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Tomato Aspic, No More

(by Tsara Shelton)

My grandma died recently.


Thankfully, it wasn't so recently that Covid-19 had revealed itself to be the scourge it is now understood to be. (Also, thankfully, she took her Tomato Aspic recipe with her to the great beyond.)


Grandma's timing meant that she was able to spend her last weeks and months of life surrounded by family, laughter, love, and—well—life. While she lay ill in her hospital bed or sat stoic in her chair, various relatives gathered around her, my mom included. This is an interesting thing.


My mom was always the black sheep. Willing to stand up to Grandma and speak the truths that the rest of her family preferred tucked tightly away, like the stark folds at the bottom of Grandma's hospital bed; keep it pretty where people are hurting. My mom refused to hide hurt. She fought it—and my grandma's ideas about how children should behave. But Mom inherited Grandma's strength and is not one to behave only for the sake of behaving.


During Grandma’s last days, drifting in and out of fear, strength, love, anger, and pain, the family gathered and connected. Especially my mom. Childhood memories and plans for the future filled the room. Siblings reconciled, grandchildren were included, and cousins separated by many miles surprised themselves by discovering so much in common, despite growing up apart.


At least, that's how I imagined it. I'm not certain. My sister and I were not there, though we were aware.


My grandma was not easy to love, and she was impossible to ignore.


So my sister and I, for similar but different reasons, did not take the steps necessary to visit Grandma in the hospital. My excuses included no passport and no money. Sure, I could have found ways to solve these challenges, but I also had no strong interest.


For my sister, not visiting was a bigger statement. Again, she could have pointed to a few challenges: ten-year-old twin daughters that she's homeschooling and a teenager at home. My sister inherited our mom's strength, and always does the impossible when she feels it is right, but she was not going to put her family in a precarious situation to see a grandma who was cruel. That was impressive to me. The strength of my mom and my sister is impressive to me.


Me? I think that brand of strength escaped my genes, but it did influence me.

(Mom, my sister, and me)


A memory: The summer that I was 13, I was away from my home in Ontario to spend time with my mom's family in Manitoba. My uncle and grandpa were building a cottage, and my grandma took me to see it. We were lying in the summer grass, looking up at the clouds, and I wanted, wanted, wanted so badly for Grandma to think I was smart. After all, if someone as judgmental as Grandma thought I was smart, then I must be. She asked me to play a game with her: to look at the clouds actively, find and name what I saw in their shapes. I froze with fear. My style was to merely gaze and allow thoughts and images to find me, not to seek and confront those thoughts and images head on. So I squirmed on the inside and made stuff up on the outside. I snuck odd looks at her to see if I was doing well, passing the test. I suspect Grandma was hoping to connect with me that summer, but I spent the time avoiding her, trying to pass her tests (some imagined, some real), and telling lies over and over again about who I was until I no longer knew what was true.


My mom molded herself differently, walked away at an early age, and created something masterful. She gathered many children to love fiercely and guide into independence, with a belief in them that was impossible to understand. She birthed my sister and me, and then adopted six other children: four boys with various cognitive disabilities and two teen-aged girls who'd grown up in abusive homes.


As the oldest of the eight children, I easily and purposely became my mom's helper. While she saw so much potential in all of us, I did not. I would voice my suspicions to Mom, worrying that she was creating false hope by saying we could all learn things we didn't appear to be able to learn, worrying that she was imagining potential because she wanted it. And my mom would explain, pointing out the subtle proof that my brothers were learning unexpected skills, that my sisters and I were overcoming obstacles. She taught me how to fan that flame, and in time, I was able to see the proof without her pointing it out.


I was able to use that skill to grow healthy myself, to teach and encourage my own children to do the same. And throughout those years of teamwork between Mom and me, she honed her ability to explain what she innately understood about people who seemed different or limited, and I grew able to see success in uncommon and necessary places. We compliment each other that way, like a main course with a well-paired appetizer or dessert. My mom is now a renowned international brain change and behavior expert, and I am her personal assistant. She helps families around the world, including ours, and I continue to learn from her as she blazes trails.

(Mom and me at one of her speaking events)


My mom's strength influenced my ability to believe in the impossible. Her strength built a family that supported each other and looked nothing like the home Mom grew up in.


Except, it sort of did. Mom's childhood home was filled with children doing chores, singing around a piano, taking road trips. We also did that. At the dinner table, we were never afraid that Mom would smack us around as Grandma had done with her kids, but we knew we couldn't leave the table until we'd eaten everything on our plates. (My sister used to wait until Mom was busy with one of our brothers and hide her onion butter toast in various places—behind pictures on the walls, on someone else’s plate, in the vents. Meanwhile, to this day, I wanted that onion butter recipe. The dark delicious spread on toast made noisy music in my head, allowing me to both taste and hear each bite. The crunch was almost loud enough to mask my thinking that maybe I was better than my sister because I loved Mom's onion butter, while she did not.)


When my sister chose to leave home, it was not to run away but to run toward. Mom had instilled an impressive amount of independence in her, and she was ready to build her life her way. My sister wore that strength she'd inherited from my mom well. It looked (and still looks) fantastic on her.


My sister used ingredients from our childhood home and added heaping helpings of ideas from other homes visited and imagined. The comfortable chaos we grew up in became, instead, inviting cleanliness and top-of-the-line style comforts. It appears effortless, watching my sister sculpt a home for her children out of strong values and finer things.


Me? I live in awe of all their styles and skills. My sons (I have four, all grown now) and I spent our time singing, dancing, following our family whenever we could, and eating cheese and crackers.


All the women in my life have big feelings for family.


For my grandma, it looked like big feelings of expectations. My mom: big feelings of believing in the impossible for us. My sister: big feelings of empathy.


Me? I have big feelings of wanting my boys to hang out with me.


I won't rewrite history. I won't pretend my grandma was a great woman. She hurt my mom and her siblings a lot, but she had greatness. And that greatness has grown in delicious ways, steeped, stirred, and sifted with the different styles and tastes of people she passed it onto.


(Unlike her Tomato Aspic, had she passed it on. I suspect that was unsalvageable.)

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Tsara Shelton is a writer who lives in Quebec, Canada. She can be found at https://www.tsarashelton.com, https://autismanswersbytsara.blogspot.com/, Facebook, and Twitter. She is the daughter of Lynette Louise, who wrote "Tomato Aspic" for Eat, Darling, Eat.

Onion Butter Toast


10 white onions, peeled and minced

sesame oil, as needed


In a large pot, heat 1 T. sesame oil.

Add onions and stir constantly for about 5 minutes.

Let onions cook over low heat for several hours, adding more oil as needed so that they don't dry out.

Serve on toast.