Thursday, January 31, 2008

Funeral Salad

My mom, Jan and me at my wedding, 1997

It has been just over two years since the sudden death of my mom, Jan. Lung cancer took her at the young age of 61; and unfortunately, she didn't even have the time after the diagnosis to tell anyone that she was sick. She died just five days after learning that she had less than a year to live.
Over the 14 years that she was my mom, I learned a lot from her about life. From the importance of going to school dances, to the responsibilities of living on my own, and finally, the day to day rigors, and joy, of parenting my own child. I took lessons from her on growing beans, and on growing children (both of which are usually pretty healthy!); I wish her final lesson to me would have been about growing old.
While I lived with her as a teen, she and I had our differences, and our camaraderic times; all the while she was teaching us girls how to be, well, girls. I hated being on her bad side, but I would never go into one of life's battles with anyone other than her on my side!
One of the things that I tend to carry with me from events in my life, is the foods that nourish my journey. Staples of my early childhood were whatever foods came in falling-apart banana boxes from the Food Bank every Saturday; thick, tasteless peanut butter in white cans with black print, and heavy blocks of government cheese plagued my young pallet.
Later, instant potatoes, beans and franks, and dark, overcooked broccoli graced my plate at the temporary girls home. Once I came to life with my new mom, homemade spaghetti with meat sauce, (her special touch to the sauce was a generous helping of hand-sliced black olives) and baked macaroni and cheese were my favorites of the meals she prepared six nights a week. But sometimes, there are foods from our past that come forward with us, and meet us later with a friendly "hello, remember when..." For me, it was "funeral salad."
I was about seven when I went to my first funeral. An elderly lady in our church died and we, our family, went to her funeral. I remembered how after church on Sundays, she would—without our mother’s knowledge—give my me and my brother small packets of "Sixlets," little chocolate flavored candy balls that would leave a greasy coating in my mouth to remind me of the guilt that I should have felt over taking the candy, and how she would smile, and all of the wrinkles in her face would straighten out for the smallest second and show her beauty beneath her skin.
I didn’t cry at the funeral; I don’t think that I really knew what was happening, or that she was gone and not coming back. I was wearing itchy, too-small white tights under a black, pleated skirt, and white gloves on my hands. I sat fidgeting on the hard wooden pew sandwiched between my brother and my mother, and scratched at my knees during the service, wishing for it to be over quickly so I could get out of my tights.
After the service there was a reception in the church basement. It was dark, and smelled like old coffee and old ladies perfume down there. There was a long table with things to eat on it, and people stood around it pretending that they were too sad to eat, picking up paper plates and napkins like it was a duty. All the while though, their eyes had been greedily surveying the contents of the table, hoping to get a bit of everything before it was gone.
I was in line at the food table behind a great big fat man who smelled like sweat and had white dog hair that stuck to his brown pants. I eyed the bounty on the table for myself and when I was in front of it, I picked out a dinner roll and three tiny ears of corn, and then scooped a blob of creamy, green goo onto my plate. I retreated to a metal folding chair next to my brother to eat; he wasn’t eating anything; he really was too sad to eat. I ate the green stuff with a plastic fork—there weren’t any spoons—and my brother wrinkled his nose at me.
“That looks gross,” he said.
You’re gross,” I said.

When I was fifteen, I spent my first Christmas in foster care. On the table next to the turkey gravy was a large bowl of green goo.
“Wow, funeral salad!” I said.
My foster mom, Jan, looked at me funny, and a couple of the other foster girls laughed. I was embarrassed. But Jan smiled then.
“I think I have seen this at more than one funeral,” Jan said.
Easter that year, Jan handed me a recipe card. “You should know how to make this,” she said.
The recipe had “green salad” written across the top in faded blue ink. Every year after, at all of the holiday dinners, I would go back to my old foster home to share in a meal; the recipe title on the card was replaced with, “Becky's Funeral Salad,” and the green goo was always on the menu.

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