by Patricia Smith
Patricia’s essay originally appeared in Hippocampus Magazine and was republished in episode 43 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.
“The potato salad,” I say. “The one you always make.”
My mother looks at me funny, as if I’ve just spoken French, as if I’m asking her to prepare chocolate ganache or créme brulée or Julia Child’s boeuf bourginonne.
She rifles through her index cards and beams brightly. “I’ve found it,” she says and pads over to the couch where I’m sitting and shows me her recipe for Thanksgiving mashed potatoes and sour cream.
It’s July and my siblings and their families are coming to my mother’s house for a day at the beach. I’m trying to plan dinner and my sister especially loves my mother’s potato salad, the one my mother has made every summer of my life, fifty-plus years’ worth of potato salad, the one with hard boiled eggs and yellow mustard, the one that up until now has never required a recipe.
“Mom,” I say again. “Potato. SALAD. The one you always make.”
She snatches the card from my hand and her face darkens. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she snaps. She shoves the card back into the box and slams down the cover.
This is how it begins, the slipping away.
Later, when we are all gathered after an afternoon at the beach and I assure my mother that I’ve got dinner under control, that I don’t need her help, that she should relax on the deck with her grandchildren, she will call me a “piece of shit.” In all my life, I have not heard her curse. My mother, who didn’t allow “crap.” Swearing, she said, was an insult to her intelligence. And now she has me in tears, cursing at me directly, storming out to the deck, angry for reasons I don’t at that moment understand.
The forgetting and repeating of stories has been happening for a couple of summers. At first, it’s hard to know whether or not the forgetting and repeating are of the normal aging variety or the beginning of something else, but this day and these events confirm my fears even before we get the official diagnosis.
What does it mean, the forgetting? What happens to the self when the memories are lost?
I wonder how much my mother realizes what is going on. Does she already count her losses? She minds not driving. The car was taken away, she tells me over the phone, because she’s too old. Aging seems to her a betrayal, something that even at 85 she does not want to admit is happening. She sees herself as we all do: the younger version still alive in our heads, still laughing with friends, enjoying the beach, still working, traveling to France.
Two years after the potato salad incident, I’m searching for something to bring to a holiday gathering when I come across an index card for marinated pork tenderloin written in my mother’s cursive. There, folded into the loops and precise handwriting, my mother’s generous spirit and good humor, her voice full of enthusiasm. I don’t know exactly why I’m crying — my mother is still alive and still enjoying our visits and phone calls — but already the loss is too much to bear. Already, some essential piece of her is missing, irretrievable like those lost family recipes.
From here, things will only get worse.
I’m scared each time I call that she’ll hesitate and wonder who I am, but so far, it hasn’t happened. I’m scared too, about my own forgetting which suddenly seems foreboding, each name that escapes me a sign that maybe I, too, will slip away. This self that I think I’ve been creating will cease to exist, which of course is the truth for us all. Aging shows us daily signs that we, too, are headed in the inevitable direction — our limited movements, creaky bones, the rather sudden inability to see well enough to drive at night. We have such limited control.
And yet, somewhere, tucked away, we are still there — the mother who offers her young daughter the chance to cook dinner once a week, who helps her search through cookbooks and plan the meal, who, alongside her daughter, bakes brownies and congo bars and chocolate chip cookies from scratch. We are still there, my mother and I, the mixer whirring, spatulas folding, wooden spoons stirring. My mother offers the beaters for licking and can I help it if this is how I learn what love is? If only I had remembered that summer day in my mother’s kitchen. Offer the beaters to lick. Offer her again this memory. We are still here. Still here.
Original artwork by Claire Winkler
About the Author
Patricia Smith is the author of the novel The Year of Needy Girls, a 2018 Lambda Literary Award Finalist. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Makeout Creek, Feels Blind Literary, Parhelion Literary Magazine, Hippocampus, Broad Street, Gris Gris, So to Speak, Salon, Blue Mountain Review, Master’s Review, The Tusculum Review, and in several anthologies, most recently Writing Through the Apocalypse: Poetry and Prose from the Pandemic. Thrice nominated for a Pushcart, she has received Special Mention for her essay “Border War.” She teaches American Literature and Creative Writing at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School in Petersburg, VA where she is also Chair of the English Department. She lives in Chester, VA with her wife.