AFTER MANY months, I finally was able to finish an essay about my mother’s collection of books — about her notes, brackets, dog ears and checkmarks and beyond. My mother, who was very particular about many things — the hem on my skirts, the shine on my shoes — lived in her books: meaning she uncharacteristically left a deliberate mark in them.
In the weeks and months after [her death], I didn’t experience the impulse that so many bereaved speak of: the strange muscle memory of picking up the phone upon hearing news to share or just the reflex of the ritual “good night.” I knew quite concretely that she would not be on the other side of the line. The absence, already huge, felt as if it would keep widening, like a hole in fabric left untended and consequently worked to ruin — unfixable. Concurrently, as illogical as it might seem, the objects most redolent of her — her jewelry, her reading glasses, her books — were the things I feared getting close to.
Last New Year’s Day, I gingerly began making my way through my mother’s stacks of books — the cookbooks only — with a small though specific goal in mind: I wanted to make gumbo — her gumbo — a New Year’s week ritual. Though she never made gumbo from a committed-to-paper recipe (hers was verbally passed down from various great- and great-great grandmothers), she sometimes, however, made notations in the margins of old books, little directives, asides, reminders — “Check for crab legs at the fish market on Vernon.” “Go Mondays for Andouille.” I was just feeling rusty about the order of tasks, the ingredients. More accurately, I felt uncertain without her. I sifted through kitchen stacks, but I couldn’t at first put my finger on the thing — a beautiful old book about New Orleans cooking traditions that I’d grown up with. I almost gave up, until I landed on a pile of misshelved books with antique recipes from the city’s old-guard restaurant palaces. I opened one. In the margins, next to one of the recipes for stuffed mirlitons, she had written, “Lynell’s Birthday ~ 1984.” I flipped pages and found other notations — directions to augment this roux or the rules about preparing or consuming gulf oysters.Finally, after some time deciphering the faint pencil strokes, in her elegant English teacher cursive, and the staccato shorthand in which she’d inscribed the directions, I realized I heard her voice — both its rhythms and intonation. I was “listening to” my mother.
I wrote it in fits and starts: in hospital rooms on my laptop, on scraps of steno pad paper, in my head. It was both a piece I never hoped to write and at the same time needed to write. Finally, this summer, the whole thing seemed to settle into some semblance of linear form. The photo above is the last draft of the manuscript, finally ready to go. (I still work on paper when I get to the fine-tuning.)
It runs in print tomorrow in the L.A. Times. The link here.