For an aging mom, food is comfort, excitement and, always, love

In 2020, my mom fell and broke her ankle. It needed surgery, and she needed me. So I went over to Bloomington and kept her company in the hospital. I was worried about her; at 92, she was rather frail and I didn’t know what consequences of the surgery there might be. But it didn’t take too long and when she came out of her anesthesia, one of the first things she said was, “You know, I think I could go for some Indian food.” 

Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell

I was so relieved and amused I would have gone and gotten her some right then, but it was deep Covid and I wasn’t supposed to leave the hospital and come back. There was a snowstorm outside. The bleakness of that week in the hospital while they waited for her electrolyte levels to stabilize would have been helped by the vividness of a good hot spicy eggplant curry. 

Mom hasn’t expressed a desire for Indian food again, but I remember that craving she had for something vivid, something delicious and unconventional, now that she has moved to Cincinnati and I’m kind of in charge of her happiness. 

It doesn’t seem right, does it, that at the end of a well-spent, eventful life, someone ends up in an assisted living apartment, alone a lot of the time, and cut off from everything her life had once been made up of. 

We could at least get her close to one of her children. Last year we packed her up, changed the phone number she’d had since 1960 and moved her to Cincinnati. She lost some connections in Bloomington, but is now ten minutes from me. Sometimes I wonder if she got the short end of that choice. We’ve always gotten along really well, but I don’t know if I’m especially good at the caretaker role. I’m basically lazy, I don’t worry quite enough, and my biggest character flaw is impatience. Mom’s 94 now. She’s somewhat diminished, but not a different person than ever. In fact, parts of her are more “her” than ever. They do seem to be the parts that have always pushed my buttons. I’m getting better at it, I hope, but it isn’t easy for either of us. 

She’s in remarkably good health, but can’t see or hear too well, so choices of entertainment are limited. The things she’s always loved, like reading books and the New York Times, looking at art, or doing crafts, are too hard. 

I visit about every other day, and always try to bring her something. I pick out audiobooks for her, read her old letters and play guessing games. But what I most love to do for her is bring her food. 

On Sundays, my husband Neil and I take her a meal. I’ve always liked to cook for people, but catering for Mom these last few months is the most gratifying cooking I’ve ever done. It means so much to her, and she eats so much better when it’s food she loves.

Sometimes I cook what you’d think of as comfort food. She loves good mashed potatoes. I brought over chocolate chip cookie dough and baked them in her oven so she’d get the smell as well as the warm, melted chocolate. I made her a casserole that she sometimes prepared when she was feeding a family of eight, made of noodles and ground beef and cream cheese and scallions. 

She likes to take fruit from the fruit bowl downstairs, but forgets to eat it, so I made applesauce out of some apples going soft and we ate it warm with baked sweet potatoes. She has mentioned to me how good it was several times since. 

But comfort food for her is also the opposite of smooth and bland: like tart grapefruit with rich buttery avocado in a salad, reminding her of her California roots. Or bright red cranberry chutney I’ve made to stash in her refrigerator. She asks for a sharp blue cheese spread. She likes vegetable dishes with dollops of plain yogurt mixed with herbs. And always a good homemade salad of varied greens, dressed with oil and vinegar, like she has made at least a thousand times in her life. Taste buds dulled by age need something that makes a statement. 

She really loves sushi, I think partly because it’s a little unexpected and helps her declare she’s more than just the stock figure of a diminished white-haired lady, undistinguished from other white-haired ladies. Also, it’s delicious and we’ve begun to pick our favorite place to get it on a Sunday. 

Every dish I can make for my mother holds some kind of story from our family’s life, or reflects a commonly held preference, evokes travels or long-gone day-to-day life. I’m surprised food isn’t one of the five “official” love languages. 

The very best thing is when someone else comes to visit, like one of her perfect grandchildren or another sibling or old friend. Feeding people was a skill of hers, but she often had a bit of anxiety about being the hostess. We set the table with some nice plates and wine glasses. We make sure to have chairs and enough room for everyone. We could be anywhere we’ve ever lived or cooked. Life feels normal. Best, I take something she gave me and that I’ve worked on since childhood, and return the gift.

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