent pain. I knew, knew from my 6-year-old child to my 30-year-old self, that this would be the last thing I ever tasted that she had cooked. That tore my heart, stole my breath and logic, sucked the time and space from the room as the memories invaded all of my senses in a velvet blanket of nostalgia so thick it threatened to suffocate me.

My mother had always been known for her outstanding beef stroganoff. It had originally been handed down to her by our fathers’ mother, Louise, and was written in a loose cursive on an index card. It had evolved over the years in her care, the recipe card spattered and stained with beef broth and sour cream. She raised that recipe from a thumb-sucking toddler to a full-grown man at a black tie affair.

It was something almost always made exclusively on Sunday afternoons. She carefully began the ritual by placing the large skillet and the oversized pot on the stove. She gathered the beef, flour, bullion, onions, mushrooms, garlic, salt and black pepper, sour cream, the bag of thick curly egg noodles, and the quintessential jar of poppy seeds. Out came two large mixing bowls as I, the audience, watched from the living room as the maestro conducted the symphony.

Chopping, tossing, and slicing. The smell of browning, floured beef mixed with the intoxicating aroma of garlic and onions that had only moments earlier commanded tears from our eyes. It smelled like comfort, like home, like a warm hug from an old friend on a cold winter day.

As the culinary symphony simmered in the pot for hours, my brother and I would sit Indian style around the coffee table with our mother, moving the thimble, the car, and the tiny iron around the board, acquiring properties, dipping into the community chest, and celebrating the sudden windfall of whoever landed on free parking, laughing incessantly. To a family of fierce competitors, Monopoly had a way of leveling the playing field.  My calculated, patient and frugal 7-year-old brother often won. I was impulsive and frivolous, which rarely worked in my favor.

Thick snowflakes fell lazily from a heavy gray sky as we sprawled out in front of the fireplace. Occasionally someone would comment on the mouth-watering drifts emanating from the kitchen. Every half hour or so, someone entered the kitchen and removed the lid to give a stir. As the steam hit your cheeks, it forced you to close your eyes and inhale it down to your bones. The old wooden spoon that boasted a lifetime of sampling, eagerly circled the bubbling pot, then tapped the rim before it was laid back to rest as the lid was replaced.

Long after my brother had wiped everyone out, the edge of evening was pressing against the large bay window as our mother returned to the kitchen and placed the large, almond colored plastic colander in the sink. Another large pot was filled with water and a pinch of salt, then left to boil. She brought a small scoop of the stroganoff to her lips with the wooden spoon and blew softly as her other hand hovered below to catch any drips. After a taste, pride spread warmly across her face, her shoulders dropped, and she removed the pot from the heat. As the water reached a boil, she poured in the thick, ribbon like egg noodles for seven minutes.

Scoops of thick, pure white sour cream, measured only by love, were swirled into the stroganoff. More black pepper, more poppy seeds, wooden spoon to lips.  She carefully poured the egg noodles into the colander as the rising steam fogged my mother’s glasses, reminding her to remove and place them on the windowsill over the sink, only to be searched for later. She expertly spooned soft, yellow noodles into three white bowls with brown stripes around the rims. The long-awaited stroganoff was then heaped upon the noodles as we heard her familiar sing-song call, “Come and get it!”

That stroganoff tasted like heaven. We sat around the wood-grained linoleum table like a real family, comforted by both the memories of the day as well as the dish itself. It symbolized Mom at her best. It tasted like home, like normalcy, and we all felt it. Those Sundays stitched together some of the many tears in the fabric of our family.

As I stood in her kitchen, hands numb from clutching the frozen bag, I could smell the onions, feel her hand, hear her laugh, taste the mushrooms, see her still and lifeless in the hospital bed. I saw the sterile latex gloves, the edema, the way she danced while she cooked, the time she nearly sliced off her entire finger while dancing to Gloria Gaynor and simultaneously slicing paper-thin potatoes. I saw the silhouette of her cheek, the silver thimble, the flat-lined heart monitor, the falling snow, her thick, chestnut hair falling over her shoulders, the expiration date on the eggs, the bald head of chemotherapy, smell her Shalimar, the poppy seeds, all of it swallowed up inside the bag I clutched to my chest.

That bag of beef stroganoff was by far one of the most unexpected and precious gifts she left behind.  It both comforted and haunted me for two years in my freezer. How would I ever bring myself to eat it? I considered it on the first anniversary of her death. On the second, I knew it was time. I removed the bag from the freezer the night before, her handwriting on the bag smiled at me.

The next evening, as I emptied the contents into the same pot she used, I let the memories wash over me. Two years ago I had lost my mother. I let her memory flood me as I stirred the stroganoff, as she had done so many times before. As it simmered, I reached into the cabinet for one of those white, brown-rimmed bowls. I lit a candle at the table as the egg noodles, with a pinch of salt, boiled on the stove for seven minutes. I poured a vodka tonic with lime – her drink, not mine – and slowly drained the noodles into the same plastic colander.

I sat above the bowl in silence. As I forked the first freezer-burned bite, the tears rolled down my cheeks and into the bowl as I said a final farewell to my mother.

mom

mom

209 replies

  1. Love that picture! I’ll always remember answering the phone when she called my mom and she’d tell me she had a new joke for her! What a great story.

  2. Man – this took me back. I had to clear out my mother’s closet before my dad could bear to enter his own bedroom after we lost her. I was the hardest thing I have ever done. Beautifully written.

  3. This is one of the best posts I’ve ever read. Such a beautiful and heartbreaking retelling of a moment many of us don’t consider. We think of the time of death, and the funeral, and the selling of the house. We don’t think about pouring over of items that fuel memories we wish weren’t just memories.

    Really moving. I’m happy you got your Stroganoff moment.

    • Jen,
      Thanks for that comment, you nailed exactly what I was trying to do…coming at it sideways. It is in those simple and unexpected moments that the loss resides so heavily.
      Tracy

  4. I think we all have our own ‘beef stroganoff’ moments (I have also lost my mother) but I don’t think I could write about it as beautifully as you. Very touching.

    • Daile,
      You might surprise yourself, I know I did. I began writing a piece about a favorite meal, and look where it took me. Loss and grieving reside in seemingly mundane and ordinary places, sometimes more so than in the actual catastrophic events themselves. Just write inside out and see where it takes you.
      Tracy

      • Tracy, I’m sorry if it sounded insensitive. I didn’t mean it to. I was talking about the way you write. The way you described the emotions was amazing and to be able to express yourself like that and to weave magic into your pain is really quite remarkable.

  5. This should be pressed. Beautifully written. You had in me in tears with the idea of trying to feel their energy through the objects left behind. I do that all the time, especially with anything handwritten. Another stunning post.

  6. This was so touching. I think all of us who have lost a parent have had a moment like this. I know I did when my mother died and we emptied out her root cellar where she had stored canned vegetables and jams and jellies. It was so hard. My heart goes out to you. This must have been so difficult for you to write. Bless you.

  7. Wow Tracy,
    Just beautiful.
    When I cleaned out my dad’s garage and looked at the tools and projects we worked with together I felt similar feelings. I thought I shoved those feelings way out of range but you brought them back up and made me tear up.
    You have amazing talent to provoke feelings with your work.
    Thank you for sharing and congrats on being pressed again with such a worthy effort.
    John

    • Red,
      Thank you my friend. As I said in previous comments, it is as if the loss resides heavier in objects and smells attached to memories than it does in the actual catastrophic event itself. It can creep up and floor you years later at any given moment.
      I’m glad it made you remember your Dad for a bit, as I’m sure you do every time you pick up one of his tools.
      Tracy

  8. I have yet to deal with such an impacting loss. I fear the day that it comes, because I fear how I will handle it. I imagine though, I will take in every last bit of that person as you did in this story. The beginning drew me in and you delivered.

  9. I remember I was vacuuming my parents’ room, and I realized that the little taupe shoes that I always had to move out of the way- they weren’t there. My mom’s little taupe shoes. You’re so right, Tracy, it’s the little unexpected reminders that sneak up and break your heart all over again.

  10. Experiencing life right now. I hold each moment spent with those I love and care about close to my heart. Moments to come to us everyday and need to be cherished. Beautifully written. You are so much stronger now that you have released this story to us. We in return, are now stronger because of this.

  11. Tracy,
    I couldn’t read it in one shot. This was an extremely moving account… And so well written. I love you, my friend. I’m sorry I can’t write more right now…
    Eric

  12. You write and you feel and I am overwhelmed with the marriage of the two.
    I am helpless in your stories…but I’m ok with that.
    You make me miss your mom because you are a word magician.

    • And you write the best comments in the whole universe that make me feel like maybe, just maybe, I could be a real writer one day, because you yourself are brilliant and I have bucket loads of respect for you. I love you and you know it.

  13. Nice story! How apropos that your last mom cooked meal would be her best dish! My mom is a terrible cook, but I’m going to call her right now and tell her that I love her. I haven’t said it out loud to her in too long!

  14. This was beautifully written with so many sensory details. I could really get a sense of how you felt, which must have been really hard to deal with. Thanks for sharing this!

  15. You write your emotions with powerful words, and I can feel the sorrow as I read this. It’s unreal, how the simplest acts that we take for granted suddenly hold the entire weight of our existence in them. Be well.

  16. It is terrible and wonderful how those little things, a smell an item in unexpected light, can literally break our contracts with time and so intimately reconnect us with what we have lost.

    I loved reading your post- it made me cry a bit and brought some dust memories of my mom to mind.

  17. Just beautiful
    My mother and I have drifted over the years; however, she too makes (made, in my vernacular unfortunately) a mean beef stroganoff. I felt the pain in this post, the love, the heartache. All I can say is, please keep writing through the darkness. You are beyond talented and eloquence is certainly a gift you posess. I’m liking and sharing this one!
    My condolences for your loss.

    MW

    • Mia,
      Thank you so much for your kind words. My mother and I had a rough go of it for many years. Life is short, don’t let things stand in the way that can create deep regret later. I’d give anything for my mom to annoy the shit out of me just one more time.
      Thanks for commenting.
      Tracy

  18. Wow, you blew me away! You really did..I thought it was an amazing story…it almost brought me to tears..I love the part where you said she ‘measured only by love.’ What a wonderful mom to have had – it was a very touching story.

  19. There is always some item – a faded photograph, an old paperweight, a drawing or …beef stroganoff – that catches us by the throat and stops us cold with a flood of bittersweet memories.

    Very well written and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed for it.

  20. Touching. I’m at a loss of words… I can imagine myself in your situation, I’d probably react/do exactly as written in this post. Great post, sometimes words can create an immense impact. Like yours have. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  21. Without question the best thing you have ever written or at least that I have read. I’m sitting at my desk crying. My mom has been gone for 4 years and sometimes I miss her like it was just yesterday. She made a helluva stroganoff too.

    Congrats Tracy!

    • Maggie,
      Thank you so much, this was very hard to write but totally cathartic. That stroganoff will do it every time. Sorry for your loss my friend, nothing easy about it.
      Tracy

      • I’m sure it was cathartic but also masterful writing. About a month ago, I sat at home and drank wine alone (you could do this with some sparkling lemonade from Trader Joe’s) and listened to the Train song “you can finally meet my mom” and got absolutely hysterical. Sometimes you just gotta let it out. Bravo Tracy, very brave. You are more than a pretty face.
        xo mag

        • You are incredibly sweet. Sometimes we have to let it flow, we have to let ourselves succumb to it and be overcome with the sadness and loss and grief. We miss them, and this is healthy. Who doesn’t feel better after a good, snotty cry?
          Thanks again my dear,
          Tracy

  22. Absolutely beautiful. I just lost my dad a few weeks ago, and writing here has helped me with it. Reading yours made my heart hurt a little, but in a really good way. Thanks for sharing such a lovely memory.

    • Maeveala,
      I am so sorry for your recent loss. I wasn’t writing yet when I lost my mother, but being able to purge all of these memories, even now, is extremely cathartic. I am happy it touched you in some way.
      Tracy

  23. By coincidence, I have beef stroganoff cooking in the crock pot now. It won’t be as good as your mother’s homemade sauce, but I will think of you as we eat it tonight.
    Thank you for sharing your memories of your mother.

    • That is incredibly touching to think that some family, somewhere in the world will be thinking of me and my mother as they eat stroganoff tonight. It’s stuff like that that makes writing magical.
      Thank you, so much.
      Tracy

  24. This was incredible, Tracy. You had me in tears remembering the night my dad passed away. It’s so funny how we attach such strong, vivid emotions to the debris left in the wake of a death. Maybe that’s the only way we can survive the onslaught of grief. Your beef stroganoff is my dad’s backpack. I focused on it a lot when we lost him. Beautiful writing. You do your mom a tremendous honor by writing about her with such care and love.

  25. Tracy, this is lovely, haunting and so powerful. I also was FP’d (yesterday) for a post I wrote about my mother visiting me in a dream…so many people commented that they were touched, many admitted tearing up. Your words have had the same effect on me. Thanks for sharing this…I am sure it was not easy to write.

  26. I’m at loss of words. It is such a heartfelt post. A family friend passed a way last week and this post made me remember some wonderful moments with her.
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

  27. I am so sorry for your loss. I could feel the emotion in your words and imagine it must have taken a great deal of strength to write that story. Your mom sounds like a very special person and a wonderful mother — I’m so glad you shared her with us.

  28. Absolutely beautiful, thankyou for sharing. I’m glad you finally did eat the stroganoff as hard as it would have been and I’m sure you’ll always think of her when you make it again :)

  29. I can’t remember the last thing I ate that my mother cooked but I remember coming across the last thing she wrote for me: an address of a friend who had given us a wedding present, for me to forward my thank you card on to. I remember finding this scrap of paper in my address book soon after she died, such a shock to see something created by her.

    Thank you so much for sharing and in such beautiful words.

    Kx

  30. Congratulations, Tracy. This is so eloquently written, and strong. The feelings came through, vividly, loud and clear. You truly are a gifted writer. (Food and nostalgia seem to be going around, these days.)
    All the best,
    Victoria

  31. Amazingly well written, so deserving of being Freshly Pressed. Congratulations. Thank you for sharing it with us. I lost my mother when I was 16. Between your post and Bill McMorrow’s post I’m a puddle of tears today.

  32. You made me all teary. I’m sorry for your loss, but your memories are wonderful. Thank you for reminding of all the wonderful things my Mom and Grandma taught me to do.

  33. Thank you for sharing this poetically written memoir. I lost my mom this past September and vividly remember cleaning out her fridge and it striking me as so wrong. The permanency of her premature death (59yo after a 10 month long battle with cancer) was made so real. I wonder if the fridge thing is common because we associate so many happy childhood memories of moms making lovingly prepared meals the way ours did. Her drink was “Little black dress” merlot and pouring out that 1/2 a bottle seemed like betrayal (I would have drank it myself but I don’t think I would have stopped that day). I made a private joke in my mind that she probably would like her ashes interred in that very bottle. I didn’t keep the bottle but I cherish the cork. Written on it “moms last bottle 9/26/13″. She would have been 60 this 3/18 so you know I’ll be enjoying a whole bottle of little back dress after work that day!

  34. A powerful and beautiful story, thanks so much for sharing. I just sent a stroganoff recipe to my son away at college, just a coincidence, but you reminded me how simple meals can be the foundation of our memories and our family bonds.

  35. ABSOLUTELY beautiful. you capture memories, thoughts and emotions so well. i felt like i was there. so glad you could write this. i’m dealing with a recent death and it’s consoling to know that healing can be found in the smallest treasures. thank you, and stay strong.

  36. This was so touching. I related to it so deeply, not only because I also lost my mother, but because I also remember the feeling of eating things after her death that she had prepared. My mom had canned tomatoes. It’s weird, but I saved them for a few years, just looking at them as a memory of canning them with her. However, after I met my (now) husband and we were engaged. It was heartbreaking to me that she couldn’t meet the man who would share my life and become the father of her grandchildren, and I wound up using those tomatoes to cook a dish she used to fix for me. They were still fresh, the dish tasted just like hers, and it was a small taste of Mama’s cooking to share with him when he would never get the chance to taste her hospitality in person. I know that sounds strange, but I hadn’t thought of it in a few years until you shared your story. Thank you.

  37. This is an incredible piece, Tracy! I am not on the best of terms with my mother and fear her death terribly…..you are inspiring me to start yet another blog……

    • Thank you so much, life is short, make sure you are not setting yourself up for a a life of regret once she is gone. We are human, we are all flawed, forgiveness makes it all so much easier.

  38. A very touching post..It originally caught my eye on a re blog..as Beef Stroganoff is the dish my daughter loves me to cook her and she now cooks it for her partner. I want to make Beef Stroganoff now ! :)

  39. Thank you so much for your post… I live far from my own mother right now. She is coming to visit in May and the first thing I am going to ask her for is her beef stroganoff! Funny how it’s the little things you forget about, like a favorite meal, when your parents aren’t around any longer… I will also give her a great big hug and kiss and think of your lovely post!

  40. So very beautifully written and felt , I could taste it, Tracy. I’ve lost several family members and tend to latch on to one thing of theirs to hold, to bring them back for a moment. What would we do without those things.

  41. I saw this on my friend Mo’s blog. Beautiful and heartbreaking. My father passed away 11 years ago and I know how you feel. I think you have to go through that horrid experience to understand. I’m glad you waited to eat the meal, the second anniversary was perfect. I’m sure your mom was smiling at you from heaven. Love continues when somebody dies, I have gotten messages from my dad. I write about it in my blog. Truly masterful. I wish you joy and I wish you peace, Laurie hibernationnow.wordpress.com

  42. Tracy, I have avoided your blog for the last few weeks. Not because I wanted too, but I knew you were writing differently and about your mom. When my dad passed away last year, it rocked my everything. I actually don’t think I have come to terms with it yet. Tears stream down my face after this post. The handwriting. It tears me up to see his handwriting. Thank you for shring this beautiful story AND memory of your mom.

    • @Heather, my dad passed away 11 years ago, you would think that with all that time tears would not fill my eyes at all. but something will come up, like his handwriting or even a man in a grocery store that for a second I think is him, or Father’s Day which I always forget I don’t have a father. It will take time. A lot of time but, it does get better. I promise you. It gets better and you will come to a point where you will not cry all the time, and you won’t feel that stabbing pain 24/7. If you ever want to talk about it, you can reach me by my blog. Best wishes, Laurie

  43. The problem with a posting like this is that it is so freaking well written and poignant that I feel such pressure to a) comment but worse, b) make that comment be at least 1/2 as brilliant as the posting. crap. That’s not going to happen (saradraws came darn close). So I will just say thank you, and yes, you made me cry.

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