My mother is losing her taste.
No, I don’t mean her clothes have started to clash, or that she just bought a La-Z-Boy chair. I mean that, because of having had cancer of the larynx, her sense of smell is compromised, and now, her sense of taste.
I’m visiting for a few days while I’m on the west coast. I made her carrot-parsnip-pear-ginger soup yesterday. After two or three spoonfuls she couldn’t taste it anymore. She bravely carried on. She’s very matter-of-fact about it. We watched a silly chick flick and that brought more pleasure than the soup.
But food (and flavour) have been my mother’s way of communicating with the world. It’s her art, her poetry, her semaphore. She watches cooking shows the way other people watch the news, with ritualized intensity. She’s kept a recipe journal for years, a diary of all the ways she’s loved family and friends. The way she serves food is both simple and elegant, and the food itself is tasty and tasteful. Everything I’ve ever known about food is embedded in the gentle, unpretentious way she ladles delicious perogies and a smooth chicken stew onto my plate.
These days, she can only eat pureed foods. The window of opportunity for gustatory pleasure is getting smaller for her. She’s 81 years old.
Sweet, sour and salty are, according to the doctor, what will still speak to her tongue (although she can’t really do salty, her blood pressure’s too high). I’m making a lot of yogurty smoothies. She’s really into ice cream.
I watch her take real pleasure in small things, in a way she didn’t when she was raising six kids. The movement of boats in the marina. The tiny waterfront cafe we had lunch in. The achievements of her grandkids.
And, she cooks for me. Last night she cooked me halibut encrusted in cornmeal, with fried potatoes, a homestyle version of fish and chips. There was her homemade strawberry rhubarb pie for dessert. This morning she placed a plate of crispy French toast in front of me. Wow. I. Hardly. Ever. Get. Breakfast. Cooked. For. Me. I said.
The time passes slowly here, like the slow drift of water across sand as the tide comes in. It passes with inevitability. It wears away at our bodies. It’s made my mother stronger, more loving and forgiving. It gives and it takes away.