Friday, May 11, 2012

I remember Mama...

      This will be the third Mothers' Day since I lost my Mama. Scratch that...Mama always appreciated clarity. I can just imagine one raised eyebrow and a wry observation: Lost? Really, darling, you should be more careful.
     This will be the third Mothers' Day since Mama died. But even after three years there  is still a lost-ness about it - that wistful yearning I feel when I reach for the phone to share some good news, or think of one of the thousands of questions I wish I had asked her, or when I set to work in the kitchen, always grateful for the blessing of being raised, nurtured and taught by a woman who was a foodie long before anyone coined the phrase.
     This will also be the first Mothers' Day since my younger sister and only sibling died, leaving two beautiful daughters, aged 17 and 20. There is nothing I can do or say to ease their sorrow on a day that will be acutely painful as, all around them, friends and acquaintances celebrate. 
      But I can speak a word of solace and hope - the promise that pain changes over time.  The "acceptance" that is the final and enduring reality of grief is neither a state of amnesia nor an admission of defeat. Slowly, memory by memory, comes the dawning realization that the awful finality of death is NOT the end of love.  St. Paul's assurance of the endurance of faith, hope and love is not mere sentiment.  God's enduring and transforming love have taken me from red, swollen eyes, sleepless nights, and a yearning for my Mama that actually felt like my heart WOULD break, into a deeper understanding of my blessedness and belovedness.  Now I can see my beautiful granddaughter and smile at the thought of how Mama would have doted on her - while simultaneously denying that she was old enough to be a great-grandmother. I can smell Mama's Spanish beef stew and feel comforted by memories of my childhood. I can see shrimp  and Virginia ham and sugary cereals in the grocery store and rejoice in her dogged insistence that my children enjoy their favorite treats. I can admire the natural hospitality, kindness, intelligence and tenacity of my children and rejoice in the truth that much of Mama lives on. The Psalmist was right, weeping may last through the night, but joy comes in the morning. Grace happens.
     A particular memory has returned, unbidden, from the forgotten recesses of memory to bless me on this Mothers' Day. In 1975, when I was only sixteen, Mama was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was enrolled in a research protocol at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Sometimes, when Daddy had to tend to business, I flew from our home in Florida to Houston with Mama. It was difficult travel with a frail mother, interminable hours in hospital waiting rooms, and explanations to airport security about  the precious vials of chemo meds we carried in insulated bags. Mama could barely eat on these trips - nausea, mouth sores and fatigue had stolen her appetite for food. But her love remained undaunted- strong enough to put me in a taxi one Sunday morning where we headed first to church and then to Brennan's where she watched with utter delight as I tucked into the most elegant brunch I had ever enjoyed and my first taste of the famous Brennan's Bananas Foster. That is what love looks like - an emaciated Mama finding joy in a daughter's happiness. Digging deep into her precious reserves of energy because these were the moments that mattered.
     I remember, Mama. I remember that you had a part of your lung removed the next day. I remember the relief when I knew that we would share more meals around altar and family table. I remember Bananas Foster and the taste of love. And the tears I shed in remembering are tears of joy.
     I wondered: How should I remember and honor Mama on this Mothers' Day?  This is my attempt to embody the love that we shared on that day when all she needed was to see me smile.

Bananas Foster Bread

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, room temperature.
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, beaten
2 1/3 cups mashed overripe bananas (about 4 large)
1 teaspoon banana extract
1 teaspoon rum extract

1/4 cup butter
1 Tablespoon water
2/3 cup brown sugar
3 1/2 tablespoons rum**
1 teaspoon banana extract
1 teaspoon rum extract
** You can also use banana rum or half rum and half banana liqueur.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (or 340 degrees F in a convection oven).* Grease and flour a 9 X 5 loaf pan.
In a small bowl, stir together flour, baking soda and salt.
In a mixing bowl, cream together butter and brown sugar. Add eggs, bananas and extracts and blend until well mixed. Add flour mixture and stir gently, just until the dry ingredients are incorporated.  Pour batter into prepared loaf pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean -about an hour in a regular oven, a bit sooner in the convection oven.  Begin checking doneness around 40 minutes. You can tent with foil if the crust is browning too fast.
Remove bread  from oven, let it rest for 10 minutes and then remove it gently from the baking pan and onto a cooling rack. Using a thin skewer, poke holes through the warm bread and spoon glaze over the top. (Try a sheet of parchment paper or a double layer of paper towels under the cooling rack to catch the dripping glaze).  Cool before slicing.

To make the glaze: Combine ingredients, including rum, in medium saucepan. Stir to combine and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and drizzle warm glaze over the banana bread.  Warning: Do not add alcohol to a hot pan, this is NOT a flambe recipe!

* High sugar content and a thick batter tend to make banana breads dark crusted before they are cooked in the middle. Convection baking, if you have it, helps.