My Irish grandmother, Mimi, was a terrible cook. She could ruin a can of beans and used her oven for storage, but she loved to eat. Ninety-five percent of her meals came from the coffee shop across the boulevard from her New York City home. She wasn’t restricted to ordering off the menu there, and her booth was in the back because she liked to keep an eye on the action and slip the waitresses a little something extra.
I spent a lot of time with Mimi growing up. My parents divorced when I was young, and my grandfather worked long hours, so my mother, grandmother, and I were a tight trio from go. When dementia kicked in and Mimi (now a widow) needed my help, there was no question I'd be there.
At thirty-nine, I was a massage therapist in between relationships. I put my life out West on hold to move across the country and into my family's brick row-house in Queens. Mimi lived alone in the downstairs apartment—surrounded by her life’s accumulations—and my mother and I lived together upstairs.
I brought my wolfy mountain dog, Lucky, who adapted to hissing busses, rumbling subways, and a noted absence of grass. “Can he eat table scraps?” Mimi asked.
“Not unless it falls on the floor,” I told her.
Mimi tore the heel off a loaf of bread, dropped it on the floor, winked at me, smiled at Lucky, and said, “Oops!”
Mimi’s tastes in food were simple—a byproduct of growing up during the Great Depression. She could make a meal out of a bialy and a chocolate malted. There was a pride to her simplicity. “I could live on bread and butter,” Mimi used to say, and she meant it, “But I wouldn’t mind a little jelly if you have it.”
She passed on her love of carbs and sweets to me, and unlike my mother, Mimi didn't care about things like portion control or crumbs in the bed. She’d slide a tray of Oreos from the package, placing the cookies in between us for back-to-back episodes of I Love Lucy.
“That’s your row, and this is mine,” Mimi said. “We’ll meet in the middle.”
Mimi met everyone in the middle, though there was no middle ground on love. She was all in on love.
At ninety-years-old with cognitive decline, Mimi woke every morning wondering which end was up. She missed her husband and three sisters—who’d been her best friends—but couldn’t remember that they’d all died. “Did we have a wake?” Mimi asked. “Was I there?”
Growing up, we’d always gone out to eat, but my first week back in New York, I realized that, for Mimi's sake, we'd be eating at home. I came up with the idea of preparing our main meal of the day cooking-show style. I cut and measured everything into little glass bowls before starting the performance. Mimi was the sole attendee to my show.
I peeled carrots, diced onion, and minced garlic. I braised bones, caramelized vegetables, and reduced stocks into glazes. I deveined and reconstituted. I did not cut any corners. I often worked on a few meals at once, sweating the eggplant for the next day, brining a chicken for the day after that.
Over coffee and the morning carb-du-jour, my mother and I answered Mimi’s questions but struggled to gain traction. It didn’t matter how many times Mimi heard the answers; the information didn’t stick. So I’d pivot and answer Mimi’s questions with a question.
“How about lasagna tonight?” I’d say, “We can make it from scratch, you and me?”
If we rooted in the present, Mimi’s mind was less likely to wander into dangerous territory. Nothing kept Mimi more focused on the moment than watching me cook.
After breakfast I’d settle Mimi at the kitchen table with a cardigan draped over her shoulders. I’d give her a cup of tea and kick off our cooking show with a cookie taste-test.
I asked Mimi if she wanted to help with the prep, but she usually didn’t. “I enjoy myself just watching you,” Mimi said. “It feels like being in the kitchen with my mother.”
While I worked, we chatted. I told Mimi what was on our menu and explained step-by-step how I was going to do it. I’d share about a childhood friend I’d visited, the book I was reading, or a movie I wanted to see. As long as Mimi engaged in real-time conversation, she stayed safe from the questions she couldn’t remember the answers to.
The setup worked, so day after day I hunted down time-consuming recipes from The New York Times, Zuni Café, Marcella Hazan, Julia Child. I became a disciple to advanced cooking techniques and cooked like every day was a special occasion. For a time, it was. During the year I stayed with Mimi, every night was Sunday dinner.
When dinner was over, sometimes Mimi’s words brought me to my knees.
“I don’t know what you’re doing babydoll, but if you’re fixing something to eat, don’t worry about me. I’m not hungry.”
We’d just finished eating—after a day of cooking—and the table was still warm from the plates. Yet after the dishes were rinsed and the pots and pans had been scrubbed, it was like the day and the meal had never happened.
But it was never about the meal. It wasn’t about the production, the cooking, the presentation, or the eating. It was about providing Mimi with a few hours of peace from the wandering mind of a dementia sufferer. Everything was worth it, even if she didn’t remember. With full bellies, I’d ask Mimi, “What should we have tomorrow?”