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.