Photo courtesy of Tarah Dawdy.
Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback, “Fireflies Over Evening Fields” by Michel Nischan was written for the 2003 edition of Rootstock.
How do you write about someone so wonderful, whose passing will leave a deep void in your life? My mother suffered what seemed like an eternity, until she no longer had the strength to continue on. It is not that she was afraid to die, but rather she did not want to die—just yet. She persisted to the end, perhaps thinking that there were things left unfinished, or maybe thinking there was more she could have done for us, her children. Even though she knew we all were secured in our lives and families, she always felt she had to be there for us. What ever her reasons, she fought hard not to leave us until Monday evening, September 2nd.
My fondest personal memories are of the times I spent with mom in the kitchen or in her garden, both of which were her passions. Whether hoeing the soil, weeding, watching her can her perfect tomatoes, or helping peel apples for pie, it seemed I was spending an eternity with her. Now I am remorsefully aware that it was but a few moments. There are so many recipes I never wrote down, so many snippets of wisdom here or there that may have been lost. But still, she taught us all how to live as good people, and many of her teachings were through her food.
For mom, many of life’s basic lessons were available through the acts of growing and cooking food, or by showing genuine appreciation for nature. As a small child, I remember visiting grandfather’s farm—by mom’s orders—to learn the importance of chores, animals, and the earth. My favorite times were of watching in amazement the glow of fireflies in the evening. Mom taught me how to gently catch them and save them in a jar. But, perhaps more importantly, how to let them go no matter how badly I wanted to keep them for myself. She explained that if all the fireflies were kept in jars nothing would be left to sparkle over the evening fields. She was always so right.
The memories I share with my sister and brothers are of how she welcomed all the neighborhood children to our yard to play. She made homemade lemonade, cookies, brownies and sandwiches for everyone, and she always allowed us to have other kids over for dinner—sometimes several children at once—even though she and my father couldn’t afford to. All of our friends loved coming to our house to eat because mom was the best cook in the neighborhood. She was known as one of the nicest moms as well. If someone fell down and cried, she would comfort them as though they were one of her own. If things got out of hand with our play, she would break things up yet still allow the play to go on. She was a real mom with a genuine mother’s touch.
She could make us happy, though, at times, we had very little. On rainy days, she would pour a jar of saved pennies on the floor and teach us how to make shapes of airplanes, birds, flowers and even the Statue of Liberty. We might all remember how she used to wink at us when we shared a secret from our dad. Her winking was very special because it came with a smile of affection, honesty and love. And when we were sad, hurt or tired, she would let us lay our head in her lap so she could caress our face or stroke our hair. She always told us how much she loved us. I love to tell people how she taught me that I had to be happy and proud with my cooking because it would show up on the plate. I tell them how she taught me to understand that dirt is alive, the juice from a tomato or cucumber is rain, and the sweetness of a ripe peach is the sun. Imagine growing up knowing that, at every meal, you’re drinking the rain and eating the sun.
There was a spirit in her cooking that helped everyone understand exactly who she was. She laughed a lot when she cooked, even though she spent countess hours in the kitchen preparing, tweaking, and perfecting—all because she wanted her family and her guests to love what they were eating. That same spirit was also evident in the way she fussed and tinkered as simply as setting the table, then waited until the last person was fully served before she would sit down to eat for herself. While it is commonly accepted that the chef or cook boasts rights to the finest cut in the batch, mom always saw to it that someone else got the biggest pickle, the hottest piece of fried chicken, the ripest tomato, or the piece of watermelon with the least amount of seeds. She was very content with what was left, and ate it gladly as she watched every smile and listened to each sigh, grunt and moan of pleasure caused by her amazing food and her pure, selfless hospitality. Though I know her spirit shall never die, I shall always be saddened at her passing because she may not have experienced just how much I celebrated and cherished her while she was still living. When my wife and I decided to share Gospel Brunch with the customers of our restaurant, I told my mom I did it to honor her, yet I don’t believe that was enough. Though I gave her copies of articles that quoted me as to how great a role she played in my life and my cooking, that was not enough. I’m not sure I could ever have done enough. I should have told her every time I saw her.
I will regret that I never knew which batch of her fried chicken and dumplings was the last I would ever eat. Had I known, I would have savored and celebrated it so much more. I just assumed, as any child would, that she would always be there and that I could always come home for more. I assumed like a child because, regardless of how old I was, she always made me feel like her child in a very special way. She made me feel as though she would live forever, though I knew this could not be true.
Mom started getting sick about 18 years ago. Although she had already been through countless surgeries, it was recurring kidney stones and poor quality medical care that marked the beginning of what was to be a long ending. Over the last eighteen years of more surgeries, numerous and serious over-prescribed and often conflicting medications, broken hips, pneumonia, and even cancer—she kept coming back. She was a survivor. She just refused to give in. I don’t think anyone can count how many times a doctor prepared us for her passing, only to have her make a full recovery. My sister, Theresa, was her constant caregiver and endlessly by her side. I believe Theresa would have a hard time counting mom’s now-infamous rallies. Mom was one tough cookie, but now she is gone.
So what am I to do? What are any of her children to do? In time to come and in our individual ways, we will figure it out. I believe this because she did a great job of raising and teaching us. I am confident we will each find our own way to honor her.
I think I will begin by cooking my mother’s cherished recipes for my own children. While I have spent a professional lifetime sharing her culinary influence with friends and customers, I never really took the time to share it with my own children. When I see a child fall and cry, I will treat the child as if he or she is my own. And I will have secrets with my children so I can wink at them with a smile and teach them how to wink back just as she did with me. I will do all of these things because, when I cook her food for my own children, I will be hearing, smelling, and feeling her presence. When I comfort a child who is not my own, I will remember how she loved everybody. And in the summer, whenever there are fireflies over the evening fields, I will bring my children with me so we can watch as her spirit winks at us. And we will wink back at her with a smile and a tear.
About the author: Michel Nischan is a three-time James Beard Foundation award-winning chef with over 30 years of leadership experience advocating for a more sustainable food system. He founded Wholesome Wave in 2007, with Gus Schumacher as Founding Board Chair and the late Michael Batterberry as Founding Board Member. Nischan is also co-founder of the Chefs Action Network.