My mother was Rachel Carson of the kitchen, the window ledge peppered with driftwood and mussel shells from the cove across the street. Turkey feathers from the woods out back. Sprigs of goldenrod in rusty antique tea tins.
Carson, whose career as a naturalist and provocative author ended the year I was born, spent summers on the Maine island where my mother lived for nearly half a century. Although their paths never crossed, both women shared a passion for nature.
My mother’s other passion, creative cooking, was an extension of the great outdoors. The essays she wrote for “Cook & Tell”—the food newsletter she produced each month for 35 years—were embellished with whimsical sketches of pine trees and sand dollars and crabapples from our backyard orchard, their dull thud a lullaby for deer at dawn and dusk.
Her recipe for applesauce called for precisely 38 of those crabapples. Her cobbler required blueberries she’d handpicked from the island’s low bushes each summer. During a brief vegetarian phase, she made peanut loaf using freshly-grated carrots from the garden. “Better than meatloaf,” she said. It wasn’t.
My mother’s love for the outdoors extended beyond the kitchen and, like the spruce-choked woods and saltwater breezes surrounding us, the 150-year-old island farmhouse demanded each room be nature-clad. So she draped snakeskins over her collection of King Henry VIII dolls. Hung loops of dried lobster antennae across the beams of our barn-turned-living-room, the faint salty aroma of countless lobster bake summers looped into a chain like the construction paper Christmas garland I had once made in the three-room island schoolhouse of my youth.
I grew up in this house, perched on a tiny Maine island, through its season of humid summers; of snowbanks as high as my eight-year-old shoulders; of daffodils peeking through the April snow. Through the heartbreak of my father’s departure from this family to another; through my mother’s second marriage, the one that pushed me out the door at age fifteen.
The year my parents divorced was the same year I first drank alcohol—two glasses of warm Chablis at age eleven—and from then on, I craved something more.
When my mother remarried, I wanted nothing to do with her new husband, 17 years older than she. He was of those eternally happy people you just want to shake—a Marine, for God’s sake. These were not people I wanted to hang out with in the self-centered orbit of my world. And they didn’t drink.
And so, like my father four years before, I left my mother for something more.
For a year, I lived with my father, and his new wife and stepson, embracing this family who seemed far more normal than my only-child and oftentimes painfully intellectual upbringing. Until now, we’d only spent weekends together. We played Battleship and board games. We went on Saturday picnics. Seals & Crofts LPs replaced the classical music I’d grown up with. My stepmother made tuna casserole and spaghetti and spice cake from a box. These parents threw cocktail parties and served wine at dinner.
Yet, still I craved something more.
At sixteen, I moved into a double-wide trailer with a boyfriend which led to a brief marriage as hazy and jagged as our cigarette-laden hangovers. I came dangerously close to dropping out of high school with a 4.0 GPA. I took a job cashing up truck drivers at a beer distributor, filing away acceptance letters from the three colleges I’d dutifully applied to.
My life became a study in doing the wrong thing.
At 23, I ditched the eternally tedious New England winters for Southern California and its endless summer of surfboards and skaters, keg parties and cocaine. I never looked back. And I rarely went back.
I was absent from my mother’s life for decades, sporadically visiting long enough to sample the various recipes being tested for her newsletter. At Christmas: haddock chowder and buttered Bakewell biscuits. Independence Day: molasses cookies served on a silver tray with iced tea on the porch, their sugared tops melting on my tongue and still warm from the ancient Hotpoint oven. Columbus Day: backyard applesauce enhanced with fresh cider from the farm stand on the mainland.
Over the years, my mother became a local celebrity, publishing a cookbook and embarking on a book tour throughout New England. When her husband passed away, she lived alone in that house on the island, and still she cooked and sketched and wrote.
I missed all of this, an ocean of self-absorption away. Too many times, I woke up in hotel rooms, the air thick with the stench of stale ashtrays and Merlot-crusted wineglasses, with no recollection of where I’d been, what I’d said, where I’d parked. I constantly sought more, through the anonymity of business trips and barrooms. On the outside, I had a successful career in sales. On the inside, I was slowly dying, neither able to control nor stop my drinking.
Eventually, a Twelve-Step program saved my life. I remained in the West and, as part of living amends to my mother, called and visited her more frequently. As the years passed, the clarity of sobriety granted me compassion and wisdom and when our telephone conversations gradually became a cacophony of confusion, I moved back to the island to take care of my mother for three years. For a while, she insisted on cooking every meal, a heart-wrenching experience we shared, as Alzheimer’s slowly stripped her of the ability to measure ingredients, follow the steps of a recipe and, eventually, comprehend words.
And our first year back together was the last year she made applesauce. She was wearing her grandmother’s lace blouse, white faded ivory, buttons not quite lined up correctly in her insistence upon dressing herself. In our tiny kitchen, its pumpkin colored Formica comfortably stained from all the years of cooking, she stood at the stove, stirring a pot of apples with the battered wooden spoon she’d used to mix decades of cookie batter and stews. The aroma of apples steeped in cider and cloves and nutmeg and cinnamon enveloped the entire house.
Today, the orchard is littered with the rotting husks of last autumn’s apple crop. There’s no iced tea in the fridge, infused with fresh mint sprigs from the herb garden. No beach towels on the clothesline, only weatherworn clothespins laden with dew. My mother’s favorite chair sits empty, a chowder-stained throne awaiting its queen.
She’s not coming back.
I’m here for a month, spring cleaning the island home of my childhood, with its 50 years of scrapbooks and hat collections, colored pencils and muffin tins. Room by room, I flit, pruning the weeds of a once brilliant mind. Armed with plastic bins, a fresh box of contractor trash bags and too-heavy toolbox, I’m cleansing the soul of this house. Although she’s still alive, a jump start on organizing this cluttered house seemed easier now than after her passing.
I find multitudes of notes scrawled in her once-meticulous penmanship: “Church Sunday and Wednesday.” Her name. My name. My cellphone number taped to every doorway. Baskets. Yankee magazines piled high. Broken pens. Thirteen spiral-bound notebooks, filled with sketches, recipes, ideas for her newsletter. And in the tiny kitchen, barely bigger than the galley on my father’s sailboat, the cider-splattered index card entitled “Backyard Applesauce.”
This house will always be haunted with the memories of an exceptional life: a young woman, fresh from art school, honing her artistic talent in words, drawings and food through the years. It is vastly different from what I now witness on a daily basis: the disintegration of the woman who brought me into this world; the woman who has always been so strong and self-confident. Her loss of identity becomes part of my heart.
Her artist’s studio stretches into a week-long project, too painful to sort through in one day. Friends who’ve been through similar situations tell me they’ve found valuables, money even, stashed in pages of ancient Time magazines. I find no diamonds but plenty of hidden gems in her vast portfolio of creativity: fashion ads, hand-decorated menus, floral watercolor sketches, essays from her monthly newsletter, smudged with age.
And in this soul-searching silent solitude intertwined with the rhythm of the tides from the cove, I live what my mother lived when she was alone in this house, speaking to the spiders who inhabited the cobwebbed corners of her bedroom, as afternoons became terror-filled and the barn board shelves full of cookbooks were no longer familiar friends.
Yet I can’t toss these memories in a trash bag, along with the Mason jar lid collection; the dusty cans of Glade; the yellowed recipes clipped long ago from newspapers and magazines.
So the house, I resolve, will be a tribute to my mother’s life: her free spirit released from the dusty piles of an ever increasing brain disease, dusted off to showcase her eclectic talent. Cleansing the soul of this house fuses our creative spirits while she is still on this earth. And although she is now safely tucked into a memory care home not far from my desert dwelling 3,000 miles away, her aura cradles me with comfort and inspiration.
If I sit still long enough, a ghostly whiff of that last batch of applesauce returns, its tart chalkiness as bittersweet a memory of what her life once was.
Amie McGraham grew up on an island in Maine and now lives in the desert southwest. A freelance writer, family caregiver and petsitter, she received her BA in English from Arizona State University. Her fiction has been short-listed for the Fulton Prize, New Guard Review and The Offbeat and she was a two-time semi-finalist in Tucson’s Festival of Books Literary Awards. Her flash blog, “This Demented Life,” was featured by AlzAuthors and is read internationally. Follow her on Twitter, @senior_moment_.