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Of Death and Recipes

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"Can you remember how to make Grandma's strawberry shortcake?" Erin asks brightly on the phone. "I just remember that she used Bisquick, and there was sugar involved."

I hesitate. "Honey, I never got that recipe from Grandma before she died. I've tried faking it a few times but haven't ever really gotten it right."

A pause on her end. "Oh, right. Hmmm... Maybe I'll just buy those little angel food cups, but they're not the same. Nobody made it like Grandma."

"No, you're right about that." I'm momentarily lost in a blurring of memories and guilt.

Being the parent of a twenty-something child is often a wrestling match between feeling good about what you've done right and guilt over having failed to pass along certain... essentials. In Erin's case, I do think I did a lot right: she says "please" and "thank you," puts gas in the tank when she borrows my car, doesn't smoke and is kind to animals.

But where did I fall short? On pretty much every domestic skill there is. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, sewing -- although she learned that from my mom, sitting eagerly at her knee while Grandma worked at her Elna sewing machine, starting at about age four. I'm pretty sure she did it just to make me look bad, since I rejected all of my mother's attempts to get me to follow her down the Martha Stewart path.

Actually, all the domestic skills Erin acquired were from my mother, the Queen Mother of household arts -- especially cooking. I was the family's big disappointment in that area, the Sister Who Never Cooked A Turkey or Hosted Christmas Dinner. Interestingly, my mother never threw herself on the dogpile when the family hassled me about my lack of cooking or homemaking talent. As I got older, I realized she was far more interested in my developing the skills I did have. When my first story appeared in the paper, she smiled at me radiantly.

"Well, there!" she said. "This is your gift."

I've tried emulating her strawberry shortcake dozens of times in the past few years but have never captured what it was that made hers so good. Something was always missing. The biscuits fell apart, or weren't sweet enough, the strawberries got too soupy from sitting. In fact, strawberries were key in my realization that Mom was doomed.

Dad was away on one of his incessant walkabouts -- his trips to the desert to play golf or visit his sister in the Tetons -- so I went over to have dinner. I was startled to find her sartorially-proper self disheveled (had she suddenly become a wino?) and the entire house in shambles. Especially the kitchen: there was leftover food everywhere, including some TV dinner trays (my mother?) with scraps still clinging to the tin.

And by the sink: a basket of strawberries that she'd left out on the drain board for so long that they had nearly liquefied. There was a river of strawberry juice running like blood across the counter.

The fact that she -- the compulsive kitchen neatnik -- didn't consider this problematic told me she was in dire straits. When I pointed out the potential Health Department citations in the kitchen, she just sighed, and looked at me with ill-focused eyes. "I'm just tired, that's all."

A few days later the tests revealed a brain tumor the size of a golf ball on the lobe of her brain that governed personality -- hence her descent into slow speech, the diminution of her sparkle and the loss of her fashion sense. Surgery was hastily planned for the next day. "Well, at least we'll now have irrefutable proof that I have a brain," she joked haltingly to Erin, who laughed bravely in her grandmother's company but sobbed herself to sleep that night. Just like that, there were no more family dinners, no more strawberry shortcake.

God, I should have asked her how she made it while she could still talk.

When she died just a few months later, I let everything go to weeds: my house, my body, my boyfriend. I didn't want anything or anyone to love me, and I sure as hell didn't want to love anyone. Only Erin understood my raging withdrawal; only she stood staunchly -- like a blond angel with a mighty left hook -- between me and a deeper depression, refusing to let me slide. She could have spent that summer working on the East Coast, but instead she came home to me, her flawed and grieving mom, to charm me back to life. I suppose I could have used that summer to learn to cook, but, I figured, why start now?

So Erin got the short end of the domestic stick. No sitting at my side while I taught her the fine art of crocheting, no whipping up cocktail dresses on the Elna, and for sure no cooking lessons. But I did the best I could. And crossed my fingers that Erin would look to my more worthy family members for role modeling. So far, it's working out pretty well.

"Hey, I have an idea!" Erin says. "I'll just keep it really simple and do like you used to do for dessert - cut a cantaloupe in half and put strawberries and ice cream in it!"

Ingenuity and the ability to think on the fly: this, she gets from me.

Adapted from Naked on the Page: the Misadventures of my Unmarried Midlife, by Jane Ganahl (Viking)