(by Jamee Damron-Larsen)
I was so lucky to grow up in a beautiful country home in Maryland, one mile from the Pennsylvania border, which had an amazing history. It had been a hospital during the Civil War, treating both wounded Union soldiers and wounded slaves trying to find their way to freedom. Our big kitchen included a fireplace with an arm hook mounted inside that could be pulled over the open flame for cooking. My mother would heat up soup in the fireplace any time we lost power, which was frequent during storms. It was like being in a movie.
My mother, Susanna, had a sunny disposition and a zany personality. She would spring into the room, hair full of rollers, with toilet paper wrapped around her head to hold them in place, singing Neil Diamond. But cooking was not her strong suit. She thought cream of mushroom soup was a gourmet sauce. Luckily for her, I didn’t know any better. She was the best cook I had ever met because she was the only cook I had met. The result wasn’t always a win, but the daily ritual was gold.
Dinner was at 6 p.m. every night. I would drag my Strawberry Shortcake stool across the room so I could see over the counter and watch her cook. One day I watched her “tenderize” a piece of meat. She was bludgeoning this poor cow with hammer strokes that looked more like a slasher film. Once it was flattened and fried, it would have had a better life as a belt than a meal. As entertaining as her culinary challenges were, it was the connection and the bond we were creating that would prove invaluable. We were building our relationship one dinner at a time.
My interest in her cooking must have poked at her motherly instinct, and when I was six years old, Santa brought me a kids’ cookbook. I was so excited, thinking: Mommy has just as good talks with Santa as she does with me!
She told me to pick a recipe for us to make together, and I knew it when I saw it—the best recipe of all time to make with my best friend of all time: chocolate chip cookies.
I was so excited that I wanted to start right away. My mother went into the pantry and came out with all the ingredients we needed. To a six-year-old, this was superhero power. Ingredients for this recipe were mixed all by hand. I got to lick the spoons and the bowl, which is a great part of being a kid. I was also the “be a sweetie and go get me” kid. Whatever she needed out of reach, I had to fetch. And two hours later, wearing most of the ingredients, my mother and I sat at the table and ate warm chocolate chip cookies together.
Eventually, my favorite stool made its way to the attic with the rest of my childhood memories. I didn’t need to be at the kitchen counter anymore, but I still needed our talks. I sat across the room, filling in my mom on whatever stage of life I had entered. There was rarely a silence. We could lose hours with each other. Here is where I felt like a grownup. My mother talked to me in a tender but adult tone. I could be very open about how I saw the world. She was a deep person and had great insights. When I started dating, she told me to have fun and be young. But when it came time to choose a forever person, imagine being on a ship that’s on a shore, and you must make it to the other shore. There will be sunny days but also rain and big storms. Pick the kind of person who can make that journey.
After I moved out on my own, I would still find myself at home, sitting across from my mother several times a week, catching up over coffee. (Despite her lack of culinary skill, she made a fabulous cup of coffee.)
One August night when I was 21, I was headed out of my apartment to meet friends, when my landline rang. It was a former neighbor, who still lived half a mile behind our family home and shared the first part of our driveway. His voice was solemn.
“I don’t know how to tell you this,” he said, “but your mother has been taken away in an ambulance. She’s going to St. Joseph’s Hospital. I’m so sorry.”
I slammed the phone down and bolted out the door. I don’t remember driving to the hospital, but I remember my hands gripping the steering wheel so hard, my joints hurt. I arrived at the emergency entrance just in time to see paramedics opening the back of the ambulance. I saw her hair, the salt-and-pepper look she decided to keep, with long layers that she thought made her look hip for her age. I saw the oxygen mask, tubes, and hands reaching all around her. I saw her more clearly than I ever had.
My sister and brother were already in the emergency room, standing against a wall, looking completely lost. Before I could put my arms around them, a hand touched my shoulder. A doctor softly informed us that our mother had died of a heart attack.
That was 1993. In the three decades since then, I have had to learn, as so many women do, how to be a motherless child, even though I am an adult. I still want to call her when something important happens in my life, or to hear a message in that sunny voice saying, “Hi honey, it’s Mom. I’m thinking about you today. I want to hear about the new job. I’m sure you were amazing. Call me when you can. Love you, bye.”
I am a deeper human being for the life and loss of my mother, a more certain woman because of her existence, because of the time we spent in that kitchen. The depth of her guidance formed my values, opinions, and decision-making abilities.
I also make the best chocolate chip cookies. I am known for this skill among family and friends. When they ask how I do it. I say, “It’s a mother-daughter thing.” Whenever I make a batch, I fix a fresh, fabulous cup of coffee, eat a warm cookie right out of the oven, and remember the amazing talks with my mom. The recipe has changed over the years, but for the sake of nostalgia, here’s the one this little girl made with her superhero.
Jamee Damron-Larsen is a comedian/writer/acting coach who lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband and golden retriever. She coaches and speaks with her own raw, funny take about life after loss, and has begun writing a book about losing her mother as a young woman. She can be found at www.jlcoachchat.com, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Backstage.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
6 oz. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 c. brown sugar, packed
1/4 c. white sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 1/2 t. vanilla extract
2 c. sifted flour
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 c. chopped nuts (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 F.
In a bowl, stir the butter until creamy.
Slowly add the brown and white sugars, mixing until light and fluffy.
Add the egg and vanilla extract, mixing well.
Sift flour, baking soda, and salt together, and slowly mix in.
Stir in chocolate chips and optional nuts.
Drop by teaspoonfuls on a greased cookie sheet.
Bake 10 - 12 minutes, until golden brown.