Communion.

Dear friends,

As I was falling asleep Friday night, Mr. Mom rubbed my back and asked me what I was thinking about.

“About tomorrow,” I said. “About how excited I am to try my new recipes.”

“That’s funny,” he said, trailing off for a moment “ . . . how happy it makes you to cook.”

“Not really,” I replied. “I’m just like my mom. The funny thing is I never even saw it coming.”

Colleen was a cook by necessity. A mother of four with nary a reliable man in her life, she had plenty of mouths to feed, including her parents, who she took in during their later years, as well as cousins and uncles and neighbors and anybody who needed a place to stay and a home-cooked meal.

When I was very young, she owned a diner named for her only son. Not long before she died, she told me how much she enjoyed her work there. Creating daily specials like chicken and noodles were a particular pleasure she said, even though the hours were long and the work was exhausting for a sole proprietor.

Other than when she made cheesecake and baklava, I never saw her use a recipe. She left behind no cookbooks, no recipe box, no trace of the unadorned but nourishing meals she cooked over the years.

For most of the years I can recall, she cooked in a tiny apartment kitchen – about 8’ X 8’, with every square inch of countertop and wall space filled. I never thought about it at the time, but I suppose her petite domain was efficient, if crowded. She never complained, never longed out loud for something more spacious or better equipped. And plenty a day she cooked for 20 or 30 or more people from that sliver of a kitchen – then carried cardboard box after cardboard box of food to the nearby “community building” for the large gatherings she always seemed to be hosting there.

Nobody left Colleen’s table hungry. If she thought four would be on hand for supper, she’d cook for eight.  You never know when a fellow might want an extra pork chop, she’d say.  And holiday meals – well, those were occasions that demanded extensive menus and days worth of effort. In addition to the cooking, there was always loads of dishes to be washed by hand since she didn’t have the luxury of a dishwasher (electric or otherwise).

Besides, she wasn’t about to trust her “good china” to anyone but her own hands. Her Noritake service for 12 had been shipped all the way from Japan, a gift from her son who visited there while on leave during a tour of duty in Vietnam.  In all the years I saw her cook – and all the special meals I saw her serve on her treasured china – she never chipped or broke a single piece.

I can remember seeing her stand in the kitchen, hands on hips, paused between steps, thinking, as she moved from the stove to the refrigerator and back. Her cooking was instinctive more than trained. But she knew she wasn’t an innovator. She stuck to the meals she knew best – hearty, simple, typically Southern-style dishes that would stick to your ribs and make tasty leftovers. (Fried potato cakes made for breakfast from leftover mashed potatoes were my favorite.)

I can remember seeing her at the table, enjoying the food as much as she enjoyed serving it. She never rushed through meals. She knew they were sacred. She liked to talk – to laugh – at the table. She communed, and perhaps that’s what stuck with me most.

Colleen never once put a bouquet of flowers on the table. There was never room anyway because she typically fed a table full of folks with an array of serving dishes full to the brim — fried potatoes, gravy, corn, green beans, meatloaf, biscuits, food she could whip up on a dime.

The linens and flowers and elaborate place settings you see on my table delighted her, even though it wasn’t Colleen’s style. “Your tables are always so pretty,” she’d say every time she came to my house for a meal.

I wish I would have told her that china doesn’t make the table – love does, the joy of cooking does – and I got it all from her.

With gratitude {for love learned at the table},

Joan, who can’t remember a happier Saturday than yesterday

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Comments

  1. This is a beautiful, Joan. Such sweet memories.

  2. texasdeb says:

    What a gorgeous table. We do eat with our eyes first, so your table settings are feeding folks even before they get that first delicious forkful raised to their lips.

    Your Momma must have realized you know love makes the table and I’m also guessing she saw you’ve learned the joy of cooking, because it is all so obviously there in the care you take with every aspect of the experience you offer when you feed your people. Did she take that to the logical conclusion and realize you learned that specifically from her? I am betting she did whether you ever said so in those particular words or not. Your actions speak for you, Joan Marie, and your table? Eloquent.

  3. She was a treasure.

  4. What a lovely reminiscence about your mother.

  5. Beautiful, Joan. I know Colleen is smiling as she reads this, as am I. :)

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