I didn’t have grieving on my agenda this morning. Does this happen to you? Isn’t it often a surprise, when you turn the corner and run into grief, like an old friend you had almost forgotten you knew, didn’t expect to see here of all places?
I was just thinking that making a blueberry cake would work better than blueberry pancakes to feed people who wake up and walk through in stages, over many hours, on a Saturday. Almost randomly, I picked up the closest cookbook I could find, to see if my hunches about measurements were more or less correct—I’m not a big recipe person.
That cookbook turned out to be one of those made by a church. In this case my childhood church. In this case, they made it after I was away at college and could not have cared less.I had never used this cookbook; I had no emotion invested in it; it was just the closest one that I grabbed. (I brought several cookbooks to my house when my father died last year and the old family house was shut down. No more pretense that these cookbooks would ever be used, as they hadn’t really, since my mother died in 2002.)
But it wasn’t my mother’s name or some special family recipe in the book that had my forehead suddenly mashed on the butcher block counter, overcome with loss. It was that parade of mothers—if there were men who contributed to this cookbook, I didn’t get that far—who I knew and loved and trusted throughout my growing up years. It was those familiar names, some for women I knew well, many just the last names of kids I went to Sunday School with. So many of them are dead now. Almost all the names I recognized belong to dead women.
When I think of the legacy of “The Greatest Generation,” I tend to think of the men, going stolidly into war against the Nazis, working long hours without complaint, mowing the lawn, participating in voluntary organizations. This cookbook walked me squarely into the legacy of that same generation of women. Women like my mother, the generation who parented ungrateful kids like me through “The Generation Gap” and the feminist movement and all kinds of other liberation movements. Women, so often bewildered, watching everything they assumed they would hand to their daughters and sons change before their eyes and under their feet.
My mother studied to be a teacher, but she, and the other women lucky enough to go to college, also took Home Economics classes. They learned to balance not only nutrition but color on the plate. They assumed without question that their inevitable husbands and eventual children would be the center of their lives. My mother taught me how to iron a shirt, sew, cook, can and preserve, set a beautiful table, host a party, chat with anyone. She taught me early on that motherhood would be the greatest endeavor I might possibly undertake. She taught me about Susan B. Anthony’s time in jail, too, and memorized Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech with me. But all with an apron on.
This morning, head down on the soft wood of the kitchen counter, I felt the absence of that place she and the other women of her generation held. I felt the grief of the loss of those souls for whom making things right for the family was always the highest goal.
I was not sobbing with regret. I don’t wish a single thing were different. My mother and I ended her time on earth together with pure sweetness—me caring for her as tenderly as she had for me in my earliest days. My life choices have been mine, and even if made clumsily sometimes, they have been true. No, this was a stream of grief, running down from melted snow high in the mountains, pure and simple. People die, whether you know them and love them or not. No matter how lovely. Generations relinquish their truths to the new ones that rise. But, every now and then, seeing a long forgotten name over “Grandma Ruth’s lemon bars,” you remember.