Facing the Reaper With a Laden Table
A death in the community means it's time to cook
My parents have moved back south after 15 years in Chicago, and the most noticeable change in their way of life—as far as I can tell—is that my mother now spends hours in the kitchen each month cooking food for families of dead people.
No she's not the board member of some charitable concern, and she's not running a soup kitchen. She's participating in an old Southern ritual, a way of sympathizing with and offering sustenance to the bereaved that's still a part of the behavioral code in small Southern towns.
And while I think it's fine and dandy that Mom's cooking up a mean steak for every widow in our county, there's a frustrating element to it: I'm hungry.
"Hey, can I have some pea salad?" I've asked upon poking my nose in the refrigerator.
"No. That's for Mr. Renfrew," she'll say.
"He's dead," she'll say flatly. "Your father's taking that over to his family."
I've seen pies, cakes, Ball jars of pickles and preserves leave our newfound Southern home in this fashion. I feel fortunate to get the scraps sometimes, but I'm not always so lucky.
Could it be that the South itself has less to do with my mother's new preoccupation than with our town's large retirement population, and the dramatically improved odds that old Mr. Reaper will be making calls now in our neighborhood with increased frequency? Death is a familiar shade around the golf courses and beauty parlors of my parent's little community. So a month rarely passes without a socially substantive death—I mean, a bank board chairman, a needlepoint shop owner, or some Big-Daddy type who's croaked unexpectedly—to warrant Mom's culinary mastery.
"Oh Lord, Betty Bob Jennings is dead," Mom said the other morning. Then she ran straight to the grocery store.
The first time I was exposed to this brand of Southern food-and-death obsessiveness was in 1965 when my mothers' mother died in Aledo, Texas. I was ten, just old enough to be awe-struck by the food coming through the kitchen screen door in such ludicrous quantities: whole hams, smoked turkeys, sliced tomatoes, cucumber salads, chicken dumplings, rice puddings, beans, cakes and all kinds of pastry.
My grandmother's best friends took charge of the kitchen (in that inimitable, bossy style of Southern women) enabling my mother and Aunt Peggy to visit with people, and rest when necessary. Food-bearing visitors kept their voices low, and my grandfather insisted upon walking among them, explaining in weird detail how grandma had expired, and how the hospital staff had worked so valiantly to save her. I remember him saying that grandma had "a tumor the size of a baseball"—something I couldn't quite deal with. I felt strangely disoriented, and physically weak. And all those dishes on the dining room table lent further to the day's repulsive flavor.
I don't remember which dishes tasted best (I think we had three kinds of pie): we were all a little delirious. We ate and ate and ate, I guess out of world-weariness.
From what I understand, rituals like the one my mother begins after reading an obituary only work if the involved parties don't feel frenzied to perform them. And while I'm giving her the benefit of a doubt, acknowledging that I'm viewing all this through the eyes of an outsider (those 15 years up North made me a Chicagoan), I wonder sometimes if she's feeling anything as she prepares all that food or if she's patting herself on the back for producing an edible icon to her purposefulness.
To the Southerner, a hand-delivered casserole or loaf of home-baked bread presented before the funeral can symbolize those last vestiges of southern unity and provincialism, I guess, which in the face of defeat is everything the South stands for: going against waxing odds, championing a lost cause, bolstering morale, forging one disaster into an auspicious experience.
Somehow, that food that found its way into my grandmother's rickety Southern kitchen makes sense now in this context. Out of death, we ate and emerged victorious. Resources were utilized. Equilibrium was reestablished.
So I can look at my mother with some understanding as she busies herself with this ritual that obsessively, formally, and repeatedly distracts her from the uncomfortable truth: She doesn't want to see herself as an obituary, she cannot face herself as a corpse.
Death is at hand, a soul that was here a day ago has left, the future has no shape, and even the past is losing its grip, but Mom is baking it all back into existence, thoughtfully labeling the back of each serving platter so the mourners will see—when they feel up to it—who sent it and where they can return the empty dish.