(by Amy Fischer Smith)
“A truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery on a detour.” Wendy Morgan
I didn’t always listen to my mother growing up, but I sure as hell listen to everything she tells me now that she’s dead. In the two years that she’s been gone, she’s taught me that life is brief, so make the most of it; be grateful for family and friends; the bond between mother and daughter is eternal; and with help from a toddler, I can survive the most life-altering loss I’ve experienced in my 32 years.
While most moms advise their daughters to pursue a particular career or date a doctor instead of a truck driver, my mother focused her efforts on leisure recommendations. She all but planned my honeymoon in France and Italy, and came up with elaborate party ideas like a birthday celebration for my dog Lance with the theme of Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table. My mom was full of great ideas for having fun, and was always thrilled when I liked one of them and ran with it.
But Wendy Morgan’s greatest strength when it came to recommendations was restaurants. Being her daughter was like having my own private Michelin inspector. She’d research a restaurant, stop by and pick up a menu so she could study it and decide what to order, then visit with my dad before recommending it. Once she liked a place, she was extremely enthusiastic about it, insisting that I drop whatever I was doing to try the area’s most authentic dim sum.
Her enthusiasm also extended to more serious matters. When my husband Tom and I were having trouble starting a family, Mom was always positive that the fertility treatments we were undergoing would work. She insisted that I would become a mom myself. And she was right.
In April 2017, I gave birth to my son Benji, and my mom became a grandmother for the first time. She told me that it was one of the greatest joys of her life, second only to having me. She and my dad came over every day to spend time with Benji, often bringing dinner for his hungry and sleep-deprived parents. This was a new chapter in our relationship. Even though I would always be her baby, we now had new roles as grandmother and mother, bonding over the blessing of my son.
Just seven months later, life changed forever when my mom died suddenly and unexpectedly due to complications from Crohn’s disease. She was just 60 years old. Tidal waves of grief swept over our family. The day before she died, Tom, Benji and I spent the evening with her. We had no idea that it would be the last time we would see her alive. The last message I received from my mom was an email with a picture of Tom holding Benji that she had taken that night. The message said simply, “I am grateful for my family.”
While it hasn’t gotten any easier to live without my mom, I know she’s still with me. Our relationship is different now that she’s no longer physically here, but I am still her daughter. Because I am her daughter and I want to embody her positivity, I’ve developed several ways to cope and to remember her. Many of these revolve around food.
The first time we went to a favorite Italian restaurant, she ordered two entrees, veal piccata and gnocchi, so she could pour the lemon butter sauce from the piccata onto the gnocchi. It was a delicious combination. Now, whenever I go to an Italian restaurant, I ask for this dish, and the best ones are always willing to make it for me.
After my mom died, I realized that visiting her favorite restaurants, as well as restaurants she'd wanted to try but never did, was a great way to honor her. I’ve made it a goal to visit all 276 restaurants on her list.
The most surprising thing I learned about Mom and food after she died was that she used to spend $120 a month on gelato. Her favorite flavor was hazelnut. I smile every time I think about her sending my dad out for it, even when it was the peak of holiday season and the parking lot was so full that he had to pay $10 for valet service. I often go to her favorite place and always order the hazelnut; as it rolls over my tongue, I know she is with me.
Although she loved food, my mother was not a cook herself. When I was growing up, we either went out for dinner or ate convenience foods like pasta for weekday meals. The one exception was her Cheesy Potato Casserole. All it takes is the smell of Mom’s signature dish to remind me of my mother and Thanksgivings spent with family. I know that I am going to miss her terribly this Thanksgiving. But I am going to make her casserole, and when I smell it coming out of the oven, I will know that she is there with me, always.
Mom’s Cheesy Potato Casserole
5 c. frozen diced hash brown potatoes
1 ½ c. shredded cheddar cheese
1 ½ c. sour cream
1/2 c. chopped onions
1/4 c. chopped chives
1 t. salt
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In 3-quart baking dish, stir all ingredients until well combined.
Bake for 45 minutes, then raise oven temperature to 450 F. and bake 15 minutes longer.