August 6, 2018

Cottage cheese, ketchup and ‘My Kitchen Prayer’

Not long after my father died in 1997, my mother (who was confined to a wheelchair and had been for several years) came to live with us. Our daughters, Jessica and Caitlin, were ages 3 and 1. Caitlin doesn’t remember her grandfather, and Jessica barely does. But we’d been down to Bellair, the small village where my parents lived (near the Moonshine Store of hamburger fame) the week before Princess Diana was killed in the car crash in Paris.
            One memory from that visit remains in our family: Jessica had heard my father say his favorite expression when something annoyed him or even amused him: “Thunder and Mud!” We were all in the living room watching television when she walked up to him and said, “Papaw says, ‘Thunder and Mud!’”
             He laughed and slapped his leg as he sometimes did when something tickled him. Later that night after we had gone to bed, he came to the bedroom door and told us about Princess Diana. He had a heart attack and died a week later. For a few weeks after the funeral, a neighbor looked after Mother. But my sisters and I decided it would be better if she came and lived with my family.
            Both my wife and I worked, and the girls were in day care. Mother was able to care for herself to an extent and got around in the wheelchair. The girls were with her much of the time when they were home. That was particularly true after we widened the door of the cottage next door so Mother could be nearby but have the autonomy of her own home. She could still cook and take care of herself with help. As time progressed and they got older, she also took care of the girls at times.
            She cooked some for them, read to them, watched television and patiently answered the endless questions they thought up for her.
             I came home one evening, and she was propped up in her hospital bed with Caitlin sitting on her lap and Jessica standing beside the bed directing the whole show: They had rouge, powder, eye shadow and lipstick all over her face and were still going strong.
            “Here,” I hollered when I walked in the house. “What in the dickens are you kids doing to your grandmother?”
            “Leave them alone,” Mother said, smiling. ”They’re having fun.”
            They loved being with her, and I thought it was great that they had that time with their grandmother.
            Not long afterwards, Mother was in the kitchen getting the girls supper. I don’t know what she’d gotten for them, but the story goes that Jessica had some cottage cheese that she apparently didn’t want, so she smothered it with ketchup, thinking she wouldn’t have to eat it. Mother had other ideas.
            “Now you eat that, young lady,” she said.
            Jessica had other ideas, too. She looked up at the plaque Mother had on kitchen the wall that read:

My Kitchen Prayer 
Bless my pretty kitchen Lord
And light it with Thy Love
Help me plan and cook my meals
From Thy heavenly home above.
Bless our meals with Thy Presence
And warm them with Thy grace;
Watch over me as I do my work,
Washing pots and pans and plates.
The service I am trying to do
Is to make my family content,
So bless my eager efforts Lord
And make them heaven sent.

            She started singing the words to the little poem and taught Caitlin to sing with her, believing that their grandmother would be so happy to hear it that she wouldn’t make her eat the ketchup-covered cottage cheese. As I recall, it didn’t work.
            When Mother died a year or two later, both Jessica and Caitlin were devastated. They’d known her all of their lives and couldn’t remember when they didn’t know her. Their other grandmother had died when they were only 3 and 5. They hadn’t really known death.
             At the funeral, I was to give the eulogy for Mother. Jessica asked if she and Caitlin could be a part of it and sing “My Kitchen Prayer.” I agreed and stood listening as they sang the song from their hearts. Though there were tears during much of that day and the days around it, the music was a comfort, a piece of her that they got to keep.
             “Singing that little song as young girls was just our way of contributing to a ceremony dedicated to honoring a grandmother we were so close to,” Jessica says, “but today when I look back on that poem, it means something more. The role of homemaker, the act of being in the kitchen for hours a day … Sometimes it’s seen as this less-than, diminished role for women. But food was a huge part of how Grandma cared for her family and showed them love. It was how she gave strength, both physically and emotionally, to a family of hard workers with long days.
            “That prayer, which I still know all the words to, personifies that quiet strength that Grandma and so many of the women of her generation showed in small ways every day. I still think of her every time I taste a dish of hers that someone brings to a family gathering, and I bet I’d think of her if I were ever forced to eat ketchup-doused cottage cheese again, too. But it taught me that you have to lie in the bed you make, so you better make it well.”