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A Year of Living Dangerously

(by Désirée Willmes)

“Where is the basket with the food?” Mom asked when I walked into the door of our home in Andreasberg, a 400-soul village in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. I blushed but didn’t answer. Cleaning her hands on her apron, she asked again in a much sterner tone, “Where is the basket with the food?”

My abuela, who was living with us, stepped in. “Why do you raise your voice, Victoria?”

“I will tell you what happened. Your granddaughter has been daydreaming again and forgot the food basket somewhere. She is going to turn around right now, hop back on the bus, and she'd better come back with that basket.” She gave me a little push and turning to my grandmother said, “The girl needs to learn that food is sacred.”

So I got back on the bus and rode 14 miles to the farmers market in Meschede, the town where I went to school, trying to retrieve our basket of produce. The trip took an hour, and when the bus pulled into the station, there it was: the beautiful wicker basket filled with fruit and vegetables. A miracle.

That was 40 years ago. Now I understand my mom's anger. Earlier that same week, she had sent me to a local village farm to pick up a liter of fresh milk in our blue and white enamel milk can. As I was singing and skipping and twirling the can in the air, the top flew off, and all of the milk, too. I thought I could fool my mom and went back to the farm, where the farmer's wife filled the can again. Come the weekend, she said, I should make up for it by helping her bring the cows back in from grazing in the field outside our house. But when I got home, Mom knew about the mishap, thanks to a gossipy neighbor who had seen what happened.

Those early lessons stuck with me. And more than ever do I value the importance of food.

Our family had a longtime Sunday night tradition of a food feast with all of Mom's siblings. It was pure bliss to have everyone around a big table to celebrate life. Because of the pandemic, those feasts have stopped, and I have not seen my mother in more than a year, since she lives in Europe and I live in the U.S. I turned 50, she turned 80, and we could not celebrate together.

And now celebration of life is even more important, since I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year.

Cancer took away my enjoyment of food. Chemotherapy left me with an awful metallic taste in my mouth, and I had no idea it would be so hard on my entire system, even on my fingernails—just peeling potatoes is painful. Sometimes my mouth was full of blisters, and it was hard to go near the kitchen since the aroma of food made me ill.

My mother and I are lucky that we can FaceTime. Every day we call each other, and we can see each other. I smile each time I see my mom with her apéritif or dessert. I leave her alone for the main course so that she can enjoy it warm. Otherwise she would talk so much that her food would get cold.

Sometimes I am too tired to talk, and I just listen. I listen to her stories that almost always involve food. There was the time we lost the Michelin-starred chef of my brother´s boutique hotel due to gross misconduct, and Mom came to help prepare a fancy meal for an eccentric French lady who had just finished a severe fasting program at a local clinic. As soon as she checked in, she demanded “proper” food,” which to her meant everything from rare blue lobster to filet mignon in cream sauce to decadent chocolate cake, accompanied by a variety of wines. She devoured it all in less than half an hour, and we ended up calling an ambulance as she struggled to breathe.

Some days I cry, and every day I miss my mom. I miss her hugs and smiles. I miss her stroking my head like she used to do when I was going through difficult times. She would glide her delicate fingers through my long hair. Now I have no hair, and I look a bit like an alien, but she tells me that I am beautiful. “Guapa y muy interesante,” she keeps repeating. “It is temporary.” Yes, she is right. It is temporary.

She tells me about the time when I was a baby, and she spent a year in a German sanatorium with a severe lung disease. She recalls how she too would cry, how she too thought she would die, but she tells me that I need to be thinking more positively and that I can do it, just like she did.

Mom recently sent me a care package, smuggling delicious jabugo ham hidden inside some magazines, and she gives me advice on what to eat, like artichokes to lower my liver enzymes, and calves liver, which I loved as a child. “Remember to cook it well, and make sure you cook onion and apple rings with it," she says. "You have one of those fancy juicers, so make a beetroot juice.” I eat even when I am not hungry. I eat because Mom gives me a hard time if I don´t. It is helping me just like the medicine that goes through a port in my chest.

(Mom Victoria, niece Eva, and nephew Sam)

Mom is upset about my health, but she reminds me, as well as the doctors, that I am doing very well. Even though this is the most challenging time in my life, the continuous love and affection from my mother, husband, brother, sister-in-law, wonderful family and friends keep me smiling and keep me going. My niece and nephew, Eva and Sam, wear many hats— whether positivity coach and Skyped pianist for me, or weekend companion and junior private chef for their grandma.

Mom is already planning a big Thank You party once I am healthy again.


Désirée Willmes lives in Connecticut where she works as a court interpreter.

Oma Mia’s Rinderrouladen (German Beef Rouladen)

This is my German grandmother Maria´s recipe for a true German comfort food. When I was growing up, we called it Rinderrouladen hausfrauenart (housewife´s method). Victoria, my mom, learned most of her cooking from her mother-in-law, my Oma.

6 slices round beef steak, thinly sliced (approximately 6 x 4 in. and 1/4 in. thick after being pounded; the bigger the slice, the easier it is to roll)

salt and pepper to taste

1/2 c. Dijon mustard

6 slices bacon

1 onion, thinly sliced

3 gherkins, chopped (sour pickles or dill pickles will also do)

2 T. butter

For the gravy:

3 – 4 organic carrots, chopped

3 stalks organic celery, chopped

6 small onions

3 T. tomato paste

2 bay leaves

1 1/2 – 2 c. red wine

beef stock to cover everything

Season the beef slices with salt and pepper, and spread with mustard.

Add a slice of bacon, some onions and gherkins to each slice.

Roll up the slices with the fillings inside, tucking the ends in, and secure with cooking twine, skewers, or toothpicks.

Heat butter in a cast iron pot, and brown the beef rolls well on all sides.

Remove and set aside.

Add the carrots, celery, onions, tomato paste, and bay leaves to the pot.

Add the red wine and deglaze the pot over medium heat.

Cook for 10 minutes.

After the beef rolls to the pot again, and add beef stock to cover.

Cook over medium-low heat for 2 hours.

Oma and Mom used to serve the Rinderrouladen with boiled potatoes and red cabbage. I prefer mashed potatoes or potato knödel (dumplings).


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