“This food tastes like shit.” The Speaker: my seventy-two year old grandmother. The food in question: stuffed shells. Actually, they were the very same stuffed shells that my grandmother had taught my mom to make years prior. I can imagine that at many family dinner tables someone insulting the food in this way could cause a shocked silence, maybe even the sound of clattering forks. Shock, however, was not the reaction at our weekly Monday night dinner. Instead, Mom’s head fell to the stable in silent laughter, my brother, Jeffrey, slowly shook his head with a smirk on his face, Kristy, my ever-helpful sister, offered to make something else, and I, in the most tactful way, laughed so hard that I snorted. Undeniably insulting on the surface, these words had become frequent visitors at our dinner table, and we all grew to appreciate them.
If I’m being honest, had the previous event happened a year earlier, my family would have had that “expected” reaction. In fact, we did. The first time my grandmother uttered those five words, we were dining out to celebrate my great-grandmother’s ninety-second birthday. We were at a small Italian restaurant named Anthony’s. While I wouldn’t say that it is an incredibly upscale restaurant, it was on the pricier side for my middle-class family. You can imagine our surprise when my grandmother told the waitress exactly “how everything was.” We were mortified. My brother did shake his head, but it was out of embarrassment rather than to hide his amusement. My mom had a shocked expression on her face and began profusely apologizing to the waitress. And my great-grandmother had the most appalled reaction of us all. “Jane,” she demanded (although I still have no clue why she calls her daughter Jane when her given name is Dawn), “I raised you with manners. I don’t care how sick you are, I still expect you to use them.” We thought that this would be the only time where Mom-mom blatantly insulted the food in front of her. We couldn’t have been more wrong. We also never expected to view these words as a catch phrase.
In the spring of 2012 my grandmother was simultaneously diagnosed with a brain tu
mor and Alzheimer’s. This news devastated my entire family. Mom-mom was the brains of our family. Her nose was constantly wedged between the pages of a crossword puzzle, and it was pointless to even attempt to play Scrabble with her. In addition to her seemingly endless amount of knowledge, she made many of my family’s favorite meals. Stuffed shells, split pea soup, and the best French toast- seriously the best- were some of my favorite things that she made. Luckily, she passed most of her recipes and cooking secrets down to my mom. Unfortunately, as the Alzheimer’s took over her body, she began to hate everything about eating.
I’ve often heard that Alzheimer’s
can entirely alter someone’s personality. This wasn’t necessarily the case with Mom-mom. She still loved to talk, enjoyed spending time with her family, and maintained her passion for shoes and handbags. For the most part, she was still the kind, caring woman I had known my whole life. The one thing that did change drastically was her passion for food. She could no longer cook for herself, and began to despise every meal that was placed in front of her. Her newest obsession became the temperature of her food. Nothing ever seemed to be warm enough. Regardless of whether or not the food had been pulled out of the oven mere minutes before, she still wanted to reheat it in the microwave. Even her water needed to be a specific temperature. She would say “Not too cold. I hate when it’s cold.” One time we even had a heated argument when she attempted to microwave ice cream. I remember getting frustrated and thinking: it has the word ice in it. It’s supposed to be cold.
Her dilemma with food became even more intense as the Alzheimer’s progressed. She began to avoid eating altogether. She would push food around her plate, knock it to the floor, and at times she would even push it away, lay her head down, and take a nap at the table. No matter how hard we tried, it was nearly impossible for us to get her to eat.
Previously, my grandmother had maintained a relatively healthy lifestyle. She always ate her vegetables- she even grew her own vegetables in her back yard. She was that person that refused to eat frozen vegetables because they “didn’t taste as good as the fresh stuff.” I’m not saying that she was a perfectly healthy eater, because she still enjoyed her dessert from time to time, but overall she loved to cook. And she loved to do it with fresh ingredients. This is why it was so shocking to us when getting her to eat became so difficult. It got so bad that she wouldn’t even eat junk food like French fries or cake. Forget about the vegetables- they weren’t even an option. Her lack of eating caused her to drastically lose weight, and her doctor’s became concerned about her physical health. At one point she weighed only 94 pounds, which is incredibly underweight for a woman that was 5’4”. The doctor’s insisted that we let her eat she wanted and even prescribed medicine that was supposed to increase her appetite. My mother fought with Mom-mom at every meal, begging her to eat because it would make her strong. In some ways, it was as if my mother had now taken on the parenting role with her own mother.
One time my grandmother was having one of her frequent spats about eating. My mom had made Mom-mom’s favorite breakfast- French toast with apple butter- and naturally Mom-mom was refusing to eat it. My mother begged and pleaded with her trying to get her to eat, but my grandmother was adamant that the French toast was too cold and tasted bad. Finally having enough of my mom’s incessant pushing, Mom-mom decided she was too tired to listen anymore. Her head fell forward, landing directly in her plat
e of food. Little pieces of apple butter smothered bread were now plastered all over her face. I remember watching my mom cry as she cleaned up the mess. My grandmother yelled at her the whole time. Feeling frustrated, I later asked my mom why she fought so hard with Mom-mom that morning. Wasn’t she tired of fighting? My mom looked at me and said “Taylor, it’s worth it. I got her to eat four bites.”
The medicine helped slightly. She would take a few bites at every meal, but that didn’t mean she enjoyed eating. Everything tasted like shit, even if it was one of her recipes. To my family, these words initially sounded harsh and foreign coming out of her mouth. Nonetheless, we grew to love hearing them. They meant she was eating. They meant she was fighting. Eventually my grandmother passed away from Alzheimer’s. As devastating as it was watching her lose her memories, the experience of caring for her gave all of us many new memories. My grandmother might have changed quite a bit as the disease took over, but she was still Mom-mom. She might have s
aid some offensive things, especially about our cooking, but we had to accept who she had become. We were able to turn bad moments into fond memories, and it became essential to appreciate every moment that we had with her. My family still gets together every Monday night for dinner. And, as if on cue, someone always says, “Mom, this food tastes like shit.” To my family, theses words mean something way better than they sound.