Written December 2013, when my mother was 97 years old. Not knowing what to write at a writing retreat, a suggestion was made by the teacher to write (i.e. make up) the end of the story. It’s based on a very real feeling I had while Mama napped as I made risotto one day, wondering why she wasn’t getting up as dinner time approached. Much is fact, but not her age at the time of writing or of our walk in the woods. I fast forwarded a couple of years, because I wasn’t ready for her to go, but didn’t want it to be too long. She departed her beloved earth in 2018 at age 102.
It’s Thursday, the day Mama’s paid care partner doesn’t come. We go for an excruciatingly slow walk in the morning—her walking stick in one of her hands, her other in mine as I walk ahead of her on the trail through the woods by our home. For so many years she walked faster than I did on pavement. I raced to keep up with her when we were shopping, even as an adult. But she never could be hurried in the woods. She stopped to examine every plant and identify it for my sisters and me, and later her grandchildren: trillium, bunchberry, false Solomon seal, spring beauty, ocean spray. I didn’t care what they were, I just wanted to get to the destination. “Can we keep going?” I would whine. At 99 now, she has lost her vision to glaucoma and macular degeneration. She hasn’t coped well with her fading vision in the past years, constantly obsessing over it, and I am surprised I persuaded her to walk in the woods with me. We continue the awkward shuffle along the trail through the moss-laden trees, branches dripping with goat’s beard lichen. I tell her where every root is, every step onto uneven ground. It demands my undivided attention.
The vegetable broth warms on the stove while I dice mushrooms and mince shallots and carrots.
The air smells damp green. Last year’s dry sword fern fronds rustle in the breeze above the emerging fiddleheads. A barred owl up late sits silently watching from a Douglas fir branch above us. We walk in the Natural Area on the hill where we live that my parents were pivotal in saving from future logging. It is seventy-three acres of trees, trails, and native plants—along with the invasive non-native English ivy and holly—owned by the City and preserved, now, in perpetuity. Outside of her daughters, it is my mother’s finest achievement—her legacy.
I warm the olive oil in a large skillet and stir in the mushrooms.
When they are soft, I remove them from the pan and set them aside.
It’s spring, Mama’s favorite season of new life and hope. I love equally, or more, the turning inward time of autumn, and have never understood why she doesn’t see its beauty. She is a glass-half-empty person. She says autumn is a harbinger of winter, the season of her discontent. Today, though, she wants to know if the trillium are blooming. She knows all the spots where they should be. She asks if we are at the fork in the trail where our path meets the neighbor’s at the maple tree with eight trunks. “Are there trillium under the tree?” she asks. I tell her where each patch is and if they are newborn white, middle-aged pink, or dying purple. I tell her when we get to the vine maple that has arched, tunnel-like, over the trail probably since long before we moved here in 1960. It’s just beginning to turn spring green. She tells me, as she does each time we walk, “When I walked Rebecca through here to catch the school bus she would say, ‘Let go of my hand, Mommy, so I can skip through my fairy land.’” Rebecca tells me that wasn’t where the fairy land was, but I don’t correct her. Just beyond the bower is where the puncheon road used to be. The pieces of wood at intervals across a low spot kept the cows that were driven through here to their summer grazing home over the hill at the turn of the last century from sinking into mud. It was still visible when we moved to the hill 55 years ago, but gone now.
I add more olive oil to the pan and stir in the shallots and carrots, cooking them soft, as Mama’s delicate stomach requires.
We make it all the way to where the path meets what used to be a dirt lane from the reservoir down to the old Girl Scout day camp where Mama, a leader, did nature activities with generations of Scouts. I take her to the marble marker that declares the spot overlooking town as “Staebler Point, Leaders in Preservation.” It looks like a grave marker. She slowly bends down to brush the dead leaves of winter off the slab with her gloved hand, balancing herself with her other hand on my arm so she doesn’t topple over. She is so slight, I barely feel her weight. We rest for a while on the log, drinking from our water bottles as the weak sun warms our faces. She wants to know how much ivy there is and wonders if the volunteers have been in lately to pull it down.
When we get back to the house she exclaims, as she has every time we have walked there in the almost four years since I returned home, “I never thought I would be able to go in there again!” I wonder, as I do each time, if this is the last time. I wish I had taken her more often before she lost so much of her sight.
I add the Arborio rice and stir until it is coated with oil and turns pale gold. I pour in white wine; it sizzles as it deglazes the pan.
The dry rice quickly drinks up the liquid and the aroma begins to waft into the air.
For the past two years, Mama has spent increasingly more time sleeping—or resting as she says; she still rarely admits to being asleep. She nearly nods off at the table after her lunch, which she still prepares herself, with help now from her morning care partner. The effort is exhausting and by the time she eats she is too tired to get up from the table and lie down, sometimes staying for half an hour or more. If she takes a short nap, she moves from bed to recliner and sleeps there until time for dinner. It is unusual for her still to be in bed when I start the evening meal, but not surprising after the day’s fresh air and exercise.
I reduce the heat and add a half cup of broth to the rice.
I never made risotto for myself. I had never heard of it when I had a family.
When I came here there was a box of mix in the kitchen drawer.
It reminded me of a friend’s essay in the church newsletter one year during Lent, about making risotto from scratch.
It sounded like too much trouble for one person; too self-indulgent maybe.
But now I make it for Mama, and enjoy a meditative state while I stir.
I am in awe of Mama’s courage in taking care of herself and this home and property for the 20 years since my father died. I never saw her as a capable person. I was wrong. We are alike, she and I. I see that now suddenly. If there is someone in our life who believes themselves to be the stronger one, we give our power over to them. Left to our own survival, we step up. This time, though, she has not let go. She has clung tenaciously to her independence and control these years since I came to live with her. She doesn’t see me as more capable. I am her child. When I am exasperated by her insistence on doing it herself and her way when I could have done it more efficiently, she tells me, “Someday you will understand, Gretchen.”
Add more broth. Stir until the liquid is absorbed. Add broth. Stir.
I briefly wonder about Mama, perhaps I should wake her. She doesn’t like to spend so much time sleeping. She used to get up in time for the local news on TV, but she can no longer hear it. And even when she could a bit, she was only interested in the weather forecast. As her vision went into rapid decline, she became a master with the mute function on the remote control, turning the volume on every few moments to see if it was time for the weather and then back off. It drove me half mad. But she doesn’t even bother with that anymore. She just asks me, and I never know. I always say, “It will probably be foggy in the morning, or maybe just cloudy, and it might drizzle. In the afternoon, the sun might come out. Or not.” I am usually right. Anyway, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to get her up. Besides, I am making risotto.
Risotto can’t be hurried. It demands undivided attention.
I pair it with something that can be put in the oven to take care of itself so I don’t have to multitask.
It gives me license to say, “Don’t bother me now, I’m making risotto.”
I wish I had made it when my children were small, I could have used the break.
I’m getting a little concerned about Mama now. She can’t hear me in the kitchen, even though the stove is on the other side of the wall from the head of her bed. Sometimes she says she can hear me, but I don’t believe her. She also insists she hears geese in the mornings—before she puts her hearing aid in—when I don’t hear them even through my bedroom window, which is always open to stave off the stifling heat of the thermostat turned up too high because Mama is always cold. Perhaps she remembers the mournful honking as they fly in ragged formation up the valley, and hears them in her imagination; maybe it’s the current manifestation of her tinnitus. Smell is her one of her most undiminished senses, though—second only to taste, she can apparently taste the difference between brands of margarine. She should be smelling dinner cooking. The risotto can’t be left right now. I dismiss my curiosity.
Mama can’t eat al dente rice, the way I prefer it, the way the recipe suggests.
I no longer even think about the sacrifice of my desires, though, or bother to prepare it two ways.
I add more liquid.
Why isn’t she getting up?
Finally the rice is soft enough. I stir in the vegetables, butter, and a little Parmesan—
if Mama knows there is cheese in it, she won’t eat it.
I sprinkle it with sea salt and grind some pepper over it.
I taste it one more time. Food of the goddess.
I put the lid on the pot and move it off the burner.
I walk down the hall and gently push open the door to Mama’s room. The heat knocks me back, as it always does. It’s a small room for a master bedroom and the bumped up auxiliary baseboard heat keeps the air heavy. I don’t know how she breathes. The heat intensifies the smell redolent of old people: cleaning that isn’t done often enough because she refuses to hire a cleaning person, dander, the Nivea cream she became partial to after its use in the hospital caused her to believe it was better than the Noxzema and Pacquins that always sat on her bathroom counter during my childhood, Depends in the bathroom wastebasket, old shoes and long unworn clothes in the closet, old draperies covering windows only opened in August.
I can barely distinguish her tiny body under the purple and gold chevron afghan her mother crocheted years before my birth. Her hair—like her mother’s and like mine, white since we were in our 30s—is flattened to her head on the pillow. I move closer. I flash back to my little girl self in the middle of the night after a nightmare. I would tiptoe the short distance between the bedroom I shared with my little sister and my parents’ room and stand at her side of the bed—always on the right, perhaps because that’s the side whatever baby’s crib was on in the house where we were all born—loathe to wake her, willing her to sense my presence. Usually she did, as mothers do; but sometimes I had to touch her arm, lightly as a feather. Then she would come immediately awake and hold up the covers and I would crawl in beside her. She would put her arms around me and I was safe again.
There is no telltale grunt I have grown accustomed to as she randomly switches from nose to mouth breathing as she inhales. I watch the covers: there is no subtle rise and fall of her emaciated chest. When I lightly put my hand on her arm, she doesn’t startle and say in sleep-thickened speech, “I didn’t mean to stay in bed so long,” as she usually does when I have to wake her. I lift the afghan and slip in beside her on Daddy’s side of the bed that she never took over when he died unexpectedly in the hospital. I slide my arm under her bony shoulders, and turn her toward me, knowing the motion can no longer cause pain to her brittle bones and her spine, crooked from severe scoliosis. I hold her cooling body, still smelling of the rich earthiness of her beloved woods from our morning walk, against my warm one.
Tears fill my eyes. I thought I was ready. I am not ready.
“Lullaby and goodnight, with roses bedight . . . Lay thee down now and rest, May thy slumber be blessed.”
It was a peaceful departure. While I made risotto.
To read the eulogy I wrote for my mother, “What My Mother Gave Me.”
For the risotto recipe, “Risotto with Mushrooms.”