I rushed to San Diego after my father called with news of my mother's death. My husband followed a day later, arriving with bagels, lox and cream cheese from my favorite Denver deli.
A dear friend from college had pastries delivered. After the funeral, we had a repast of chicken and green beans and several kinds of cake prepared by the hospitality ministry at my mother's church.
I was grateful for every bite. What grief depletes from our spirits has to be replaced somehow.
Years after my mother’s death, I was sitting with the daughter of a friend who had just died and remembering: A house of loss is a hungry house.
"What do you need?" I asked. "Do you have something for dinner?"
She laughed softly, then said: "People mourn with food."
I left promising to return with cornbread, which I knew my friend's husband liked. As I drove home, I decided on chicken soup to go with the bread. I turned to the internet and settled on a recipe reminiscent of a stew my mother-in-law makes. Supermarket rotisserie chicken saves steps, and doesn't detract from the warm glow that the resulting meal-in-a-pot has brought to many family gatherings.
I didn’t need to Google for cornbread. As a child, my family had the soul food staple as often as other households had mashed potatoes or rice. My mother taught my sister and I to make our no-nonsense starch without the fuss of putting the dry ingredients through her faded blue-and-white sifter. Just toss the flour, cornmeal, salt and baking soda in the bowl with a fork to "put some air in there," I can still hear momma counseling.
After my friend's death, shopping for ingredients with which to mourn filled that "what can I do?" void. Once at work in the kitchen, I was surprised at how soothing it was to chop leeks and shred chicken for the soup, and to swirl the white flour and yellow cornmeal together with flicks of a fork. The motions were repetitive; like keening.
In the title story of her collection "Sabrina and Corina," Kali Fajardo-Anstine describes aunts and cousins and sisters gathering in a west Denver kitchen after a death in the family:
"I took my place among the women. My mother and I silently chopped the pork into small pieces for the chili. One of my aunties made a pitcher of lemonade, another chopped onions, and another readied plates of food for the men."
From one generation to the next, we pass on traditions of solace. Lessons of cooperation and grace -- and on saving energy and time for one another.