by Shari Brooks
It’s amazing how much about my mom’s life I learned through her death. I always knew Mom was a very private person. Yet, her funeral boasted myriad outsiders who were somehow touched by Mom; it was my window into her true depth of compassion for others, even during her personal cancer struggle. The receiving line represented grieving people from all walks of her life: the Russian manicurist who looked forward to seeing my mom every week for the last eight years (even during her marathon chemo infusion days), the dry cleaning lady who loved receiving my mom’s crafty hand-written recipes each week, teachers from my grade school (over 35 years ago) who worked with her as class mom. As I looked out across the sea of people congregated, I realized that many of them had, at one point in their lives, sat around our dinner table and benefited from Mom’s gourmet cooking. In fact, I’m certain that many friendships in the audience were even initiated around our table.
Our dinner table was effectively a communal table. As quiet and reserved as my mom could be, my father is the polar opposite. He is a people-collector. Every person that came into contact with my dad was, in one way or another, invited over the house for a home-cooked meal (regardless if he informed Mom or not). To this day, I have no idea how my mom put up with him. On many occasions, she’d find herself cooking for people who didn’t even speak a lick of English but who my dad had met out: at the hospital, on the street, at the symphony. Basically, there was no filter for Dad. Whoever seemed remotely interesting would get the invite for dinner. Often, Mom would be told the morning of the dinner and, without any hesitation, the table would be set and the kitchen would be overflowing with the savory smells from the stove and double oven – both in full swing.
For the last five years of her life, Mom’s quiet strength prevented most people from even knowing she was deeply suffering from a terminal illness. She would drive herself alone to her multi-hour chemo treatments at the hospital. Devoid of emotion, she’d “Plug into” her chest port and start reading her favorite book or finish a crossword puzzle. Then, she’d shop for her groceries and come home and start cooking like it was any other day. Cooking became her form of meditation and a way to escape the cancer struggles she faced on a daily basis. When her hair fell out, she always had new wigs lined up ready to be styled. When her eyebrows fell out, without hesitation new ones were tattooed on. With the fifty-pound weight loss came new, vibrant zany outfits. She didn’t outwardly pity herself. She wasn’t willing to allow herself to give in. And so, the meals were cooked and people continued to gather around our dinner table. As her illness started progressing, providing meals for people made Mom happy. It gave her a sense of purpose when all else seemed doom and gloom. Somehow she was always a pillar of strength– to her friends, to her family and to cancer.
After Mom’s funeral four years ago, I vowed that I would do anything I could to preserve Mom’s memory and to share her abundant culinary legacy. In the process, I have had to sort through hundreds of handwritten recipes, frantically scribbled on everything from post-it notes to Dad’s prescription sheets. Reading her recipes, filling in the gaps, cooking them, sharing them, I am connecting with her in ways I never thought possible.
The emotional journey through Mom’s recipes reveals her quiet strength and determination as a wife, mother, grandmother, friend, and, of course, celebrated cook!
Shari Brooks left a 15-year career as a marketing executive in the television industry in NYC to raise her two crazy kids. Four years ago her mother passed away from breast cancer and left behind a treasure trove of her celebrated hand-written recipes. With these recipes in hand and a desire to learn how to really cook, reclaim meal time in her family, and share her mother’s culinary legacy, Shari launched her own blog My Judy The Foodie. You can also follow her on Twitter (@myjudythefoodie) and Facebook.