If I could cook, I could cure: A mother-daughter love story

A year ago, Sarah McColl moved to Northampton — where, between chocolate chip cookies from Tart and Negronis at The Green Room, she revised “Joy Enough,” the memoir she’d sold the previous fall. This is her story.

  • “Here’s what I heard: If she eats, she’ll live,” writes Sarah McColl, above, who moved home — armed with a sharp knife and her good sea salt — to cook for her mother, shown above right, in a photo from the 1970s. Joanna Eldredge Morrissey

  • Caption

  • If I could cook, I could cure: A mother-daughter love story —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • If I could cook, I could cure: A mother-daughter love story —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Clockwise, from top left: McColl cooks with her mother, Allison Conley; Conley with a newborn; Conley with her children and granddaughter in 2013. ”Her children love chemotherapy, she joked to the staff. It was the only time we could claim her undivided attention,” writes McColl.

Published: 1/17/2019 11:46:52 AM

I was twenty the year my mother taught me how to roast a chicken. It was the deep dark of January, and we cut celery side by side on soapstone counters. She softened stale bread with warm chicken broth, gathered the torn cubes up by the handful and stuffed the cavity. I stood next to her taking notes, wrote Bell’s Seasoning. I was about to move into my first apartment twelve hundred miles away and four blocks from my Saint Paul college campus, and this was my home economics crash course.

We baked a loaf of whole wheat bread that night from a stained page of the spiral-bound More-with-Less Cookbook, written by Mennonite missionaries in the 1970s. It was filled with her backward checkmarks and a note to add buttermilk to the refrigerator bran muffins. She gave me its lessons in shorthand.

This is how to rub two pennies together and eat for a week. Serve some of the chicken hot from the oven with steamed broccoli and a spoonful of stuffing. Pull the meat from the bones and chop. Tomorrow, pile chicken on slices of homemade bread with mayonnaise, salt, and pepper. Cover the carcass with water, and boil the bones for soup. She took the bread from the oven, knocked the top crusts, and told me to listen for a hollow sound.

We sliced two slabs of bread from the loaf, buttered them, and ate the chicken and the soft, herby stuffing at the kitchen table beside the bay window blooming with tall amaryllis and paperwhite bulbs. She wrote a grocery list. Here’s what to keep in your pantry. She wrote Bell’s Seasoning, too. Here’s how to soften brown sugar. Here’s how to make a cheap chocolate cake in a sheet pan, and here’s how to cover it with walnuts so no one sees its uneven surface. She ripped the list from a pad, folded it, and sent me back to Minnesota for the spring semester feeling equipped as a pioneer.

Once there, in my sunny kitchen, I followed her instructions and hatched herb seedlings in empty eggshells on the sill of the kitchen window next to the table where I read Richard III. My roommates entered the kitchen, sniffing. Something rotting, they said.

We treated her first illness as a blip. It was fall, and my siblings and I took turns joining our mother at a New Jersey hospital every other Friday. Under a mobile of one thousand paper cranes, we sat in a ring of recliners we called the “chemo corral.” We had jokes for everything. The nurses handed her tea in paper cups while Tamoxifen entered her body through a port beneath her collarbone. She wore a short strand of gold beads, dented from teething babies and taken, she claimed, off the body of a dead relative. I sat beside her with a laptop scrolling through china patterns. My wedding would be the following October. We laughed too loudly about things I can’t remember, until the nurses returned, their hands tea-less this time. Some people here are really sick, they scolded.

But we were not them. Her children love chemotherapy, she joked to the staff. It was the only time we could claim her undivided attention. None of us realized how bad she looked until we saw the photographs after Thanksgiving. In the kitchen, reaching toward a guest’s newborn, her expression is joyous but her skin colorless. Her body was vanishing as if in a film dissolve. I missed her eyebrows. She missed them, too.

After the holidays was radiation, and after radiation was remission. By the time her peonies bloomed in June, she and my stepdad were planning a trip to Scotland. It’s so nice to take you for granted again, I joked on the phone. In October, wearing a red silk shantung suit, she hooked her arm through my left elbow and walked me down the aisle.

Nearly five years later, we were not granted the same luxury of disbelief. She had been dragging her right leg around for months, complaining of a yoga injury. By the time she entered the chemo corral just before the holiday season, she was one of the really sick ones. This cancer was not excisable; it was embedded in her bones, had burrowed its way into the marrow, nested in her soft organs. We didn’t have as many jokes, so we embraced understatement. She was sick, we said.

I don’t remember her losing her hair, only when it was suddenly gone. She wore scarves tied loosely around her bare scalp: botanical block prints on Indian cotton, batiks, and large silk squares she’d worn at her waist and neck in the 1980s. She wasn’t very good at tying them. They were always gathered loosely, slipping off, and she’d tug them lower on her forehead. “At least I haven’t lost my eyebrows this time,” she’d say at the downstairs mirror, putting on lipstick.

She lost other things instead. Twenty-two pounds, her toenails, taste buds, nerve endings. My childhood had been measured in the width of her back. When we hugged, I’d run my hands inside the deep channel of her spine, her bones flanked on either side by dense muscle. She had rowed crew at Smith and run after four kids, arms loaded with laundry and plastic bags from Tom Thumb. Now, her body was a stranger’s.

It was like science fiction. First, she shrank. Wearing new black corduroys in a size formerly unknown to her, her concave thighs left dead air between legs thin as a fashion model’s. More jokes.

Then she grew, expanding in all the wrong places. Her blood vessels began to leak into the tissue, so that her upper arms swelled like Popeye. Then her calves, ankles, and feet. Sometimes the pressure of the fluid was so great it would burst the skin. She sat at a luncheon, her feet in a pool of herself.

Try not to lose any weight, the oncologist said. Not dying seemed like a matter of meals. To lose weight was to move into an unseen space, the way headlights round the walls of a room at night, illuminating it a final time before a car turns the corner.

Here’s what I heard: If she eats, she’ll live. My older brother had gotten into the habit of depositing protein shakes on the bottom shelf of her refrigerator. They accumulated there, untouched. I could do better, I thought.

I was thirty-one the June Saturday a friend drove me out to my mother’s farm. I left my husband and the china we had finally settled on — paper-thin and plain white — in our Brooklyn apartment for the summer. It did not occur to me that what I did looked like leaving; I would return for meetings at work and for date nights, I said, and my stepfather could use the break. I packed a suitcase of summer dresses, a sharp knife, and my good sea salt. When we turned into my mother’s driveway, the weeds in the garden were waist high, and the redbud in front of the house was split in half, pulled apart by the weight of its two heaviest branches. It did not occur to me I might fail at any of what I attempted to save. I arrived in my mother’s blue and white farmhouse kitchen. I thought if I could cook, I could cure.

In Dallas, I had accompanied my mother on mornings of endless errands. JoAnn Fabrics, Weir’s Furniture, Snider Plaza. This was the only bearable time to be outside in high summer — before the heat of the day gathered thickness and the sun burned, relentless. East of the skyscrapers, where shotgun houses sat behind parched lawns and hanging laundry, five aluminum structures similar in dimensions to a football field rose from the colorless landscape. On their short sides, under the triangle of their pitched roofs, each was painted with a number. I remember 4 and 5. Inside, parked pickups, flatbeds facing in, filled with watermelons, with cantaloupes, with honeydew, trucked in from anonymous tracts of land in east Texas off I-35. This was the farmer’s market in the mid-1980s. No bluegrass band, no cooking demos, no heritage pork.

The vendors were men. Tan and ropey thin, they tucked soft packs of cigarettes into the chest pockets of their worn cotton shirts. They were polite but terse, wore mesh-backed baseball caps and mirrored sunglasses. My mother strode the length of the buildings in blue jeans and square sunglasses with lenses that faded to the palest purple. Her hot-roller curls were brushed loose, her perfume deep as ripe melons. She pointed at quarts of peaches and red plums, and the men tumped green cardboard containers of fruit into plastic grocery sacks. She said something, and they laughed. She hooked the bags over her forearm, took her change, and we walked to the back of another man’s truck to buy tomatoes and corn. If there was a breeze that day, and my hair were gathered into a ponytail, I could feel the air move at the nape of my neck.

We began to run errands together again. A few rolling miles from her home with my stepfather, at the Dvoor dairy farmer’s market on the Route 12 circle, my mother leaned on her walker, stooped like Nanny before she died. She was only sixty-three, but she moved like an old woman. I followed her around the circle of vendors. We bought sweet potatoes from a young farmer with short sleeves and a tan, easy smile. His looked great, she told him, what was his secret? His face brightened, and he explained the conditions were right this year, and how to keep them over the winter in a cool garage. He handed her change, and she pushed it in her pocket, raising her shoulder like a girl. She hooked the bags on the handles of her walker. We moved on, and she sighed. “I used to be cute,” she said.

On our way to the car, a little boy ran up to my mother with a coffee can. “Would you like to give to the Hunterdon Land Trust?” he asked. She pulled a dollar from her pocket and slipped it in his can. The boy looked back at his own mother, who handed him a roll of stickers. “Say ‘thank you,’ ” she urged. “Thank you!” he chanted, then peeled off a sticker and placed it on my mother’s extended forefinger. She put it above her breast. “I give,” it said.

I built four raised beds inside the fence of my mother’s large garden. Some things, neglected, were still kicking: the apricot, apple, and plum trees; the raspberry bush. I ran the mower through the overgrown grass to cut a path, and then my mother rolled her walker out to talk me through the next steps before heading back to the porch to read the newspaper.

Inside the four-foot square beds, I made layers according to her instructions: newspapers and collapsed cardboard first to block weeds; then rotted sheep manure, shoveled from the heap as big as a jungle gym behind the barn; a six- inch crown of dark and fragrant soil.

It was too late in the season for any of this, and in my panic, I treated it more as science than art. I cut back and forth across the lawn to the porch to ask follow-up questions. My mother sat on the chipped wicker furniture repainted white each year before this one. I stood in front of her, sweaty and concerned about seed spacing. She was nearly subsumed by the slipcovered cushions and the sections of the paper on her lap, but she was calm in the hot, insect buzz of the afternoon.

“There’s no way to screw this up,” she said. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

Within days the green tops of the radishes sprang right out of the dirt, and I dug them in wide-eyed marvel, before slicing them into salads I handed to her at lunch. I was amazed at how simple it was to grow something from seed.

I give.

I cooked whole sides of salmon with thick, fennel- flecked yogurt sauce. Outside, over charcoal’s gray ash, I grilled butterflied chicken and then pounded parsley and basil in a mortar before adding a stream of green olive oil. I carried glass jugs of full-fat chocolate milk home from a local dairy. I made a peach crumble and burned the top, then scooped ice cream to cover it. I assembled tomato sandwiches with thick layers of mayonnaise on gold-toasted sourdough, and criss-crossed slices of crisp, hot bacon on top. Every meat had a sauce, every meal a dessert.

My mother insisted she didn’t care about food. In fact, she never had cared, would have happily sustained herself on buttered toast and tea were it not for the hungry mouths of a family and the required ritual of a meal.

“Don’t get your ego involved with cooking for me,” she warned. But sometimes she requested seconds, and those nights sent me upstairs, fist-pumping in triumph. I would lie awake in bed under the glow-in-the-dark stars I had affixed to the ceiling in high school, brainstorming extra calories.

At night, crickets sawed outside the windows of my childhood bedroom, and I read sixteen years of old journals, turning their pages into the early morning hours, as if I did not know what would happen next. There I was, same as ever, a linked paper chain of self-replication, continuously through time, the very same shorthand for a simple, happy life: muffin tins, cross-country skis, a desk by an open window. When had I made everything so complicated?

I wanted to be pregnant, and I needed my husband’s help. But the baby I wanted was not with him, it was with her. For her. Birth was the logical continuation of a circle, the reassurance to both of us that as she died, something of us grew.

I give.

But before I went to care for my mother, and again after I returned home, each month, timed perfectly to ovulation, my husband and I argued about something small, then walked into our bedroom stony and lay in the dark, silent and awake with our backs to each other, the way you do when there is a big thing no one is yet ready to say.

Downstairs my mother was at the sink, washing dishes in yellow rubber gloves. My feet were bare. She leaned her hands on the counter and turned to me at the kitchen table.

“Can’t you see yourself teaching English and having babies and inviting people over on Saturday night for dinner and dancing in the living room to the ukulele?” She looked at me, the plastic gloves drippy with soap suds, as if I were to answer. “Can’t you see it?”

The yellow porch light brightened the window over the sink. Bugs circled the brass fixture outside. I could see it, I said.

“It’s not too late to start over,” she said. “You don’t always have to be a good girl.”

We spent the rest of the summer driving the long-way places, and when we arrived, sat in parking spaces with our seat belts on.

Maybe I should apply to graduate school.


I’m afraid I’ll meet a man, and he’ll pay attention to me, and I’ll like it.

That would be the most natural thing in the world.

Should I start recording these conversations?

We’re not saying anything interesting.

In our talk, we were not faced with an end. We were present and entertaining the possibility of something beyond, as if we were crouched on a riverbank, dipping a toy boat into the current.

“What if I expect too much of life?” I asked.

She shrugged. “So what if you do?”

I stood at the kitchen sink rinsing a colander full of cherries, black-red and glossy. My stepfather’s car pulled into the driveway, returning from chemotherapy.

She wheeled her walker straight into the TV room. I poured the wet cherries in a bowl and followed.

I eased beside her and placed the cherries on her lap. She was already crying, and she did not often do that.

It was as if she confessed, the way she said it. Three pounds. Going, going, gone.

The afternoon sun was bright on her collection of terra-cotta pots filled with leggy geraniums. The leaves smelled like dirt. Her writing desk stood in the window cluttered with recipes torn from magazines and letters that needed response.

“It’s very simple, Sarah,” she said. “I love you, and I don’t want to die.”

There was nothing else to say. We each ate a cherry, then spit the pits into the blue and white bowl.

Excerpted from Joy Enough: A Memoir by Sarah McColl. Copyright © 2019 by Sarah McColl. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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