The Perfect Recipe for Warm Memories

By Ellen Clare Girardeau
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 7, 2007

My mother has been dead for quite a few years now, and I can talk about her easily, relishing the odd mixture of attributes that made her who she was. She wanted to be an attorney and she would have been a good one -- her passion for detail and instinct for the jugular would have served her well -- but the times were against her. She suffered fools poorly; bad grammar roused her to oxygen-starved heights of indignation; she was funny in her own weird way. She was not a good cook, but Mother made wonderful soup.

This always puzzled me because I, too, am not a good cook and making edible soup seems an especially mysterious form of alchemy. But I can make a fine beef and vegetable soup because Mother wrote out the recipe in minute detail for me, and I can read.

My recipe collection is a hodgepodge of newspaper and magazine clippings and handwritten notes, the most beloved of which are stained with many years' accumulation of various now unidentifiable ingredients. A few years ago I organized this collection, separating the recipes I had actually made from the ones that in some other lifetime I apparently hoped to make, and putting them in a book. The handwritten ones are especially dear to me. They conjure the presence of the people who wrote them. Sharon's oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, Bobbye Raye's "petticoat tails" (which I think is just a cute name for shortbread, but the recipe works, while most shortbread recipes don't), Joan's nuclear black bean salad -- all are in the book. But Mother's soup has pride of place.

There is nothing mysterious about this recipe, but Mother included side comments that delight and confound me. She began the instructions with the medical symbol "Rx," which, she added, "for reasons I don't remember I think translates to 'take thou.' " After the entire list of ingredients and very specific instructions (some of which even I could have figured out without being told, like "break up the tomatoes -- you don't want big hunks"), she added, "Not much of this is written in stone. It may have been in a cookbook, but I copied it from Mother who copied Lena." This "Mother" was my grandmother, notoriously inept in the kitchen. Who Lena was is anyone's guess, but apparently she was a good cook because the soup is delicious.

Late one night I decided to make the soup and took the old, tired, heavily creased recipe with me to the grocery store. As I repeatedly pulled it out of my pocket to make sure I was buying everything, I thought that I must really make a photocopy of it, that losing it would be awful. The thought was father to the deed: I arrived home to find it gone.

I went back to the store and searched the aisles, finding what seemed like hundreds of expired coupons and magazine subscription forms, but no handwritten recipe. I checked the empty carts. Nothing. I asked my checker if she had found it. No. As the tears started to flow, I headed for the door. Another customer, watching me sympathetically, ask me whose recipe it was. I replied, "My mother's," and she, too, started to cry. I hurried to the door and there, in a corner inches from trampling feet, not more than a foot from a grim, rainy night, I found it -- a little folded-up piece of paper, with faded ink that still showed Mother's mark: Rx.

I'm not sure what it is about handwriting that is so evocative. Mother's certainly owed much to the careful instruction in cursive writing that used to be drilled into youngsters. If you were to look at the handwriting of her female contemporaries, especially if they were teachers, many would have the same careful loops and swirls. But age, experience and arthritis had transformed Mother's into something as uniquely hers as her fingerprints. I could see a thousand samples of handwriting and pick hers out instantly. But I have noticed that with the passage of time my sister's handwriting is looking more and more like Mother's, just as she is looking more and more like Mother. I have never read that there might be a genetic component to handwriting, but if you were to compare my sister's and mother's, you would know as surely as I do that these women were related. I have no idea what to make of this phenomenon, but it comforts me.

It is hard to explain exactly how much finding Mother's soup recipe meant to me. Seeing her writing, reading the funny little asides that wouldn't make sense to anyone else and don't make much sense even to me, is like having her standing before me. Maybe the touch of her hand still warms the paper a tiny bit. All I know is that the recipe brings my mother to life for a moment, and that is enough.

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