I wrote this several months ago, but it felt too sad to post until now. Plus things have been crazy (we moved to Germany, which is a whole other thing). But now I think it feels ok to post this. Who knows if anyone besides my mom will read it. That would be ok, since this is mostly for her anyway. So here, a little love letter to my sweet Auntie Gisie, and some thoughts about the last time I had the honor of cooking for her.
A few weeks ago my mom and I traveled deep into the humid green hills of Missouri to see my aunt, my mom’s sister, Gisela. She and her husband Don live in a beautiful house that he built for her with his own two hands. Theirs is clearly a very beautiful love story. It took him three years, and every nook and cranny is to her specifications. Most notably, the view from her kitchen sink: she wanted a precise view through specific trees, over the tops of the forests and the hills and into Arkansas. From there she cooked the most intricate meals of anyone I know, especially considering the culinary limitations of living in the rural Midwest. She made her own compound butter, ground her own cinnamon, and made complex consommés from scratch. Her pantry is organized by region and cuisine, and her collection of cast iron pans are always carefully seasoned and rubbed with oil. We had arrived with bags of groceries, and when I asked Don where to put the fresh ginger he said, “Well she has a special bag for ginger in the freezer, you can put it in there.” My Aunt Gisie is the original foodie in my life.
She would come visit us in California usually once a year and most of our activities revolved around cooking and eating. She wanted as much fresh seafood as she could eat before returning to landlocked Missouri. Oysters, fresh anchovies, octopus, muscles, salmon and scallops. We would host her and cook for her and it was so much fun.
This time though I was cooking for her in her kitchen. The sacredness of Gisie’s kitchen felt like church and made me a little bit nervous. But I had my tasks and frankly I was grateful for the distraction. Cooking for Gisie this time was going to be very different. She has cancer and she is in a lot of pain. Walking is hard, talking is hard, sleeping is hard, eating is hard. Her appetite is close to non-existent. Every now and then she’ll get a specific craving for something, and Don will carefully make it for her. Knowing how particular she is about cooking, he’ll bring the garlic into her bedroom to ask her if he’s chopped it finely enough, or if the bread has soaked up enough milk for the stuffed peppers. She still has every cabinet and drawer and counter top of her kitchen memorized, and she’ll direct him to the specific sauce pan or the specific dry rub she wants him to use. She will eat what he’s made with so much gusto, and then fall back into a period of poor appetite and breath-taking physical pain.
Watching Gisie struggle to eat is weird, sad, and foreign.
So when we visited I hoped she’d be hungry and wanted to make her things that I knew she had always loved. I wanted her to taste the sense-memory of her full and colorful and delicious life. So I made a Vietnamese soup with homemade broth, rice noodles, lightly sautéed shrimp, bok choy, mushrooms, garlic, fresh ginger, sesame oil and lots of fresh lime juice.
The next night I made seafood linguini, with shrimp, fresh calamari and small scallops, and a simple butter, garlic and white wine sauce. I didn’t know how to slice the calamari so I brought them, whole and tentacle-y and dangly, into her bedroom, showed them to her and asked her how she would slice them. She was right, of course, and they were perfect.
Both nights I brought her dinner on a little tray, and held my breath. Gisie is not one to sugar coat things, and if she didn’t like it she would have told me so. But with the first bite she closed her eyes and cooed “Oooh Julia”. She described the flavors, and found some flavors I didn’t even know were there. She detected licorice in the pasta sauce, and basil in the broth. Propped up in bed on one elbow, she ate hungrily and drank the broth straight from the bowl. The first night she asked for seconds, and the second night she asked for a small glass of wine, her first in months. “This pasta just screams out for a little chardonnay,” she said. She sipped, eyes closed and exhaled “Ahhh..yes.”
This was a bittersweet glimmer of the Gisie we love. As her body fails her, her joyful spirit is still there. She loves life more fiercely than anyone I have ever known. After she finished her soup the first night I brought her empty tray back into the kitchen, held my face in my hands and cried for her. Seeing her enjoy food so fully made me sad, because I knew what was coming. She was still here in so many ways, but was being taken from us slowly, and that felt incredibly cruel. Her happiness over that steaming bowl, her savoring the chardonnay, only shone a light on how much I’d miss doing this with her. She’s still here, she’s still here. How can we be mourning?
Before we left we froze some meals for them, piled their counter top with fresh fruit, gave long hugs, I gave Gisie a kiss right on the lips and she said, “Thank you, mein baby.” Food and cooking, in this case, was a language of love, a means of anxiety management, a way to channel our sadness in a situation that felt totally scary and out of our control. When my mom and I got sad or nervous, we’d take to Gisie’s kitchen, furiously chop something, clean something. There are those really huge and pivotal moments in a persons life when you find yourself totally at the mercy, no amount of money can be paid to change anything, no phone calls to make, no strings to pull. When all you have is your heart, when all you can do is show up and say, “I can’t change anything to stop your suffering, I am suffering with you, I am here, I love you.” That and, of course, go make a soup.
Food is not the same without love, Gisie was not the same without food, and we will not be the same without Gisie.