“When I get upset I bake,” frowned my mother a couple of weeks ago, holding the tray of pumpkin muffins she had just taken out of the oven.
She had good reason to be upset. Earlier that day, she had let us all know that my grandmother’s health had taken a very rapid and serious turn for the worse; the outlook was not optimistic. There was nothing that doctors could do. She had already received her Last Rites.
The kids dropped their stuff inside the front door and got in the car before their bus had left our sight.
My family, my sisters, and my mother and her siblings were all soon gathered around my grandmother, each of us sitting with her and trying to get a handle on what was happening. She looked frail and was distant, trying to communicate but having difficulty; less there than not. I held her hand awhile.
For the next couple of hours, nobody knew what to do. We were all getting irritable just sitting there, helpless, expecting what nobody could bring themselves to say out loud.
At some point, my mother decided that everyone should at least eat. The break would help; she could do something other than stare at everyone else. So she got to work.
After half an hour, baking smells began working their way around the whole place. And without me realizing it, Dolly and Buddy slipped into the kitchen to help without prompting. Picking up on the same signal, they did whatever asked without complaint. Even Pinball behaved. I was proud of them.
Soon the table was covered with dishes, platters, and serving pieces, none of them empty: a big pumpkin spice cake with homemade frosting (her stress-relieving, childhood-remembering, need-the-distraction, cure-for-anything recipe from her grandmom), the muffins (more batter than cake pans), a big pot of beef vegetable soup that my aunt made, hot tea. And the one that made me take notice—a Ceasar-like salad with lots of chopped vegetables that all my kids could not eat fast enough.
She saw the look on my face. The trick, she told me, was the dressing: A good amount of extra virgin olive oil, some fresh lemon juice, a decent amount of grated cheese, and little each of pepper and parsley, blended well. No vegetable stood a chance.
It helped everyone. The somberness eased a little.
After a while, we began to say our goodnights, since there was nothing else to be done. My grandmother seemed to stabilize, so I sent the rest of my family home.
I stayed, and helped clean up. The more I did, the better I felt. Mom finally got me out the door to promises that she’d call. I left with foreboding, wondering all the way home what was next.
As it turned out, nothing.
The next day was almost normal. My grandmother was not only still with us but much more like her usual self and a world away from the previous night (she remains so now).
The sense of relief was terrific. And the more I thought about it, so was my sudden belief in pumpkin-spiced aromatherapy.