The Wooden Spoon

She was a good friend to me. She took care of me.

1.

A year and a half after her cancer operation, my mother’s health began to fail. She was declining rapidly, but I hoped she would last until Christmas when my little brother would be with us.

Our doctor made arrangements for palliative care at home. A hospital bed was brought into her bedroom, along with other supplies and medications that might help her to be comfortable. I slept beside her on her own bed, and injected her with Hydromorphone and Ativan every 4 hours, 24 hours a day.

I called my little brother and a few of her close friends, to talk with her on the phone. I sat down with her and helped her draw up a will that could be witnessed as soon as possible. I decorated the top of her dresser with a little tree and other ornaments. There was a bird feeder outside the window, and she could listen to the little juncos when they came to feed.

It was the middle of December and the health care system was understaffed. There were a couple of days when only one care aide could come in to help me change, turn and clean her.

“How long will I be here?” she asked me.

In one of our last conversations, my mother said she wanted to apologize to my older brother for the way she had beaten him as a child, ‘because of all the tablets I was taking.’ Over the years, doctors had filled many prescriptions for her. Some were anti-anxiety medications (they used to be called tranquilizers), some were for cholesterol, some for pain, others for I wasn’t sure what. She kept filling prescriptions and getting new ones, without using up the ones she already had. After she died, I filled an extra-large ziplock bag with pills of various shapes and colours, and returned it to the pharmacy for disposal.

My mother received the last rites of the Catholic Church. Later on the same day, my older brother forced his way into the house. The police came again, and one of them was Hungarian. My mother was able to listen some articulate Hungarian spoken to her before she died, in contrast to the execrable attempts at Hungarian of my older brother, who after the police left reminded my father that I was dangerous and that the two of them must go see his lawyer right away.

Soon after, my younger brother was emailing us both in his 1943 Horthy-fascist-cult Hungarian, letting my older brother and me know that we were both shame of the earth, etc, etc. The two of them…they couldn’t stand each other, but it was like ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ They had agreed that I was crazy and should have been eliminated a long time ago.

The following day, my mother was calm and bright-eyed. I set up a radio near her, and she listened to a program about traditions of comfort food at Christmas time.

I was suffering from shock and guilt after the events of the previous day. For years, I would be torturing myself with the thought that I could have prevented things from happening the way they did. But my mother smiled at me, and nodded that she was okay.

I fed her canned cream of chicken and celery soup. She drank it with a straw, as she could no longer eat from a spoon.

I gave her a drink of water, and asked her if she wanted anything else. No, she said.

Later, she lost consciousness. I kept talking to her, and when I stroked her face, her breathing changed for a moment, because she was listening.

When it was getting dark, a single care aide came, a cheerful girl in a toque which she kept on her head while we turned and cleaned my mother. I let her out of the house, and as she walked down the icy driveway to her car, the nurse was walking up, and when we re-entered the bedroom my mother had passed.

My father was in the living room watching The Sound of Music. The nurse asked him to come in and say goodbye to my mother while her body was still warm. My father came in and cried; then he turned off the television and went to bed.

I had a fan on in the room, to circulate the air and help with her breathing during the last days. I sprayed Coco Chanel into the moving blades, so that the perfume blew over her. Then I lay awake in bed waiting for the arrival of the hearse in the morning.

2.

It was a comfort for her to cook and bake.

We stood at the stove, and she made me taste hot foods. Hold the spoon. Blow on it, so it doesn’t burn your mouth!

Stir the gravy, keep the spoon moving on the bottom of the saucepan. Don’t stop, don’t let the bottom burn.

There were many wooden spoons in the kitchen drawers. Big hefty ones, for moving cabbage rolls into their places in a cavernous pot. Little ones for making roux of flour, and for stirring saucepans of gravy.

There were ones that smelled like flour and butter, reserved for making cakes.

There were some that were never used. Their white wood never soaked in onions or fat.

There were a few fancy painted and lacquered ones that were supposed to be hanging on the wall, but never made it out of a drawer in the china cabinet.

There was one that was used for decades. It stirred onions cooking in fat. It lifted food from the bottom of a blackened pot.

She would make goulash, chicken paprikás, cabbage rolls, pot roasts and pork filled with spears of garlic. Big pots of bone soup, stewing hens or turkey necks, would simmer for hours. With a wooden spoon she pushed the meat back down to the bottom of the pot, and spooned out the foaming debris from the bones and excess fat, leaving the clear and fragrant golden broth. She would eat the boiled chicken feet afterwards.

There were times when cooking and baking failed to alleviate the pain of our family life. My mother would turn to convenience foods like Hamburger Helper, or boxed ‘paper soup’ with frozen vegetables added. She would go on strike, and stay in bed. Then she would tell me to take items out of the deep freeze: pork steaks, frozen peas and carrots, and frozen hash browns as a substitute for mashed potatoes. I would pour safflower oil into a pot, empty the frozen bag of potatoes over it, and scrape them from the bottom of the pot with the blackened spoon.

Then she would feel better again, and take the time to prepare traditional foods.

3.

When I was eight years old, I was noisy and playful. I liked to be silly. I was too rambunctious in school.

The Grade Three teacher frowned at my antics. She looked like Veronica from the Archie comics, with shiny black bouffant hair, a ribbon hairband and a tiny bow on top of her head.

One day she sent me home with an envelope containing a letter for my mother. I was afraid, and I slid the letter under the car in the garage.

The next day the teacher asked if I had given the letter to my mother. I smiled and said, “What letter?” Her shiny black eyebrows became very prominent.

When I arrived at home, my mother was on the phone talking with the teacher, who said to her: “you should step on her toes a little.”

That was the beginning of my being completely bad. My mother would step on my toes, whip the soles of my feet, and stomp on them. By my fifteenth birthday, I was expelled from school. I had been skipping out entire days. I would walk on the railroad tracks. I would sit all day in the cold park. I would go to the public library and read books I barely understood.

I couldn’t stand the bullies, and I couldn’t pay attention to the lessons. I had no friends. I had stopped asking for help, and I had stopped doing my homework.

She broke wooden spoons on me. When I tried to get away from her, she poked and jabbed at me with the broken jagged end.

I’m going to beat you until you forget your name.

4.

During the last years we lived with my father, and many of the old sources of stress returned, because he had not evolved.

My mother had much more patience with him than I did. And she patiently endured my anger at everything that went on during those years, even while she endured her cancer treatments.

In the final months before she died, she kept cooking and baking. It was a comfort again.

She brought many wooden spoons with her to the house, including the old charred one. I used them all indiscriminately, until she reminded me that she needed at least one that was only for baking. I selected a nice big white spoon and put a piece of masking tape around the end of the handle, with “Cake” written on it in black felt pen.

There were reverse milestones. Like growing backwards, all the way down to helpless babyhood.

The last time she prepared hamburgers for the barbeque. They were sloppy and falling through the grill, because she made them with too much bread and egg,

The last time we went out to shop together. The last time she used her walker. The last time she went to the toilet by herself

She burned the chopped onions in the pot. The charred wooden spoon stood in the fat, cooking down some more.

The wood of that spoon had gradually disintegrated and become part of the food. When I inherited it, there was half a spoon at the end of the wooden shaft. It retained the smell of everything my mother had cooked.

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