My mother, Rosemary Steele Sheppard, died a year ago last week after suffering from debilitating dementia for two-plus years. This terrible disease caused Mom to morph before my very eyes into someone unrecognizable. I saw things I wish I’d never seen, and never thought I’d forget. But, I’m glad to report that, now, when I think of Mom, I clearly see her younger, vibrant self in my mind’s eye, her bright, sparkling brown eyes, wavy brown hair and wrinkle-free face. Now, one year later, solace is not found at her gravesite. Rather, remembering little things about her, swapping pictures and videos of her with my sister and brother, keep my memory of my vibrant mother alive.
As much as I hate to say it, I’ve come to realize that food plays a major role in my memory of Mom’s life. Entertaining at home, cooking nightly meals for our family, and planning for same, took up a large amount of her daily life. Her go-to dish for company was beef stroganoff with a green salad or shrimp cocktail, while her home-cooked meals for the five of us were all about comfort: cheese manicotti, “gourmet goulash,” (a delicious concoction involving ground beef, ribbon pasta and cream of mushroom soup), and hot chicken salad with crushed potato chips on top. A few months before she died, she spent a weekend in the hospital, and hadn’t spoken much at all in previous weeks. She suddenly sat up in bed, looked at my sister and brother and asked, worriedly, “What am I going to do with all this shrimp? I need to get dinner started.” My brother, trying to console her, said, “Mom, please don’t worry about dinner. We’ll take care of it,” to which she replied, “You are not helping at all.” My sister told me later that she realized then how much of Mom’s life must have been spent planning meals and gatherings, for her subconscious mind to be focused on this quandary. When we were growing up, on typical Friday nights, Dad took over, using Julia Child’s recipe to make cheese soufflés. Mom watched patiently while Dad dirtied every bowl, sauce pan, and whisk in the kitchen, then left them for someone else to clean. Mom loved visits to San Antonio, and all the city’s fabulous food options, including Earl Abel’s fried chicken, La Fonda’s cheese enchiladas, The Naples’ stuffed artichokes, and L’Etoile’s crab cakes and chocolate soufflés. Her beverage of choice was white wine with a single ice cube. In Mom’s opinion, there was never an unpleasant experience that couldn’t be made better with food. In high school, she frequently drove me to dermatology appointments in Victoria, then cheerfully suggested trips to Baskin Robbins for a pralines ‘n cream ice cream cone or a leche quemada candy and can of Diet Coke from The Monterey House. I’ll never forget how my Uncle Dick’s annual Christmas offering to his little sister of a box of licorice, and Violet Talk’s fudge bunnies at Easter, delighted her. A package of red Twizzlers delighted her right up to the end.
Enough about food. Let’s talk about everyday life in a small town. Mom was the epitome of a happy housewife. She did most of the cleaning, all of the laundry and ironing, attended PTC meetings at our small Catholic school, organized a church cookbook, and volunteered as a Pink Lady at the hospital. She supported our father completely, and had a very happy marriage. She desperately wanted that for her children, and she could not understood why my sister and I wanted to go to law school or work outside the home, but she was supportive of our choices. She delighted in our successes and fumed at perceived injustices handed us by a teacher or friend. When I was worried about anything, from an 8th grade volleyball tournament to the bar exam, she always reassured, saying, “You’ll be fine, honey. I’ll pray you through it!”
She rarely sat still, so it was a treat being in the room with her when she finally put her feet up and watched one of her favorite t.v. shows, laughing hilariously at The Carol Burnett Show, All in the Family and Mash. She even enjoyed the occasional Sunday afternoon Dallas Cowboys game, lovingly shouting, “Roger Dodger, you old codger!” (I think her love of Roger Staubach was due to his Catholicism, rather than to his able football skills.)
Mom and Dad had ten grandchildren, and we witnessed her utter joy at the births of all of them, her graceful hands reaching out to hold them. After my first baby was born, my mother spent two weeks with me in San Antonio, and the thing I remember most was our laughter. We took the baby to the mall just a few days after her birth. As I tried to juggle baby, bottle, and shopping bags, the bottle fell to the floor, taking several hard bounces across the dirty floor, landing underneath a bench several feet away. We belly-laughed until we cried at the ridiculousness of the situation. What were we thinking trying to shop with a newborn? I cried real tears when she drove away a few days later.
Mom spent the last two decades of her life spoiling her grandchildren, attending their school programs and plays, and showering them with unconditional love. She let them sit on her kitchen floor, and play drums with multiple empty Cool Whip containers. She showered them with gifts of coloring books, stickers, and t-shirts painted with wildflowers. She did something magical with cinnamon toast that is still memorable to all ten of them.
I miss her, of course, but I delight in the happy memories she gave me for over 50 years, and am happy she is no longer suffering. As we celebrate family milestones like graduations and weddings, rather than feel sad, I like to think that she is smiling, watching from heaven, knowing that we are all thinking about her, remembering her, and sharing a funny story about something she did or said, trying hard to keep her memory alive for many more years. My fervent hope is that the memory of her won’t fade anytime soon.