Baking for Death and Other House-guests

For fifty-five years, death has lived side by side with us in this house. In my earliest memories it lurked behind stories never told, about grandparents stolen by the Holocaust. By the time my brother and I were eleven and thirteen, the unwelcome guest took on a more ominous shadowy presence when our father experienced his first heart attack. It seeped out of our closets, growing steadily through each successive medical crisis, and subsequent intervention.

Eventually, hanging ever present in the air, death sprinkled fine particles of  fear, dread, and an occasional note of good fortune, onto birthday cakes, and inserted itself in special occasions. It held a place at the breakfast table with my parents every morning for the next sixteen years, until dad finally succumbed at the age of sixty-four.

During the years after, while we continued building our lives, for a moment or two, death graciously relinquished the position of seemingly permanent residence it held in our family home. It seemed through marriages, the birth of grandchildren, life’s ups, downs, and a few very close calls (9/11, breast cancer, a pancreatic tumor) we all breathed a little easier. It would visit once in awhile through the devastating loss of a beloved friend, family member, or neighbor, but always left of it’s own accord each time grief began to ease.

Over the course of  the year I moved home, we began to face the unimaginable about mom’s best friend since kindergarten – Ruthie. It was at that time, that death began slowly reinstating itself. While at Ruth’s graveside, the tombstone with the name Zwecher was clearly visible over my mom’s left shoulder. It was a haunting literal image, during mom’s MOST devastating time of loss. Death followed us back home that day, and has once again become a constant presence in our house.

Only this time, our house-guest seems to have matured. It is certainly still demanding of our attention, but in a far less obtrusive and destructive way. No longer a harbinger of something awful, or hurtful, it is now more of a guide towards a great mystery. Perhaps we have grown more comfortable with each other over time. Daily, mom and I speak openly about the presence, or, what she has come to call “the inevitable”.

Recently, after posting the blog about mom’s new health developments, I began to give thought not just to the event, in some unspecified esoteric way, but to the details to be negotiated before, during, and after the time when she is no longer here. Mom has told me that she wants ‘deli’, and from scratch, ‘home made Bethie baking’ (because she knows the act of creating these delicacies will help anchor me), and a celebration back at the house. We have filled out the form for her military service commemorative plaque, and placed it with the documents that will be needed in the moments immediately after she is gone. Beyond that, she has asked me to give thought to what I want to have happen, because as she put’s it “let’s face it, I won’t be there. It’s more about what you and Mike need to heal”

After months of an extensive search I recently landed on the song we will either sing, or play, that will anchor the ritual of mom’s passing. Now hear me dear readers, there was an immediate sense of relief and happiness, yes HAPPINESS to have found this. It is a beautiful piece by Jennifer Berezan called “Fall Down as The Rain”. The first time I played it for my mother she cried. Then she told me two things, first – “it is beautiful and very comforting”, and  then – “I am not sure people will get it”. Even as I write this I smile again, and remember reassuring her to give them more credit. All of which leads me to the reason for such happiness and the point of this particular post.

Everyday there is another phone call or message, that reminds us that our particular herd continues to thin. And while these stories are often sad, they are also quite beautiful and quite simply, most often stories about love, courage, grace, and dignity.

On the way home from Pilates yesterday, while singing along to this song I did burst in to tears and sob for the few minutes that it took to get to the bottom of Bacon street. I was thinking about all the people I was missing in that moment. As the light turned green I thought of my sister LaDonna and called her to share a laugh. Our conversation yielded the belief that if I stand on a foundation of this song today, it will already be familiar and comforting when the time comes.

I arrived home nostalgic, and definitively happy. Mom and I shared lunch and then began looking through her small green file box of ancient recipes on faded smudged index cards. As I read the recipes to her, she recounted stories of events where each one had been served. I asked her if she could pick two today which ones would she want me to bake. She looked very young and sparkly as she selected an apple cake (from someone in her family), and poppy seed cookies (that her cousin Sylvia always made).

After a quick ingredients check, I called my ever ready special baking buddy – Hailey  who was more than happy to experiment with me. While waiting for her to finish lunch, I peeled and sliced the apples, and found a memory of my grandmother.

As a child I had watched in wonderment the first time I saw her peel an entire apple in one long continuous peel. This is now something I do, with precision and care exactly as she did, without a second thought. I was smiling along to the very satisfying sound that is particular to slicing good apples into thin arcs. Tossing them in a bowl with a ridiculously decadent amount of good cinnamon and sugar, brought me immense joy.

As Hailey was putting the finishing touches on our masterpiece, we talked about a time in her future when she will be baking for her own family, or friends. She wondered how she will remember the recipes. I told her that she could copy the recipes, or if we are very lucky she will be able to email or call me, and we will share a memory about the first time we made this particular cake. And I could feel death there, right behind me whispering in my ear, “that is, if you are still here”, but this time it was like sharing a small joke with a life long companion that fortunately, is not needed by my young friend, just yet.

Mom dozed while Hailey and I chatted between projects before beginning the delicate poppyseed cookies. Mom said the kitchen smelled delicious, but we were making too much noise. I loved watching Hailey, who with a sense of high ceremony, meticulously dipped the glass in cinnamon and sugar to carefully press the cookies thin.

The cake was apple luxurious, with a hint of ‘nana’. The cookies perfectly thin and crisp. By that time, Hailey’s mom Erin, had joined us. The air was filled with a sense of celebration, as it often is in the presence of such company.  I sat on the red ottoman watching mom’s face as she sampled our efforts. I was filled with gratitude for Hailey, bent in concentration over her slice of apple cake. In the background, I heard the distinct sound of our other guest, the one we all try hard to ignore. It was a gentle voice, singing softly, that come to think of it, sounded a lot like Jennifer Berezan*.

*check out Jennifer Berezan’s work at edgeofwonder.com

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"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Hebrews 11:1 bakka2thesource a collaboration of musicians and artists.
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22 Responses to Baking for Death and Other House-guests

  1. Amy Lapetina says:

    Dear Beth, because my dad had his first of several heart attacks when he was in his 30’s and I was there later to witness two of them, I lived side by side with death and fear my whole childhood. Now, even though my mom is a fairly healthy 85 years old, we have discussed the song she wants at her funeral and I feel the inevitability of her death so completely. I don’t know what I will do without her. Thank you for writing with such honesty about the things people are afraid to talk about. This one really, really got to me. xxxxxx

    • Amy, Isn’t it funny how different the arc of two lives built from so many similar threads can be??? As for your mom, I suspect she will always be with you – in all things you do, and everything you experience. … AND yes, I don’t know how we will do that either. I am trying to do, write about, and experience things that scare me a little every day now. I am glad that you get me. Z

  2. Shawna says:

    What a wonderful piece that gives a glimpse into realities most of the time we prefer to pretend don’t exist. I was reminded of Denis Leary’s admonishment to “punch Death repeatedly in the throat as he drags you out kicking and screaming”. In your writing, I see and prefer the other side of the coin, waltz with death and embrace him with grace. I believe he understands. So shall we. I’m so thankful and in awe that you have shown that this entire process can be walked through with eyes wide open, one moment at a time…and it’s ok…

  3. Thank you for this gift. I love the image of waltzing together. and it is surely ok. I love you very much. looking forward to our work together today.

  4. mike says:

    Beth….. I must say, that was so nice to read and share. It certainly puts into perspective just how short we are here on earth, and with simple acts, how it can put a lasting smile on your face. Thanks again.

    • It is sooo short, all the more reason to smile often. Thank you for taking time out of your day to share your thoughts with me. I always enjoy hearing your reactions and perspectives. Z

  5. Thanks for posting about this important subject. Sometimes it is hard to approach the whole idea of the funeral. When I talked to mom, she said she didn’t want any funeral. Period. I tried to honor her request since we were far from most of the family anyway. But, I felt the need for closure and for the family to talk about memories of mom. In the end, after dad and I returned north, I organized a “memorial picnic” for mom and the whole family came together for that. We had pictures taken by a professional to include dad and all his children, grandchildren and grandchildren. How I wished mom could have been there! But finally we had some sense of closure.

    With dad, mom’s passing gave me the opening to discuss his desires. Yes, he wanted a Priest, last rites, a mass, cremation and burial at the Veteran’s Cemetery with mom. It is easier on me knowing exactly what he wants. Even with his hearing problem (hard of hearing) and his early Alzheimer’s, we were able to have this discussion while he was still relatively healthy (not hospitalized or being treated for anything severe) though at 94, he is at an age where things happen without advance warning.

    It sounds as though your family was making memories even as they prepared for the inevitability of death. I think that must have been very comforting.

  6. I love the idea of a memorial picnic. What a wonderful way to celebrate. It sounds like something she would have enjoyed.

    It is heartwarming to hear about the journey of healing you and your dad seem to be on together. Thank you for sharing this little snippet. I feel as though you are a strong ally along the path.

    I appreciate the generosity of your response. May you enjoy every moment of your time with your dad. I look forward to hearing more along the way.
    Z

  7. Thank you, Beth. It helps to read your blog and others as I no longer feel all alone in this. There are so many of us on the same journey that it is good to share experiences and ideas.

  8. Linda Friedenberg says:

    Oh Beth, this brought me to tears. What a beautiful post and i believe I will be baking some of my Moms, Grandma’s and Bubie’s recipes.
    Thank you so much.
    Linda

    • Thanks Linda,You are most welcome. Your response made mom and I smile – her comment “that’s so cute”, followed by laughter. I would love to hear about some of those recipes and their origins if and when you have time to share them. Until then – Happy Baking and memory collecting!!!!!

  9. Linda Breault says:

    You write so well and with such genuineness. I love reading your blog. Happy baking and happy snacking!

  10. Sylvie says:

    Oh you. So beautiful again. I could have read more and more…. I love how you embrace the process of death versus fearing it , as it is so clearly lurking around… How comforting for you and Marcia. I would add those chocolate dream ‘crack’ cookies…what are they called again? crackle cookies? those are a must too….you remember the one’s I smuggled home and savoured hidden away in the freezer…

    • Thanks Silverino. AAAh chocolate crackle …. mmmm. I was looking at my favorite picture of you and shawna pretending to cut Leslie’s wedding cake this morning, while talking with her. It always makes me smile. I miss you, and hope all is going well.

  11. Joni says:

    Nice one Beth. Having been losing people since I was ten it hit home. Don’t yah just hate those Hallmark com
    Ingredients:

    •1 1/2 cups rolled oats*
    •1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
    •1 tsp baking powder
    •1 tsp baking soda
    •1 cup butter, room temperature
    •1 1/4 granulated sugar
    •1/4 cup molasses
    •1 egg, beaten
    •1 tsp vanilla
    •pinch off salt
    •1 cup golden raisins
    * The oats need to be rolled oats- not the weird, quaker oats flaked stuff that looks like it’s been swept up off the floor of a processing plant. This really affects the texture.

    Directions:
    1.Preheat oven to 375F (190C)
    2.In a bowl, mix together rolled oats, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
    3.In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy.
    4.Beat in egg, vanilla and molasses.
    5.Stir dry ingredients into butter mixture until combined, add raisins.
    6.Shape into 2 inch balls and arrange on an ungreased baking sheet.
    7.Bake for 10-12 minutes, until lightly golden brown.
    8.Try not to eat them all at once.
    mercials at ‘certain’ times of the year…. Sharing this, it seems to be the only thing I can bake when in Loss-Mode :}

  12. Erin says:

    How very beautiful, Beth. How moving and special, and how unique to see the events of the day through your eyes and heart. You are a gift. Your mom is a gift. I love you both so very much and am forever grateful to be with you.

    • It is easy to find good material to write about when there are so many treasures right … well if not in our own backyard, at least – always – next door. Thank you for your friendship, (and for loaning me your dog and children from time to time). They keep my heart healthy. To more afternoon ‘tea’ and baking necessities.

  13. What a beautiful post. Now that my mom is aging and her mind is shrinking, I GET it when you talk about death kind of “hanging over” everything. I feel it every time the phone rings at an odd time or I see the nursing home number come up. And yet, I feel an acceptance growing. You are a wonderful writer. I am glad we have connected. Thanks for sharing on our site. I’ll be back again here. 🙂

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to check this out. What a path we have chosen eh? It is great to connect with you. Looking forward to reading and exchanging more. until then… hang in there.

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