I Remember My Mother With Love, Carrot Sticks, and a Crappy Bowl of Spaghetti

When my mother died during the pandemic we couldn't gather to say goodbye. So I made a meal I knew would have made her smile.

Kat Kinsman's mother

Courtesy of Kat Kinsman

I wish you could have seen my mother eat spaghetti. Not watch her cook, to be clear. This wasn't some sacred Strega Nona cucina rite or anything so precious. This was brute force boil and dump ⁠— shake on a layer of sawdust cheese from a green cardboard can, and jam a fork in to bulldoze down to the bare plate. My god, could she shovel it in: a mound, a hill, a Mont Blanc of boxed pasta and jarred Ragu heaped high and edge to edge on a Corningware dinner plate like a holy intention she'd set for herself to scale. She'd take a breath from time to time, a sip of instant iced tea, maybe the textural respite of an iceberg and tomato wedge salad or the glass of carrot sticks that was as inevitable on our dinner table as death and Christmas, but she always made the summit. I was in awe every time.

Oh, the abandon, giant and glorious and so painfully rare it was almost a miracle that some minor saint had deemed me worthy of seeing. Her upset, her pain, her sensible and sturdy white cotton underwear — those I'd seen on display in this kitchen so often that they blended into the marigold and mushroom brown wallpaper. But her pleasure was a much more private thing. I could not swear if it was in short supply, meted out in asceticism, or simply quiet, and honestly it's not my place to know. But I have my suspicions.

A few years ago, on one of the many occasions I hopped on a plane to be at my mother's supposed deathbed, I sat picking at a salad in a hotel lobby restaurant as my older sister took a pickaxe to our childhood. There were questions I'd always been too afraid to ask, and she was kind enough to answer honestly. This thing I knew, that one confirmed what I suspected, and we might as well get it all out now because we were just waiting for the call to come back to the hospital. But one blow took me out at the knees: "You know she wasn't actually allergic to chocolate, right?"    

Kat Kinsman's mother

Courtesy of Kat Kinsman

No summer camp s'mores. Not a nibble of the World's Finest Chocolate Bars we'd sold door to door in our Catholic school plaid. Nary a morsel of her twin sister's legendary chocolate chip cookies when we went to visit her in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Hershey, for god's sake, and yes, apparently truly for god's sake. Sometime in her youth, our mother had given up chocolate as an act of religious abstinence. Perhaps in a family where the eldest son has taken a vow of poverty as part of his priestly calling, a permanent Lenten state doesn't add up to a hill of cocoa beans in anyone else's eyes, but it mattered to her — and she buried it in a fib. Maybe it's easier to avoid temptation when you have convinced everyone who cares about you to dive on potential incursions before they detonate in your presence. We took great pains to warn waiters and well-meaning neighbors before they proffered their treats to her because such a thing could cause her to, well, we were never quite sure. Rash? Diarrhea? Death? Unclear, but she's our mom, for goodness sake, and there was no level of acceptable risk. Not in the face of everything else she had to contend with.

This, we did know: Our mother was never, ever safe. The threats came from both inside and out of her body and her brain. Arthritis, fibromyalgia, joints and discs and pads in constant need of surgical intervention and pain relief. Once, a toe amputation that my dad casually mentioned in the same breath as the saffron pot pie he was going to be serving at a dinner party where that very podiatrist was the guest of honor (I had yellow-tinged, food-based nightmares about that for weeks). And later, as we found out, a likely decades-long lightning storm of mini-strokes that had left her brain riddled with missing bits and mood swings that would change the barometric pressure of our home in an instant. She'd emerge from the fog, not remembering a thing, wondering why the rest of us stood shocked and drenched. 

Forgetting can be both a blessing and a danger. In later years, in the nursing home, a fellow resident offered my mother a bite of a peanut butter sandwich. I can only imagine the quiet delight that must have washed over her as she took that bite. She never really fussed over food the way I do, but on those rare occasions when she could bury herself in the sweet softness of carbohydrates, it momentarily muffled everything else. But she had forgotten something else — that Lewy Body Dementia and Parkinson's Disease had slackened the muscles she needed to swallow. The nurses saved her that time. They couldn't always.

On a late Thursday afternoon in early August 2020, my mother lay alone in the COVID ward of her nursing home where she'd been moved a couple of days prior. My father and sister who live close by in South Carolina had been allowed to swaddle themselves in protective gear and visit her regular room while she was still aware enough to see them — a risky move, but she'd been struggling to breathe and we all knew the window was closing. After the positive test, it slammed shut. Twenty-one residents had already died, and her doctor cried in front of my family, exhausted and bereft. A few days later, a kind nurse called me. It was time and she'd slipped into the room, set up the iPad, called me, and vanished.

Sitting with my phone propped up on my coffee table in Brooklyn, 700 miles away, I guided my mother to peace as best I could. Experts in these sorts of things say that hearing is one of the last senses to go and for two hours and 14 minutes, I talked and talked and talked. I'm so happy in my marriage, Mumsie. He takes care of me and I take care of him and we have a wonderful life. I know Nanny and I used to fight all the time as kids, but we're friends now and we love each other so much. Do you remember my friend's little girl who was so sick and you used to send cards to? She's got a little girl of her own now. I know how much you miss your brother, and I am certain he's waiting for you, it's OK to let go and go to him. 

And I talked about the spaghetti, again and again and again. 

I stared at my mother's unconscious, morphine-slacked face, wracking my brain trying to remember when I had seen it with an unforced smile, and it was unfailingly so before and after she'd scaled that mountain of spaghetti like a holy pilgrimage. I told her to think of her Girl Scout camp — the place she held in the sacred center of herself — and that I hoped she would get to gobble down all the s'mores she wanted, roast the very clouds themselves and let them melt together with slabs of Hershey bars the size of a boat dock, drift wherever she needed to in calmness and in bliss. A few hours later, she was gone.

A week later, I listened to a priest's voice and my dad and sister's sobs on speaker as they interred her ashes. On that same coffee table, my phone sat next to a glass of carrot sticks — no casseroles and congregation, that was too much risk — and I stuffed them numbly into my mouth, one after the other as I leaned against my husband and cried. It was a long damn time before I smiled again.  

This past summer, on the two year anniversary of my mother's death, I finally allowed myself a funeral feast. After a walk through a nearby cemetery, my husband and I collected the supplies: a box of unfancy spaghetti, a jar of Ragu, a shaker of something that passed for Parmesan. I filled my bowl and finished it. I had chocolate for dessert. I made it to the other side of the hill.

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