A recipe requiem for a mother lost in these strange times

A recipe requiem for a mother lost in these strange times

Finding solace while grieving during lockdown is a complicated thing.

On the third day, the bananas were rotting. Of course they were: five of them curled into one another like liver-spotted fingers. There was nothing to do but turn them into banana bread. Wasn’t that the new requirement? Wouldn’t that prove I was capable and determined to withstand this?

I found my mother’s recipe file in the bottom drawer – a black vinyl file more suited to a poorly executed geography project on volcanoes than instructions for date loaves and tuna pies. I found the recipe for banana bread and couldn’t focus on the details: her handwriting was even and bold, the black pen marks rising and falling like sine waves. Not unlike the upping and downing of the curves and spikes on the screens of the heart and oxygen monitors that now surrounded her.

I made the banana bread using an online recipe instead. It rose beautifully in the beginning, then slumped into the shape of a brick. Small pockets of unmixed flour made the bottom look mouldy. “It’s good,” my father said, his tired face trying to look normal. “It’s terrible,” I replied.

My mother had been taken to hospital a week before lockdown. When I got the call, I immediately flew to George from Cape Town, crying quietly at the window seat as a man across from me coughed and kept standing in the aisle to talk to his business colleague, leaning on the back of my seat, too close. I’d scoffed at a family at Cape Town airport who were wearing face masks, the mother trying to brush her daughter’s long blonde hair while the mask elastic snagged the bristles. Surely this was overkill?

Every afternoon for the next week, I drove my father the hour and a half from their home in Knysna to the hospital in Mossel Bay. As a precaution, during what now feels like corona-lite days, only one visitor was allowed into ICU, for one hour at a time. My dad usually went in, and I would sit and drink awful coffee at the on-site café, which was stuffed with knick knacks for sale, including a Jesus motif pillow with the words: “I am covered in his blood.” In a hospital café.

Then lockdown kicked in. And with it a strange feeling of being stranded, both physically and emotionally. Unable to travel back to my own family in Cape Town, and with my mother shipwrecked so far from her own shore, and without the usual distractions – swimming in the lagoon, walking in the forest – I spent too much time online. And it was the food that bothered me the most.

People I knew – sensible people with brains and good walking shoes and a disdain for small lives – had suddenly started making bread. And posting pictures of their bread. Then there were the shots of lockdown lunches served in pleasing pottery bowls: baba ganoush, homemade pita, pitchers of lemon cordial. And all the while, my mum was suspended between life and death in a strange bed, sustained by a pouch of foul-looking brown sludge. I hated everyone’s pandemic idyll. I watched an old man in the Spar counting out change for a pack of polony and a bag of rice.

With the lockdown came the news that we would not be allowed to visit my mother. Like thousands of families across the world, we could not see her, hold her hand, stroke her forehead. In the months before her hospitalisation, her muscular dystrophy – which for years had scrawled itself only on her external body, making walking difficult and her speech slurred – had turned inward. She struggled to swallow food, and every morning my father would sit with her in the sun, feeding her oats and yoghurt. She would tap the bowl when she was ready for another spoonful. One of the few things she could tolerate was a walnut and caramel slice from Knysna’s Ile de pain bakery, and whenever I’d visit, I’d bring one home as a daily treat, cutting it into small squares and gently reprimanding her as she eagerly ate square after square. “You’ll choke, mum,” I’d say. She’d pull a face.

My mother died on 15 April. There was no church service. Friends couldn’t come around. My husband got a permit to travel from Cape Town to Knysna, my mother’s death certificate tucked into the side pocket of the car door. Losing someone in normal life is excruciating; losing someone amid the coronavirus is even more alienating and lonely. While my mother didn’t die as a result of Covid-19, she may as well have. She had severe pneumonia and was on a ventilator, and each daily telephonic update from the nurse on duty yielded the same anxiety. She’d had a “comfortable” night. No, there was no change.

But things have to change. So, a few nights after her death, in the absence of friends and a funeral, I arranged a small ceremony on the veranda. A neighbour had dropped off a roast chicken, another had baked us cheese muffins, and I added these to a platter of snacks my mother had loved the most: brie, crackers, chipolatas, smoked trout pâté. Not hummus. She was never fond of hummus. And we drank one of my father’s last bottles of wine and I read that poem about slipping into the next room. We ate and cried, and a tiny part of me was relieved no one would now fight over my mother’s ventilator.

Over the next few weeks, time measured itself out around meals. As my father wandered around the house, hollow and dug up from the inside, I was anxious to make sure he ate. At first, they were cautious, careful offerings: ready-made meals from a local business heated up in the oven under wads of foil, Woolworths pizzas, cheese on crackers. Eating when the one you love will never eat again is a cruel necessity. Then, one night, I roasted a chicken, steamed some vegetables and mashed some potatoes. My father ate hungrily, the chair next to him empty. I made pasta with roasted vegetables and Parmesan; French toast in the mornings, eaten in silence on the veranda as we watched a pair of buzzards drifting like dry fronds in the sky. “Mum’s birds,” my father said. On chilly evenings, I wrapped my father up in a blanket as he sat outside listening to the news on the radio: another Covid death, a food truck pillaged. “Maybe Mum’s better off,” he would say.

After nearly two months, I rented a car and finally drove back to Cape Town during the seven-day travel period granted to those stuck away from home. I had made myself two cheese and tomato sandwiches and a flask of coffee and stopped at a pullover spot for lunch, eating and sobbing amid the overflowing rubbish bins and the broken Hunter’s bottles. I missed my mum. I missed her skin and the way she’d smile when she knew she’d been funny. I missed her bad mince dishes and her date loaves and her laundry obsession. In her world – even before her death – no one wore masks or was suspicious of each other. When I stopped for petrol, I used the car key to type my PIN number into the card machine.

Now back home, as the virus drifts its way through more communities, its airborne dance a sadistic portend of what is to come, I worry about my father. In his late seventies, with a stressed immune system, he’s corona’s type. He’s also stubborn, and cooped up, so has been “slipping down” to the shops to buy things he doesn’t really need: fruit salad, printer ink. I miss his skin, his omelettes and the way all his gardening implements have designated spots on the garage wall. So, in this world of masks and sanitised hands – one in which we are both still here – I have become fiercely protective (he might say “neurotic”), and get a grocery list from him every week, which I then order online for delivery to his home. It now includes just a single sago pudding.

Before I left Knysna, I made a copy of my mother’s banana bread recipe. A few days ago, I set it out on the kitchen counter, put on her favourite piece of music – Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending – and measured out the ingredients with precision, cleaned up as I went along, greased the loaf pan with care, and spooned the mixture in. And then I sat in front of the oven, studying her handwriting – the way the loops of the Gs seemed hurriedly formed, as though they couldn’t wait to zoom back up to the rest of the letters – and watched as the banana bread rose, and rose, and rose, turning golden brown with a pleasing crack on the top.

In a few months, I will hopefully make another one when I can sit with my father on his veranda again. By then, hundreds, if not thousands, of families will have been left adrift in grief, hunger and destitution. Dying will have been done alone, farewells will have gone unsaid. I will take hold of my father’s hand, and we will eat banana bread with too much butter and watch the buzzards in their sublime air. DM/TGIFood

Helen Walne is an aspirant vegan who detests food snobs, kale fascists, tartare sauce and misplaced apostrophes on menus, but is very fond of broccoli.


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