Cooking Together
Cooking Together

The story of a legacy that was baked into a cookbook.

I steeled myself as I walked up the hyper-pebbly driveway to the front door. Dad left up the family’s favorite Christmas decoration since last year: a faux street sign purchased at a craft fair that read “X-mas Xing, Santa Stop Here.”

Below the top message were the names of those on the “Good List” Santa needs to stop for: “Gary, Kathy, Natalie and Sarah.” I allowed myself to gently touch “Kathy” painted on the rough wood before I rang the doorbell.

Dad answered it like he was waiting by the door.

“Hey, sweetheart,” said Dad, giving me a hug when I step inside. “Where’s Griffin?”

“Ah, he’s got to work late,” I said. I didn’t want to tell him that Griffin asked if he could pass on coming tonight. He told me that just the three of us at these dinners made him feel out of place.

“That’s a shame,” he said, with a small smile. I followed him through to the dining room. The house was much the same, but dustier. Same weird golden candelabras on the wall, a couple of quilts hanging on display in the front hallway. The dinner table, set for us to eat –

But there were only three chairs.

“Oh,” I said before I could stop myself. I’ve never been an actress, despite what Mom used to tell me before Community Theater auditions.

Dad looked at me. I felt like he was appraising what to do next. I realized I’m unsure of how long this chair has been gone, maybe he was used to its absence, maybe he didn’t think about “her chair” anymore.

“Rhonda from my support group suggested it. Said she did the same after...” he trailed off. I noticed his eyes got shiny. He cleared his throat.

“Nat, I just remembered I’ve got a couple of things in the garage I need to give to you,” he said quickly, not looking me in the eye. And in a moment, he was gone. I looked down, internally cursing us both for our emotional frigidity.

There was a chronic inability for Dad and me to connect on the subject of Mom, especially after the funeral. At first, I’d try to follow him to whatever part of the house he tried to excuse himself to and try to talk it out. That stopped when it became apparent that I wasn’t helping him, nor did he want my help.

She was only 67. Just the beginning of the Golden Years. It’s surreal to remember that we had Thanksgiving here last year and that she cooked. (She cooked!) But after we punched the clock on gratefulness, we went home early. I wish I could say that I went to Griffin’s parents for a second Thanksgiving. Or even that I went home and did something productive like laundry.

But I honestly can’t remember what I did after leaving early from our last Thanksgiving together. And that’s the saddest part of all. I think I was trying to make peace with all of that when I volunteered myself and my sister Sarah to cook Thanksgiving this year.

The garage door slammed and brought me out of my reverie. I peeked around the cabinets and saw Dad with a smallish cardboard box.

“She would’ve wanted you to have these,” he said. He placed the box on the kitchen table.

I opened the lid of the box. There, in a neat little stack, was a familiar sight: Mom’s cookbooks.

“I think some of her holiday recipes were in this one,” he said, pointing to a brown and cream spiral-bound volume. “You know, if you wanted some Thanksgiving inspiration.”

My eyes started to water as I make my way over to him and put my arms around his neck.

“Thanks, Daddy-o,” I said.

“You’re welcome, baby girl,” he said, giving me a huge hug in return. For a moment it felt like we had thawed.

--

One week to Thanksgiving and I had not touched the cookbooks. Griffin and I had been hustling with life and work, and there was always a reason to put it off.

But now with the box on the table and a notebook to write down the ingredients, I had a pang of anxiety in my stomach. I took a sip of my coffee and put it back down on the kitchen table. I exhaled sharply.

 

 

“Hey, hon,” said Griffin, coming into the kitchen.

“Hey,” I said.

“You know, you really don’t have to use any of her recipes...”

I sighed. “Sure, but I actually want to. It’s the... getting started part.”

“Alrighty then,” he said, moving from behind me to pull up a chair. “Let me help.” Before I had the chance to reply, he opened the box and pulled the top cookbook out.

“You want the scalloped potato recipe, right?” he asked, flipping through for the index. I nodded. I swallowed my twinge of embarrassment but allowed him to continue his search all the same.

He flitted through the cookbook and landed on what I presumed was the right page. His face took on a curious expression.

“Babe... you probably should see this,” he said. He handed me the book. I started to read.

12/25/84 Vera said best scalloped potato recipe. Said would give it a try. Ready to meet Natalie!!

3/12/87 Nat sitting next to stove in highchair. Gary cutting potatoes. A good day :) 

11/23/00 First tgiving without Nat, w/ bf Austin & family. Miss her.

We both looked at each other, misty. In this dog-eared, Post-It note-riddled cookbook, we continued to flip through at random to look for more of these tiny snatches of Mom’s thoughts. A sentence where I broke my arm. A couple when Mom and Dad were going through a rough patch.

“Oh, man, read this about Sarah’s Sweet 16 Cake,” I said, turning it over to him.

“‘Remade at 2 AM when I realized I did 2 tsp baking soda instead of baking powder!’ Oh man, Sarah doesn’t realize that she dodged a major bullet,” said Griffin.

I finally found another holiday favorite. Sure enough, Mom had made some notes. 

4/3/89 Good recipe. Gave Nat & Sarah some flour so they could “bake with me.”

12/12/94 Nat figured out Santa/Easter Bunny/Tooth fairy wasn’t real. Broke my heart.

12/24/18 Bad news. Don’t want to worry kids @ Xmas.

My stomach sank. I pulled Griffin to me and buried my face in his chest. He held me close and let me cry. I heard him sniffle too as he stroked my hair.

“It’s bullshit,” I said, muffled against his chest.

“What?” he asked, pulling me away.

“It’s bullshit!” I repeated loudly. “Didn’t want to worry us at Christmas? What the hell,” I said, a surge of anger pulsing. The fact I could’ve had more time with her if she had told me what was going on... My heart thudded in my chest as a wave of nausea hit my stomach.

“I’m sorry, Natalie,” said Griffin. “I’m so, so sorry.” He pulled me back into his chest as I continued to sob.

And that was all the progress I made on the recipes that day. And for the next couple of days.

I couldn’t stop ruminating on it. The suddenness of the lung cancer diagnosis (it was a routine chest cold that turned out to be much more). When they caught it (it had metastasized to almost every organ system). Mom was supposed to be able to stop dying her hair and go full silver. Supposed to be able to learn canasta with the neighborhood ladies as they watch Jeopardy re-runs. Supposed to be able to meet my unborn kids. Supposed to be there. Her prognosis was for one year. I got eight months.

The clock continued to tick on Thanksgiving prep. And when I saw Sarah’s phone number on the caller ID in the middle of my procrastination, I picked up at once.

“Hey, Nat,” said Sarah’s voice at the other end of the line.

“Sarah,” I said, and my voice wobbled a bit.

“I was calling about Thanksgiving plans. Haven’t heard from you...” she trailed off. “You... you okay?”

And I unloaded. Told her about Dad moving Mom’s chair, the cookbook journaling and about the diagnosis. After I told her about how Mom knew before she told us, she didn’t say anything during our last Christmas.

“I feel bad because we didn’t know and we didn’t make an effort—” I started.

“Natalie, stop,” Sarah said, sounding the most serious I ever heard her. “This isn’t doing anything. For anyone.”

She continued, “I don’t think she would want this for us now. I think she probably thought it was her last ‘normal’ holiday, which was basically true. Didn’t want people to look at her and start crying or talk to her in hushed voices.”

I sniffled and so did Sarah. I wiped my eyes on my sweater.

“You’re right... you’re always right,” I said.

“Hey, that’s what sisters are for, Natty,” she said. And after we hung up the phone, I was struck with an idea. It was going to take a bit of time, but it was going to be well worth it.

--

Griffin and I unloaded the car a few days later. He grabbed the box of cookbooks, while I gathered the buttermilk biscuits and scalloped potatoes in their bakeware.

“Ready?” Griffin asked, with a smile as he clambered out of the passenger seat.

“You bet,” I said, as we walked to the door. When Dad answered the knock, he smiled at me and Griffin. Although, his face faltered when he saw the familiar box of cookbooks, he didn’t say anything.

When we made our way to the dining room, I noted one extra chair at the table: Mom’s chair. I directed Griffin to put the cookbooks in that seat. I waved to Sarah, who was stirring something furiously at the kitchen island and put the biscuits and scalloped potatoes in the oven to warm. Griffin joined Michael in the living room to talk basketball and to watch my nieces play with our old Barbies. Slowly, the smell of Mom’s favorite sides began to cover the house, like an electric blanket after a cold day.

Dad and I started talking, ignoring the elephants in the room of the return of Mom’s chair and the box of cookbooks. After Sarah got to a stopping point on the cranberry salad, she joined Dad and me to chit-chat. And then, we got to a lull in the conversation.

I walked over to the box of cookbooks and opened it. I took out the first cookbook, her favorite with the brown and cream cover.

“Dad, I don’t know if you ever looked in her cookbooks,” I started. He shook his head no. “Well, there was more than recipes in there.”

I flipped to a page that I had stuck a note to, her signature apple crisp. I turned it over to him and said, “See what it says.”

Dad fumbled with the reading glasses in his shirt pocket for a moment and put them on. Then he began, “‘4/26/86: We decided on a name today – Sarah after Gary’s Aunt. 10/31/02: Last Halloween party for Nat before college.’” His voice broke a little bit when he asked, “Are all the books like this?”

I nodded yes. He took off his reading glasses and covered his face with his hands. Sarah moved around the table to put her arm around him.

“I figured you would want to see the rest of these, so that’s why I brought them back,” I continued. “But I had an idea for after you took a look.”

Then I pulled out two newer-looking brown and cream, spiral-bound books. I handed one to Dad and one to Sarah. Both started flipping through the books.

“It’s going to take me a bit, but I’m going to make hard copies of all of these books for us. So we can all have a piece of Mom whenever we cook. Maybe I can even scan them someday in the future.”

Dad looked up at me, his eyes wet. I could see the gratitude in his face. Sarah pulled him and me into a hug. The three of us held each other tightly, as the smells of Mom’s Thanksgiving recipes curled around us.

That night as I climbed into bed with Griffin, full of turkey and potatoes, I pulled out the original spiral cookbook and a pen.

4/3/89 Good recipe. Gave Nat & Sarah some flour so they could “bake with me.”

12/12/94 Nat figured out Santa/Easter Bunny/Tooth fairy wasn’t real. Broke my heart.

12/24/18 Bad news. Don’t want to worry kids @ Xmas.

11/28/19 Sarah and I cooked Thanksgiving. Felt like mom was there.

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