As my 89-year-old mother wolfs down a plate of fried oysters and dips slab-cut steak fries in tartar sauce with a gusto she has for no other activity except eating, I ponder, how is this the one thing she remembers at the end of her life? Not tying her shoes or how to turn on the TV, just eating like there is no tomorrow. Was she always such a foodaholic? I have the entire meal to reflect on her one last passion, as she has forgotten how to converse.
Then the phone call comes to mind. It rings in my head like an old-fashioned rotary dial telephone. It was twenty-some years ago when I called to tell her I was leaving my husband. Yes, the same guy Mom and Dad thought was such a catch.
It took days to get the courage up and announce my heart-wrenching decision. Gulp. I dialed my parents’ number. Mom answered.
“Mom, I’m leaving Andrew and getting a divorce.”
“I had a party last night.” Her sunshiny voice suddenly came alive over the phone line.
She continued, “I made cheese olive balls wrapped in a sharp cheddar pastry crust for hors d’oeuvres.”
Stunned, I had no response. And no appetite. I’d already lost ten pounds worrying about the impact of my decision on my financial future and the emotional damage it might do to my 7-year-old son.
Cheese olive balls. Cheese olive balls. It became a weird mantra echoing in my brain. The words looped around a track that has been grooved into my psyche since birth. Do not talk about unhappy things.
Silence. Silence. And more silence.
Mom’s cheery voice pulled me back once again. “Aha, here is the recipe card. I make two to three times the amount it calls for and then freeze them for when guests come over for drinks. It instructs you to cut the butter into the flour until it is in pea-size chunks and then mash it with your fingers, their warmth softening the butter. Use large, green Spanish pimento-stuffed olives and really sharp Wisconsin cheddar cheese. Roll a small ball of the pastry dough in your palm and then push the olive into the center with your thumb. Press the dough around it, completely wrapping the olive. Bake for fifteen minutes at four hundred degrees.”
As she chattered over the phone line, I saw what held up the firmament that surrounded her fear and barricaded her from her feelings. Food. Beautiful, filling food.
A pause and then she continued, “Absolutely fabulous with dry vermouth gin martinis in chilled stemware. I like to use the glasses that are the size of bathtubs. Absolutely fabulous. Fab.u.lous! Are you there?” She sounded exalted and anxious at the same time.
Silence. Numbness. Disbelief. Was I really listening to a recipe for the smallest, most inconsequential food in the world? An appetizer—not even a main course? Something I would never make. Ab.so.lute.ly useless. My heart was the olive being smothered in buttery crust, a rich orb of yumminess wasted on shallow cocktail conversations.
God, what should I say? Scream at her? Sob into the phone, “I need you now. I’m drowning in sadness and confusion. Who will love me as I destroy the wasteland of my marriage?”
What should I say?
“Have you written all the ingredient amounts down?” Her voice sounded strained.
I finally responded, “No, but the doorbell is ringing and I have to go.” And I hung up. And I never called back to ask for that recipe.
For years and years after that phone call made on one of the most miserable days of my life, for years and years after my subsequent divorce, I hated olives. Ab.so.lute.ly hated them. Then, one day, when I was recounting to a friend my feelings of emotional abandonment represented by an olive recipe, I giggled and began to see this vacuous one-way conversation with my mom as humorous.
Much to my surprise, I even started eating those very same cheese olive balls I resented, savoring their piquant buttery deliciousness. It became a favorite. A must-have that Mom enthusiastically prepared every time I visited her in Oregon. An olive branch of sorts. This was before she started forgetting to turn off the oven; burned vats of soup; scorched the cheese olive ball bottoms. This was before I moved her from her house to the assisted-living wing at the Manor.
Now, Mother’s Day 2011, I sit across from her at Larks restaurant in Ashland. She doesn’t know where she is or how she got here, but she knows how to eat and it is a marathon of digestive fortitude and commitment. I can’t keep up with her. She is a racehorse on the track, rapidly consuming fried oysters, fries, bread, butter, an ice cream sundae, cookies, and champagne.
I realize food is her anchor. Her refuge from a mother who committed suicide, from ten full-term miscarriages, from a criminal son who died young. From a husband who never took care of her and viewed her as his servant.
Suddenly, I understand. And I accept.
She can eat as many Dagoba chocolate sundaes as she wants. I will get over my need to talk talk talk of my inner realm, of my heartbreaks and disappointments.
As the warm chocolate sauce dribbles down her chin and lands like a tear, a faded flower-petal stain on the front of her pink turtleneck, she looks directly at me. Her rheumy eyes shine with happiness even though she can’t really see me. I am a shadowy outline, but she is grateful I’m here. Eating eating eating. And that makes it all taste good.
Since her move, I now possess her metal recipe-card file box. It resides next to towers of cookbooks in my kitchen cupboard. The cheese olive ball index card is stained and tattered around the edges, the words smeared and greasy, barely discernable under layers of buttery fingerprints.
It is time to extract that recipe from its metal strongbox. It is time for me to bake some cheese olive balls and lift my martini glass in a toast to love wrapped in tangy, sharp-cheddar pastry crust.
Cheese Olive Balls:
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 ¼ cups flour
½ cup butter, melted
1 jar pimento-stuffed olives
Work cheese and flour together until crumbly. Add butter and mix well with fingers. Mold 1 teaspoon dough around olive; shape into ball. Place 2 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Cover and chill for 1 hour or longer. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Bake 15-20 minutes. Serve hot. Makes 2-3 dozen balls. (Do not use self-rising flour in this recipe.)
Phyllis Richards McCreery, my mom, passed away suddenly two weeks after our last Mother’s Day together in 2011— just days after I finished writing this story.
This story is published in Wild Life: Travel Adventures of a Worldly Woman