"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Potato Salad Reflections

Making potato salad yesterday, I found myself enjoying my mom's company. Her breathing body is in a nursing home 300 miles north and her spirit is hidden so deep within that the fiery spirited woman I feared and longed to please is no longer available to any of us. Still, she was present as I stood at my denim blue counter chopping and stirring.

Potato salad is one of those foods that can carry mythic status. Every family has their own variation of what is a very basic combination of potatoes, eggs, pickles and dressing. And often, maybe because it's a summer dish, potato salad has the power to transport a person to the past in the way of a holiday meal.

It was the potatoes themselves that brought Mom into my kitchen. As I peeled the cold, whole, boiled Yukon Golds, then cut them into chunks with practiced rhythm, I pondered how different my salad has become from hers, yet how it retains the same essence and feels like just a better version of my childhood salads.

Potatoes were a staple in our 1960's dairy farm household. By today's standards we lived at the poverty level (maybe below, we didn't know, didn't think in those terms). Spuds were cheap and filling - and we lived in Idaho. The pantry always held at least one 25 pound bag of brown scaly Russets, like plump knobby fists.

And so the first and biggest difference in our salads. Mom's started with what was available and cheap, and sometimes what was leftover from the boiled potatoes we had for dinner the night before. I choose each potato carefully from the bin at my favorite farmer's market, Yukon Gold or red, depending on what's freshest and firmest.

As I peeled and chopped, enjoying the give of the cool firmness beneath my knife and the deep earthy smell, I allowed her to be with me, keeping friendly company. Whether I invited, or she just appeared, we seemed to be enjoying our kitchen time on a hot July afternoon.

We laughed a bit at the fact that I search for the kosher dill pickles  that she used, not really knowing why they were her choice. And of course Best Foods as the base of the dressing, nothing else will do. I remembered the time I added celery, thinking to improve on her recipe, and how hurt I was that no one appreciated the change. I could see her smile, transformed finally from smug satisfaction at my failure, to gently understanding at my lesson that some things just aren't meant to be messed with. Another lesson in acceptance that I refused heart and soul then because I simply could not be anything like her.

While I enjoyed the crack and crunch of hard boiled egg shell in my hands, Mom reminded me of her chickens and my first experiences with eggs. A coop full of Rhode Island Reds; the slightly acidic, strongly fertile smell as she handed me eggs still warm from the nests; my five year old pride at being allowed to help. Maybe my first potato salad then, with eggs from our own fat hens and potatoes from the rich Montana soil of the last place I remember feeling loved by her and happy with her.

No chickens on the new farm in Idaho. I only now wonder why she wasn't allowed to have another coop. Probably no time in the desperate need to make the dairy work and the demands of caring for four kids, the oldest seven, when we moved.  Grocery store eggs were cheap, but neither of us ever really got used to the uniform  white ovals that replaced the works of art produced by hens we'd raised from chicks delivered each year in late winter, the first sign of spring.

I've always bought brown eggs, even knowing that nutritionally it makes no difference at all. I'm comforted by the soft earthen tones. White eggs, like brown potatoes, feel like sadness and poverty to me. As they must have felt to her all those years ago. When I can now, I buy my eggs at the same farmer's market that is my substitute garden. A carton of these eggs offers a palette of color ranging from barely blue to cinnamon toast to cloudy sky. It also offers a sense of closeness to the source and to the Source. More importantly, it offers me a connection to the woman whose company I truly enjoyed in my kitchen yesterday.

When I was done with the chopping and blending and tasting, adding the final sprinkle of paprika which I learned from her, I felt like this potato salad was much more than part of the dinner I was preparing for my brother's visit. This family tradition, made mine with practice and now mine to carry as the eldest, held what's common between my mother and me. A sharing I can finally embrace and appreciate for the tremendous blessing it truly is.


Anonymous said...

Potato salad reminds me of my family as well, although I don't eat it. Cold eggs and potatoes don't appeal to me. I know, I'm weird.

Your post reminded me of my mum. How it's so hard because the good and the bad, the kind and the cruel, are mixed up together and you can't have one without the other. Kind of like potato salad I guess huh?

Carrie Link said...

"Whether I invited, or she just appeared, we seemed to be enjoying our kitchen time on a hot July afternoon."

Powerful healed behavior!

Terri Tiffany said...

Oh wow. I love how you took something as simple as a dish of potato salad and blended it with your memories of your mother. Beautifully done! I learn so much from your writing style.
But brown eggs? Lol never bought them before:)

Wanda said...

So...are you going to get some chickens?

Piecefulafternoon said...

Again - stunning!

Linda Myers said...

My mother made "Daddy's Spaghetti" out of short ribs and other mysterious but delicious ingredients. I have the recipe, but I'm not a cook and can't do it justice.

My sister makes Daddy's Spaghetti often, plus my mother's potato salad. We're going to Alaska to visit my sister later this month, and one of the meals planned is spaghetti and potato salad. I'm so looking forward to that. Together, my sister and I will remember our mother. That memory, at least, is a good one!

Wanda..... said...

Potato salad holds serious sentiment here too. My mother made hers with dill pickles and a mayonaise and mustard base, while my mother-in-law used sweet relish, mayonaise and mustard...I loved them both. I like to add a little cayenne pepper to which ever I make.

Nice post Deb!

Jessica Nelson said...

Oh my goodness, this is so beautiful Deb. Have you considered submitting some of these posts to magazines? I think this would do really well. Just lovely and something we can all relate to, even those of us who don't like potato salad. ;-)

patricia said...

I agree- a universal memory for families, and a publish-worthy piece. As you know my "mom" memories are almost nothing but pure love and sacrifice, but my mom made a potato salad like none other. The first time I made it after mom died, dad and Doris were here and my dad actually started crying as he was eating it. Makes me tear up thinking about it. The potato salad symbolizes the love and care in every single task she took on. Oh, how I miss her. =)

Cheryl said...

Your writing always leaves me moved. Your description of your mother's "breathing body" is exactly the same as my partner's mother. Wonderful writing, which is why, when Scrubby Bush was given its first award, I had to include your blog as one of the blogs I would pass the award of "A blog of note" on to. I hope it brings you more visitors and thank you for your lovely writing.

Niki said...

My mother's Cucumber Salad, same thing....
She is also in a nursing home, although one close by, and though somewhat diminished, still a fiery gal....and, yes, I'm still trying to please her...

She Writes said...

I haven't seen my mom since I was 11 years old, but I feel her presence in a guitar strumming, in hippie filled Saturday Market and sometimes in the park. Isn't it amazing how the essence of a person we have loved remains in such simple things? I loved this post.w

kario said...

I love it! That you were doing something with your hands and your heart and she was there and you were enjoying it. What a gift!

By the way, I love celery in my potato salad and if I don't have any, I almost always add celery salt. And when Bubba's not partaking, I put in sweet pickles instead of dill ;-)

Jerri said...

Potato salad is a nearly universal theme. Mothers are a completely universal theme. These reflections are as delicious as your potato salad must have been.

BTW--I put celery in mine. My family wouldn't recognize potato salad without it.

patti said...

You've made me sooooo hungry!!!
I am making potato salad for a get-together THIS saturday!

Beautiful story!!!!

Bernie said...

Another great piece, Debbie, and your thoughts of your mom and making the salad beautifully interwoven. It is a traditional kind of dish and everyone has their own variation. And strangely enough, I used to be able to make a great salad and can't anymore. My son, Jordan, makes it just as I used to and it turns out great.

I wanted to put you on my blog of substance but I can't now because Cheryl already did. Well, you could get two, I guess. And I hereby put you on my list too. I haven't made out my list yet so don't come and get it yet. You were the first one I wrote down!

colbymarshall said...

Most potato salads have mayo, so they're a no no for me...but I wish I did like it, b/c people always talk about it and I want to like it, lol!

Kathryn Grace said...

So true that each family has its own tradition with potato salad, as with so many foods. Ours has to have crisp bites of celery. Mom always cut them big, too. She loved the crunch. So do I.

Your story is provocative with so much implied. I pray for healing for both you and your mom, that your souls be at peace despite the suffering you seem to have experienced. From the telling, it appears you are well on your way.

Elenka said...

In Maine, pretty much all you get are brown eggs. I grew up in New Jersey, home of white egg. I prefer the brown...why? No one knows, not even me.
I still make my mom's potato salad, too. No changes, at least not yet.
Lucky me, she still makes it as well, with her loving 89 years old hands. I'm lucky about that. Too bad she lives so far away.


I absolutely love your description of making potato salad. And my husband and I both love it. Homemade, that is.

Each family does have its own recipe. Ours must have radishes and celery and kosher dills too.

Your account reminded me of my mother's potato salad which I can nearly duplicate. But not quite. Somehow I cannot capture what it felt like to be making it with her in her kitchen and the tasting that went on.

Thanks for a lovely lovely post. Barb

M said...

As I continue to read your blog entries, I am continually thankful for your writing...for it helps me to see our heritage in ways I had forgotten. I'm so thankful for the healing that you've found over these past few months and the love and compassion that flows through your writing.


Midlife Jobhunter said...

A lovely piece. Truly lovely. All the details of the different colored eggs, the choosing of the potatoes, how adding celery messed up the dish. I"m sorry about your mom.

Potato salad is a funny dish. You are right - everyone likes their own. My mom's is my favorite and I use the same recipe. I loved this piece, Deb.