There’s nothing as dark as a Swedish winter day long after the leaves have fallen but before snow brightens the ground. With the sun eclipsed by clouds and the rain turning gray the second it hits the sidewalk, everything appears to be drawn using a number two pencil. This weather is only good for one thing—funerals.
I’m in my mother’s kitchen to clean her freezer. For seventy years my mother displayed her love for dad in the form of beautifully prepared meals. Approximately 350 dinners times seventy years equals 24,500 meals. My father was a lucky man. From now on he’ll receive seven frozen meals once a week. County provided dinners my dad microwaves and eats right out of the plastic container. Why waste time doing dishes when all he wants is to alleviate hunger and flee the kitchen? I know how he feels.
I feel like an intruder. The kitchen is my mother’s space, her stage, and the place she felt most at home. The black and white checkered floor is nicely polished. The slightly worn, white cabinet doors are spotless. Inside the cabinets, everything is lined up perfectly.
Everything is just the way it’s supposed to be. Only the bare stove tells the truth. There are no pots and pans on the burners and no heat from the oven. No familiar ticking from the egg timer counting down to when we can all sit down at a table set with Kosta Boda plates and Orrefors glasses. All on top an ironed linen table cloth that matches the cushion on the antique kitchen bench that matches the napkins on the table that matches the table cloth that matches the cushion.
It’s been at least three decades since I peeked inside my mother’s freezer. My mother was guarded. Afraid of being judged. Even by her only daughter. Especially by her only daughter. Opening her secret vault would have been an infringement of privacy. Now I have no choice. Dad complained about the lack of space in there but how bad can it be? Mom was insanely organized. Her ironed underwear lined up perfectly inside her dresser. The linen closet was color matched and wrinkle free. My mom lived a structured life. She took pride in her organizational skills.
Reluctantly I open the freezer and pull out the top drawer. Packages of dill jump out like candy from a Pez dispenser. The next drawer is so tightly packed it only opens half way. I’m confused. What I see in front of me doesn’t align with my strongly formed opinions of my mother.
Mom loved to cook. She read cookbooks like they were suspense novels. Cutting out recipes from food magazines and collecting them in plastic pouches, she perfected each recipe before sending a copy of her favorites to me. Nothing made her happier than when I used her recipes. Few things hurt her more than when I didn’t. To her, every meal was a personal gift. Love, sacrifice, and pride served on fine china.
As a newlywed, my interest in cooking was limited. On purpose. I didn’t want mom’s passion for cooking to rub off on me. I didn’t want her to think she influenced me to that degree or in that manner. Besides, I had more important things to do than to spend hours in the kitchen. My self-worth wasn’t linked to what I served for dinner. Good thing, since my culinary repertoire was limited to heating up frozen fish sticks, tomato soup or burning a grilled cheese or two.
But canned soup gets old. So I reluctantly began making dinners using more than a few ingredients. Cooking, I soon found out, was a great way to express creativity and individuality. Deep inside, I also knew I could use my mother’s favorite communication tool as a weapon. For years mom looked for constant appreciation through her cooking. She dished out physical nourishment, expecting psychological nourishment in return. It all became a guilt producing act. Now it was my turn to use food to feed my ego. My mother sent me recipes. I put them aside. Or even worse: My mother sent me recipes. I changed them—and told her so.
It started with me admitting to having made changes to her Swedish meatball recipe. Silence followed. For how long I don’t know but long enough for a wave of guilt and regret to wash over me. When she finally spoke, she wanted to know how the meatballs turned out. I assured her they were great, and that a touch of honey and some heavy cream really added to the flavor and texture. Another silence. I heard her inhale as if to gain strength and composure. “Honey?” she said, before switching food topics.
After the meatball confession, it became easier to branch out on my own. My mother adjusted— or did she just change tactics, knowing I was trying to hurt her?
Except for that one time. I was about to bake our annual Christmas bread. “Do you have the recipe?” my mother asked, sounding excited. I told her that this year I was using grandma’s recipe. There was that silence again. Nothing spoke louder than my mother’s silence. I was about to be judged as a cook, as a daughter, as a traitor. No wonder she liked my brothers more. Why did I always feel the need to provide her with all the details or any details at all for that matter? Doing her best to conceal hurt feelings, she finally spoke, warning me that there would be a price to pay: “Oh? Okay. Go ahead— if you want to fart for the rest of the day!” As I, and everyone in my close surrounding later found out, she was right but to me it was worth switching recipes to one that used less of a rising agent. In one swift culinary move I had, in my own eyes, gone from being my mother’s long distance apprentice to becoming independent.
If cooking was used by me as a way to gain independence, the subject of food was also used as a way to divert conversations that I knew would only end one way. Parenting? Politics? Marriage advice? Judgements? Clumsily veiled criticism? I asked for a recipe. Any recipe would do but preferably one from my childhood. With agility uncommon for a woman her age, mother would leap to her feet, search her vast collection of books and clippings, look up the recipe and begin to read. By the time she got to the instructions part, she was so engrossed in the plotline, our previous discussion was a distant memory. I repeated her instructions slowly. As if I was writing them down.
As I managed to establish boundaries, my passive-aggressiveness diminished. What used to be a competitive sport became a shared passion. Our culinary discussions could last for hours. We compared dinner plans, helped each other turn boring pantry staples into semi-gourmet dinners, laughed at failed cooking attempts, praised each other’s creativity, and compared Swedish and American culinary customs.
Although mom kept up with current food trends, she continued to shop and cook as though she still had four hungry children living at home. Prepared meals large enough to feed a medium sized Swedish village, roasts, whole salmon, wheels of French cheese, cartons of ice cream, loafs of bread, cake, tray upon tray of ground beef, and countless containers filled with indiscernible ingredients were crammed in the freezer. Jammed between these large frozen masses, like prayers in the Wailing Wall, were tiny, foil envelopes no larger than matchbooks. No food would go to waste. No child of hers, no matter how old, would ever have to leave her house hungry. A full freezer was the best way to keep ingrained childhood memories of going to bed hungry contained.
To my mother, a full freezer also signified financial independence. After twenty years as a full-time mom, she returned to a paying job. No longer did someone else— someone with little knowledge of what it took to feed a family of six, set her food budget. She was now free to create and to experiment. Overnight, the two or three ingredient dishes we grow up with were replaced with things like Osso Bucco, Risotto, and Fondue. Multi-layered, fragrant, colorful food with names that sounded like sports cars served on newly purchased china.
With progressively colder hands I sort and rearrange. Pick up and set back down. Pick up and set back down. Frozen meals collide. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. The sound reminded me of some sort of silent hockey game. I’m rearranging but not getting anywhere.
Suddenly I realize what I’m doing. I’m treating this chore like mom is still here—like this is another mother-daughter issue that needs to be processed. The guilt I feel for even considering throwing her valued creations in the trash is getting in the way of me doing my job. I’m there to make sure dad can find his county dinners. An eighty-eight year old man incapable of boiling an egg doesn’t need ingredients like tomato paste, parsley or lobster bullion. Dad doesn’t need the before and after death comparison each time he reaches for his evening meals. His frozen, unappetizing, charter flight meals.
I start over, this time throwing stuff out with a surprising speed. Ground beef—out, dill and more dill—out, salmon, mashed potatoes and something, chicken, cod —out. I sort and dump until five bags of frozen food, stuffed to the drawstrings, surround me. I have completed my mission. Except for the cookie tins. It’s the same ones mom used for the last fifty years. With a mix of dread and curiosity I open the first one.
Yes, there they are. Frozen, childhood memories in straight rows lay in front of me. Should I keep them? Are they still fresh? I have to make sure. I reluctantly pick up a cookie and take a bite.
Images of my mother in the kitchen proudly displaying her perfect creations on a cooling rack flood my mind as a piece of the buttery cookie melts in my mouth. As it thaws so does my strong resolute to finish this task without crying. The last hand that touched these were my mother’s. That I now stand in her kitchen with the freezer open feels like a boundary breaking act. I’m not supposed to be here—not like this, and not without her here. She was not supposed to die so suddenly. My barricades shatter. Tears stream down my cheeks. I sniffle and my breathing becomes choppy like it always does when I try to cry without making a sound.
Worried my father will enter the kitchen, I quickly walk over to the sink to rinse my face. I don’t want him to have the added burden of consoling me. I want to convey to my dad that his presence alone brings me enough joy to contain my sadness. Had I been in America, I would have let my emotional walls crumble. I would have cried like a daughter who just lost her mom. But I’m not in America. I’m in Sweden and I’m not sure how to mourn in Swedish anymore. Growing up, Lutheran stoicism was ingrained in me. And while here, I do my best to mourn like the Swedes. It’s like an immediate Swedish electrical charge goes through my body the minute I step on Swedish ground. The feeling becomes more uncomfortable with each year away yet it still feels familiar. After almost four decades of living abroad, I’m a mixture of both cultures. A grieving mess of stoicism and snot-nosed crying.
I close the top of the cookie tin and place it in the freezer drawer above the county meals. Those meals— those symbols of death, don’t deserve to be there. While mom’s passion is hauled towards the front door and the garbage can outside.
The darkness outside surprises me. I’m guessing the time to be around eight or even later. My sadness begins to stir again, refusing to stay where it belongs, which is somewhere around my feet. Instead it has worked its way to my stomach. If the pain reaches my heart I’ll fall apart between the garbage can and the bare hedge. This isn’t the time to cry. I’m looking forward to the relief and privacy that only total darkness and sleep can bring.
I reach the trash can and lift the lid. It’s empty and the inside so clean it shines in the street light. So clean a jolt of envy travels through me. Trash can envy. I add it to my long list of mother-daughter comparisons. The list filed under inadequate shortcomings.
Carefully I place one bag at a time into the gleaming container. With each one, I ask for my mother’s forgiveness. Forgiveness for throwing out what she treasured. Forgiveness for all the times I deliberately used her symbol of affection against her in order to gain independence. All in an effort to show her where she ended and I began.
Had I realized how deep and layered my mother’s attachment to food was, I would have found another way to rebel. Shame washes over me. If she could see me, she would feel shame for having left a full freezer behind. Shame runs deep in our family. Mostly for no good reason.
Although overstuffed, my mother’s freezer was not even close to being shame worthy. The freezer divulged a human side to a woman so often driven to perfection. The full freezer was a sign of my mother never taking a full stomach for granted. It was a sign of financial independence and of preparedness. Preparedness for the eventual surprise guest, a hungry child or grandchild, for the next war related famine or for all of the above simultaneously.
The state of my mother’s freezer was a sign that even at the age of eighty-seven she was not prepared to die. If she knew that her heart was so weak it would fail, and that she would take her last breath in my father’s arms as they were walking to, where else but the grocery store, she would have cleaned out her freezer.
With the last bag I force the lid closed, look up at the dark sky, and thank my mother for years of showing affection the way she knew best—through carefully prepared dinners, beautifully set dinner tables, edited recipes, and buttery, frozen symbols of her love left in the freezer.
Turning around to go inside, I notice two children walking by. Both are carrying heavy backpacks. School must be out for the day. I forget how early darkness replaces the gray shades of daytime this time of year. Sleep has to wait. So does cooking in my mother’s kitchen. How bad could those county provided dinners be?