Side Dishes

Mom flew off to “infinity and beyond” six years ago this month. Truth be told, it was rather a rude time for her to leave because it was just after Thanksgiving and her birthday and just before Christmas.

I mean, come on. Aren’t anniversaries of a profound loss bad enough without all the side dishes?

I meant that figuratively, of course. But there’s also a real side dish story mixed in here.

Every year since I was a child, Mom made this incredible Jell-O mold for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. It’s a three-tier, tangy delight made with strawberry gelatin, frozen strawberries, crushed pineapple, mashed bananas, and a center layer of sour cream. When I started hosting holiday dinners, she passed the mantle to me.

It’s a simple recipe. So simple that there are no “Notes from My Mother” to reference. Neither she nor I ever bothered to write it down.

From time to time after the dish became my responsibility, I stumbled with the amount of water to add. But, inevitably, Mom came to the rescue in person or on the phone. Our exchange actually became a sort of comedic tradition during the last 12 years of her life when she lived with me. I never failed to ask her even when I didn’t truly need a reminder.

Then she died, and I was left without a written recipe and without Mom to ask when the water measurement eludes me. Most years I still get it right. A couple of times I’ve misjudged, and the gelatin hasn’t set. This Thanksgiving was one of those times.

To be fair, I could ask my sister in another state. She does have the thing written down. Yet, I have stubbornly refused to call her. I’ve finally figured out why.

Mom had a fear that, when she died, it would be like she was never here – like her life didn’t matter. Of course, that is so far from the truth that it’s laughable. She gave birth to me, raised me and my siblings while struggling with challenges I was oblivious to, and was always my biggest fan and supporter.

Still, I can’t shake the memory of her fear. I constantly find myself doing things to prove her wrong. The Jell-O mold is one of those things. It’s symbolic. If I ask my sister and write down the recipe, then it doesn’t matter that Mom isn’t here to remind me. But it does matter. So I don’t ask. And I never will.

Guessing has become a new comedic tradition. Will I get it right this year? Or will it slide out of the mold into a soupy, yet delicious, treat? I’m happy either way because it’s really not about the Jello-O. Rather, I like to think that Mom is around, watching me, and knowing how much she mattered – not just in the big picture but in the little side dishes that make up an incredible life.

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