I walk along the bush path near our home and watch families out with their bikes, couples walking, singles jogging. There are dogs – so many dogs. And as I walk, tears threaten yet again. It’s been a long time since I’ve cried, but these past few days, it’s all I’ve been doing. Tears come at random, inconvenient moments, and I don’t trust myself to hold them in. I need to do something with these feelings that seem to be leaking out of me every chance they get. As I walk, I think about the pumpkin sitting on the bench at home, the one my husband grew. The solution is simple. I will cook. I will cook pumpkin soup.
My mother taught me to cook. She was patient with me. She didn’t carry on if I didn’t get it right. Rather, she cleverly complimented me on what I did well, then gently suggested what I might do better. She gifted me a lifelong love of the kitchen as a place to bring people together, to nurture them, to give them pleasure and sustenance.
Now, I find myself cooking for her more and more. I cook because she is starting to forget which ingredients go with which. To forget in which drawer she might find her wooden spoon, where a particular pot lives. To forget that she needs to put carrots in a bean soup that she has been making since she was a child in Greece. She stands in her kitchen, mid-way between tasks, and wonders what she needs to do. It seems like a glitch, a hiccup in her thought process. I watch her as she forces herself to stop, to take stock, to remember. When she can’t, she stands there looking sad and lost.
Now, I find myself cooking for her more and more. I cook because she is starting to forget which ingredients go with which.
When I get home, I cleave the pumpkin, denuding it of its seeds and pale skin. There will be the satisfying wet sound of firm flesh yielding to the knife. I will put the cut-up pumpkin in a tray, with garlic and rosemary, along with the stock left over from a lamb roast. I love that a few bones that would otherwise be thrown away still have something to give; how one meal can contribute to another – why throw something away when it still has flavour in it? This is my mother’s doing – for she also taught me to be frugal.
My mother and I go to the doctor to work out what’s going on. As he takes her blood pressure, I tell him about my concerns quietly, in English, hoping she won’t understand. He is kind, tells her he is going to ask her some questions in Greek. That there is no one to listen in, no journalists in the room, so she need not worry about her performance. We all laugh.
And so, he starts… ‘What day is it today? What season is it? Can you repeat these three words after me…’
Soon it’s very clear that she can’t answer many questions at all. Mum starts crying, tears of frustration. I can barely hold my own tears in.
Mum starts crying, tears of frustration. I can barely hold my own tears in.
We walk out with referrals for blood tests and brain scans, plans to visit a memory clinic. Back at her house, we sit at the kitchen table, and mull over what might be going on. She cries some more. I try to offer reassurance, wanting to be strong for her. When it’s time for me to go home, she plies me food. Always, it comes back to the language of food, of giving. In this, she is still well versed.
As I walk, reflecting on what lies ahead, I worry that soon my mother may not be able to walk unattended around her neighbourhood, may not be able to be unsupervised around a stove or in the shower. Already she is eating less, sleeping less, fretting more as her body and mind start to decline. I hope it takes years, not months. I jump ahead, envisaging my life without her, and the tears start once more.
I pull myself up, come back to thinking about making her pumpkin soup. Delivering it with fresh bread. We will sit together to eat. And the image makes me smile, because it speaks clearly in the language she understands best – the language of food, of giving, of love.
Spiri Tsintziras is a freelance writer.