Thursday, 3 December 2015 | 56 comments

December

I skipped out on talking about Thanksgiving food this year. Don’t get me wrong, I like Thanksgiving. It ranks higher for me than other, soon-to-follow winter holidays, which stress me out with their gift giving. I’m even pretty decent at making Thanksgiving happen: I can cook. Thanksgiving does, however, typically fall pretty close to my mom’s birthday, which laces it with some quiet sadness.

I started this blog in the wake of my mom’s death. At the time, I didn’t really realize that they coincided, but the archives here are a pretty good marker for Everything After. The site is now a little less than five years old. I don’t think I ever thought I would continue for this long.

Grief is a funny thing. We are only allocated a very small amount of time to let it actually affect us. I am still figuring out what that means for all of us humans navigating the world, hurting no small amount. In retrospect, I’ve been doing quite a bit of that figuring-out work here.

Maybe it makes sense to start writing about food as a way to process a mother’s death: home, hearth, succor, nourishment, and all that. But the reason why I started writing here is not so simple or straightforward. I’ve written about my mom here before, but in a very safe way. Let’s just say my mother was not the easiest person to live with. I spent my young adult life trying not to be like her. (Someday, if I ever write about her in a less-than-safe way, it will be because I’ve acquired a bit of bravery that I don’t currently possess.) What I’m trying to say, I guess, was that I doubt that my turn to writing about cooking was some desperate grab for maternal comfort.

Why did I start writing about food and cooking, then? I struggle to conceptualize it in a way that’s not stale or Hallmark-y. “The Yellow House” was so named because I wanted to write about the things that happened within the literal four walls and figurative space of a home, the people who come and go, families biological and chosen, the sometimes safe and ordinary and sometimes radical places that we build around ourselves.

Let the record show that “The Yellow House” is a pretty stupid name, but the phenomena that compel me to write are still the same. When my mother passed, I had been living in sub-Saharan Africa, was just getting over malaria, and was faced with getting my life on track back in the U.S. near immediately. Find a job, find a place to sleep, find a place to be able to fry an egg for yourself when you return home, spent, after a day in a brand new cubicle job, three weeks after your mother has died. Cooking—and writing about it—became an exercise in pulse-taking, a way to check in on myself.

With grief comes strange repercussions and re-formations of personality, and for me it has come in the form of social (and other kinds of) anxiety. Food and cooking have helped me to have something tangible to offer people, a way to be generous when myself, alone, is prickly, withdrawn, and unloveable. Writing about food and sharing recipes is a way of doing that, too, and is a common currency for connection.

Matrilineal relationships, whether wonderful or strained, loom large in our stories about food and cooking. There is a lot of very charged, gendered heritage present in the kitchen, in terms of family lineage and also historically. Modern women have to work hard to strike a balance between honoring that heritage while celebrating the gains that have made it a choice for us to be in that kitchen. I write a lot here about what it means to care about food and cooking, but to be a real person, a working woman with a commute and a hectic travel schedule. I talk here about home cooking that is simple to a fault, sometimes (I have received the “that’s not even a recipe!” emails to prove it), but that’s because…it’s what I cook. We seek to be good partners, moms, professionals, and feminists and still make ourselves, Betty Friedan, and our mothers-in-law happy—-and oh, also to eat dinner. I’m not saying these things are at odds, but the discussion around it seems to resonate a lot with people, and I worry that there aren’t enough of us talking about it realistically. I would like to keep talking about it.

At the end of the day, I like to eat good food. Making it is work, no matter what the 20-minute-meal! headlines in your supermarket checkout line tell you. The empowerment and fulfillment of being able to cook something enjoyable for yourself, feed other people, and rise a little bit above just putting calories into your mouth for mere survival, is a type of connection (art?!) that has sustained me over the past five years.

I recently found a forgotten note that my childhood friend Meghan sent to me right after my mom died, before I moved back to the East Coast, before I started writing about cooking. “I remember a sleepover at your house for your 13th birthday,” she wrote. “Your mom cooked us eggs from the chickens for breakfast in the morning. She was so joyful.”

I gather up these bright bits of information like a magpie. I collect them, impatient to piece them together in a meaningful way, figuring it out one small step at a time.

§ 56 responses to December

  • Katharine

    This is beautiful. I lost my mother in August, and so much of what you wrote resonates with me. Based on past experience, I believe that grief is something we learn to live with, not something we get over. And in time, if all goes well, the good things in life feel really good again. I pray that is true for you.

  • No name

    My mom died of cancer when I was 25 years old, your posting just touched my heart. It happened a lifetime ago, but the pain it’s as raw as it was in the beginning. My mom was a fabulous cook, and I have her recipes but I just can’t make myself cook them.

  • What a beautiful post to begin December. Thank you!

  • Jennifer

    I just love the authenticity of this post, and your writing in general. It’s a breath of fresh air.

  • Thank you for writing this. Like you, I cook to ease my heart and my spirit. I also cook to recreate — or perhaps just to create — a sense of the maternal in my life that has never existed for me, although my mother is still very much alive. I cook for sustenance, for the peace it gives my mind and heart, for the love that I have come to believe, and finally understand, that I am capable of giving and receiving. Years ago, my mother’s second husband — a very nice guy who I loved — asked me to make him a pot roast; it was bitterly cold out, and the wind was whipping off the Hudson near where they lived in NYC. He clearly wanted comfort food. I was home from college, so I went to the supermarket, came home, and cooked it for him. My mother quietly sneered over my shoulder and said, “I know you know how to cook; you don’t have to go to this trouble to prove to him that you’re better in the kitchen than I am.”
    I cook because it’s my anchor, my control in an uncontrolled, spinning world.
    Thanks for writing this, again. Beautiful piece, as always. xx

  • Anon

    I’m happy that you have continued the blog this long, it brings me joy when I see a new post.

  • Faye

    Sarah, I loved your December post, it’s heartfelt and beautifully written. It’s so true that we are allocated just a small time for grief; my mother died 26 years ago and I believe we don’t get over it we just get on with it. The note from your friend is a treasure; collect and hold those beautiful memories. Very best wishes.

  • Beautiful. Thank you for this. D

  • Your post is like a comforting hand on my shoulder. My mom died a year ago in August. But today is her birthday. I’ve been thinking of her all day. Your kind words took my breath away. For me, the sharper edges of grief have softened. I hope I am kinder now, especially with myself. The only thing I know for sure is that we only have the moment. We must choose to live or it all just slides away. The politics of food and cooking are vast. Although I have written a little about my mom’s illness and death, I mostly slide across the surface. As you so astutely shared, it is always a difficult story to tell.

  • Your words resonate…I loved my mom and yet did not want to be exactly like her…but now…some of the things she said and did seem to pop up in me…there are days when I can’t imagine not being able to call her…sometimes I even dream about her…and I still cry…she didn’t like holidays or baking cookies or not going to church…but she was a true friend to her friends and silly and giggly and would do anything for me.

    It’s just the way of mothers and daughters?

  • Juliet

    I don’t usually respond to blog posts, but I must say that this one really struck me. My dad passed two years ago this coming March and his birthday was November 25- always around Thanksgiving. Your third paragraph about grief brought me to tears. Thank you for being so honest. Your writing is beautiful.

  • You must keep writing! Your pieces are so thoughtful, beautifully written and so often strike a chord with me. Yes, to the expat return challenges, the mother challenges, grief. FOOD! Love your recipes too.
    Tricia

  • I’ll add my voice to your chorus of fans. Love your writing. And so much resonates with me – challenges of returning and adjusting stateside, challenging mother. And FOOD! Love your recipes too. Keep going please! It’s lovely taking each step with you.

  • oops. Didn’t realize the first comment posted… and now there are 3 from me!

  • Lovely. Grief is tricky, just like you say. Impossible to predict which losses will stick around the longest. And rather irrelevant how prickly or difficult the person was. Beautiful of you to share some of your honest reflections on losing your mom. I often wonder about the medium of food blogs: so dominated by women, and baking. Are we somehow willingly reproducing gender stereotypes? Or maybe we’re just remixing them? I don’t know. But the truth is, my partner does most of the cooking anyhow, and I just like writing about food. So I suppose it doesn’t have to be gender normative. And when these sites show us what its like to realistically cook in the midst of a full life, then that is very valuable. I’m often shocked by just how few friends my age cook. We are rare birds.

  • Kia

    Through tears and with an ache in my heart, I wish to tell you that your writing also heals others.

  • This is such a beautiful post. I lost my mom 10 years ago this August. I’m not sure it is ever going to stop hurting – I miss her almost every day. I also watched as my 12 year marriage fell apart in the same year. I’m not sure how I found your blog, but the name: The Yellow House struck a cord with me – it was the color of my parent’s house. Your analysis of why you chose a cooking blog seems right on to me. I wasn’t sure why I chose that topic, but that makes sense.

    Your blog feels like home when I read it. Thank you for your beautiful writing.

  • Oh Sarah, I am always so happy when you write here, so happy for your strong words, for your non-saccharine but deeply earnest perspective, for your real life food. This post is lovely, on a night when I am worn and sad. Thank you.

  • I too started my (very different) cranky copyeditor blog while my mom was dying. It was my way to talk about how things struggles beneath the surface (with a lot of gratuitous cussing).

    I lost my mom five years ago and what you say about the strange effects it has on the personality is so true. I am both braver now and far more insecure.

    I hear you and thank you.

  • Ann

    These are beautiful words for anyone, even more so for those of us who are lucky to know you. I appreciate how vulnerable you let yourself be with these words and hope you appreciate how much they will speak to others in their grieving process.
    Your mom was always able to find and/or create something beautiful out of nothing. Although you and your sister are very different, I admire this quality in both of you.
    Thank your for this today.

  • Jen

    Raw, elegant writing as always. It reminds me very much of MFK Fisher’s work. The sheer beauty of your writing gave me shivers, even if I have never experienced such grief (yet) in my little life.

  • :) There is much to say about why people start blogs, particularly food blogs. I started mine in the aftermath of the fin crisis to cope with the grief of losing the job I had worked really hard to get and no prospect of a replacement soon.

    “. Food and cooking have helped me to have something tangible to offer people, a way to be generous when myself, alone, is prickly, withdrawn, and unloveable.”

    Pretty much the same reason for me :) The food I cooked made me feel I was a better person than I thought I would be without it given my emotional state…

    Thanks for this post!

  • Jean

    Thank you for this, you are such a beautiful writer!

  • This is a very beautiful and graceful essay. And how refreshing to read of a woman’s grief for a mother who was not a saint, who was problematic and difficult. It’s a dilemma I try to grapple with regarding my own — to honour her and remember her with love and gratitude but not to smooth out the rough edges of our relationship.

  • Celia

    I had an eloquent comment composed in my head but then I read what others have said, and I feel I can only echo what was written above me. My mother died almost 14 years ago when I was a teenager; this year’s anniversary will mark the “longer without her than with her” mark and I’m dreading it.

    My mother was an adventurous cook, setting her sights on dishes from all over the world and finding a way to make them before unusual ingredients were as common as they are today. Cooking is how I feel connected with her as my memories continue to fade away. It’s precious to me in a specific and yet expansive, meaningful way.

    Thank you for writing this. I look forward to your posts for the writing as much as (ok, often more than) the food, and I found myself fearing as I read this post that you might end with the dreaded ‘I’m taking a break from my blog’ post. I’m glad you’re sticking around! I hope the little community of parentless commenters here can bring you some comfort, or at least some solidarity.

  • It’s hard to know how brave to be in a blog or any writing for that matter. I read Samantha Irby’s “Meaty” this year and it stunned me with its honesty, pushing me to try to be more open with my own writing. (The book also led me to this article, which I ruminated over for many days : http://therumpus.net/2014/07/conversations-with-writers-braver-than-me-17-samantha-irby/) She reminded me that relating to someone else’s pain/thoughts/joy/humor is the whole point of it all – that we look elsewhere to find out how someone else made their way. It’s just extra hard when sometimes it’s not always your story to tell.

    I’m writing all of this to say that I think that even though you leave out certain, more personal details about your mother, I keep coming back here for the balance you do strike. Always honest, yet never on the verge of over-sharing. It’s a very hard balance to find and I think this post, and most all of your posts, get it quite right.

  • Hi Sarah,

    Thank you for this post! I’ve been meaning to comment that I recently read the most amazing interview in The Sun with this psychotherapist who specializes in grief. His name is Francis Weller and I’ve seriously been transcribing large sections from the interview into my journal. http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/478/the_geography_of_sorrow He talks about all of the ways we’re doing grief wrong here in the U.S. :) :)

    I think I’m also going to get his book. OK, back to work! xoxx

  • Marsha Gibbons

    I found your blog today after a google search. I love your writing and your association between food and life and making sense of things. I have always cooked for my family, almost daily. I have noticed that the creativity and experimentation come when life is going smoothly and things are pretty happy, at least for me. When things are tough, illness of family, various stresses that come, it is nice to be able to depend on ability to turn out some comfort food and not have to worry about it too much. Food is comfort, family, and celebration. All in it’s own time. Thank you for putting your voice out there. Now I have to figure out how to keep up with you. It use to be so easy before the new window versions!!

  • Christopher Sanders

    I have been coming here for many of these past years and have like a guest in your kitchen sitting at the table enjoyed your hospitality. The sharing of food, pictures, thoughts and the light that you live in. Please continue to bless us with your writing, recipes and living.

  • Katharina

    Ever since you posted about connecting over a beer with a veteran in a bar, I’ve been gathering every piece of your writing that I could find. But what means even more to me than your writing in itself, recipes, pictures, and links, is that you’ve got something to say. Thank you for making me feel respected as a reader. Please do keep sharing your thoughts.

  • What a beautiful post. Thank you for writing it. My mother passed away last year on Christmas Eve . She was such a big part in my life even though we lived on different continents. She was an amazing woman for her generation. I miss her every day.

  • Hi Sarah,
    I’ve been following your blog since 101 Cookbooks sent me here (three years ago?) Anyway, I just wanted to say that I am sorry for your loss. I lost my dad in August and it affected me in ways I never imagined the death of a loved one could. Thanks for your sweet, honest post. Hugs, ~Melissa

  • Hi Sarah. As always this is a beautiful post, you are such a gifted writer. My mom died last November, very unexpectedly, so much of what you write here touches me deeply. My mother was never very affectionate, for reasons of her own, but she did show her love in many other ways, like making sure we grew up in a creatively and intellectually stimulating environment despite being quite poor. And cooking. She was an amazing cook. That’s how she nurtured us. Sadly I never quite inherited that ease with which she pulled together a tasty and nutritious meal, I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with cooking. Many years ago I bought a domain for my mom “ullaskitchen.com” but sadly we never got around to using it. We always we will do it soon. And now it’s too late and so many of her recipes etc are lost. Anyway. Your blog always reminds me a little of the spirit I grew up in and I just love how you intertwine your love for good food with tales of life and living. Thank you for that.

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