Crying Over Cole Slaw

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Crying Over Cole Slaw 



By Maryfran McKenzie


Today I finally began the mourning process that typically follows the death of someone special.  It only took me ten months to thaw out and get here!   It happened in the kitchen, as I attempted to make the Cole Slaw dressing that was my mother’s specialty for holiday meals.  

My mother taught me to cook, and she was good.  She seldom measured ingredients, and she cooked to taste, so I needed to remember not only what went into the mix but the proportions of each and every flavor.… "needs more vinegar, no, more sugar, salt and pepper, simmer on low heat, only use Miracle Whip (not mayo), the original, not that Light stuff, pour it on the sliced cabbage while the sauce is hot , the flavor absorbs best that way, refrigerate after it cools, not before”.

My mom died last winter after almost eleven years of frequent on again, off again medical crises.  My role each time included developing an ER expertise, acting as nurse advocate and case manager during multiple hospitalizations, and  honing my counselor/psychology skills during many a down day.  Basically I was the dutiful daughter, the depended- upon adult child.  At times it was intense. All this occurred while I was working in a demanding community health setting, going through menopause and mothering a teen… hardly an enabling combination.  I was one of many adults belonging to the sandwich generation, trying to do their best, not always succeeding.   When Mom finally closed her eyes in this world, the final act was preceded by three months of end stage agitation which responded poorly to the best attempts at medical intervention.  Reconciling to suffering still eludes me.

When she died I was numb and I was tired.  The numbness didn’t surprise me.  I had done bereavement work as part of my job; I could recite the stages and tasks of grieving without a second thought.  But the extent of the fatigue blew me away.  It was emotional and physical.  And apparently, it also impacted my mental status, because I couldn’t think of one thing to say in a eulogy at my own mother’s funeral.  It’s not that she didn’t live an interesting life, travel extensively, love my Dad even in death, and make her mark on her family and the world; it’s just that I was tired.

So my son gathered his sister and cousins, collected great stories and thoughts about Mom-Mom, put them together in a great eulogy and delivered what many attendees described as an upbeat send-off.  It focused, in part, on food and how Mom-Mom made great tasting oatmeal and turkey stuffing.  People left church convinced they could smell and taste what was in the oven.

So here it is the holidays.  I’m making my mother’s coleslaw and stuffing and I’m crying my eyes out.  It’s not so much that I am missing her being here as much as I am remembering being in our kitchen years ago, kneeling on the kitchen chair to help cook, standing next to her at the counter listening and watching.  It was an innocent time in my life, a time when I had no idea about suffering and what it looked like.  I was years away from appreciating all the twists and turns that “honoring your father and mother” would ask of me, and what the final years of her life would demand of her.


I’ve come to know that I do my best grieving in the kitchen, not in some quiet corner, on a lonely beach at the shore, or at a graveside.  It works best when I’m at the stove.  Not sure why, but I’ve seen it often enough now to know it’s my way.  The first time it happened I paid little to no attention to the process.  I just remember yearning to cook meals for my family and resume normal life after my dad’s time in hospice came to an end.  The second time it was comical.  In the middle of July, on an ungodly hot day, I plugged in the crock pot, covered all four stove burners with pots and pans, loaded the grill with charcoal and cranked up two ovens to make something edible out of every blessed thing capable of being cooked in my refrigerator and pantry.   If it could be mixed, blended, baked, seared, or fried, it was.  This happened, following the premature death of a dear friend who left this world in a lot of pain and way too young.

So here I am again, grieving during food preparation.  I’m sure there is some meaningful twist I can give to this….like food is nurturing, my mother nurtured me.  Or, cooking takes some level of organizational skill.  Or when you feel out of control you seek to control your environment (by what’s on the stove).  Or that grief is especially hard at holiday time.  Or my own personal favorite, cooking is some kind of ritual that I’m claiming for myself, similar to journaling, or meditating…strategies “the experts” suggest for processing grief.

I don’t know what’s going on, I’m just glad I melted down, stopped being tired, started to cry and began to cook.  It’s about time. 


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