By Marilyn A. Pellini

Growing up, I had a “stay-at-home” mom. Having lived in a big city with public transportation nearby, my mother never even learned to drive. My dad did all the grocery shopping in the area where the pharmacy he owned was located. The town, although tiny, was dotted with grocery and butcher shops, and even a real old-fashioned A&P store. All Dad needed to do was call in his order, and it was brought directly over to his drugstore.

Mom was a decent cook when she needed to be, for a holiday or when company was coming, but this was most assuredly not her favorite part of homemaking. My dad was far better at this job than she was, but because of his long hours at work he could not often prepare a meal. I was never encouraged to cook as a teenager. Once in a while I would be asked to bake a cake from a boxed mix, but I was not inspired to try anything creative. The Betty Crocker cookbook sat mostly unopened. Dinner was the usual meat, potato, and vegetable. There was always a salad too, which was eaten at the end of the meal to aid digestion, I was told. Dessert was usually a piece of fruit. Pudding or Jell-O was offered only once or twice a week. Thus, when I got married, it was a rude awakening for me to have to shop at the grocery store often and to plan at least a week’s worth of meals.

My first apartment with my husband, Al, was in a small house that had been a stagecoach stop in Colonial days located in Providence, Rhode Island. The building had been converted into three apartments, and I was leery of taking the flat as there was an older couple who would be living directly above us. Fortunately they were very quiet, as the old creaking floorboards did not lend well to silence. This tiny three-room apartment was where I learned to cook out of necessity. Al was in the Navy and stationed in Boston. He commuted the one hour in each direction whenever he was not on duty or out at sea. I was a teacher, and so I had much shorter hours than his. It was only fair that I make dinner. So, with a number of cookbooks that I purchased, I was ready to be the family chef. My husband really seemed to enjoy my efforts, as his mother was a great cook but always made the food she served the exact same way. Al really appreciated my attempt at diversity. Money was not plentiful back then, so I had many recipes for meatloaf, pasta dishes, and casseroles. Six months after we were married, Al announced that he had gained 30 pounds. I was gaining weight too, but I had a good excuse, as I was now pregnant with our first child.

Once my son began to eat table food, cooking became much more of a challenge. He was a picky eater, and once his sister arrived she was equally finicky where food was concerned. My pattern of preparation had to change and be geared more toward them, so I could be sure they would get the necessary vitamins in their diet. My father-in-law had a huge summer garden, and whenever we visited he would load me up with veggies, which I often cooked and froze for fall and winter meals. The kids were introduced to every vegetable known to man, but they both disliked peas, beets, summer squash, and many others. They were strictly in favor of carrots, garden tomatoes, and broccoli.

When the kids finally grew up and went off to college, neither of them liked the food at their schools, and became much more appreciative of my meals when they were home for the summer or on vacation. Now that my husband and I were alone once again for the most part, I tried many more exotic recipes and foods. Since Al’s job required a great deal of traveling, he was always happy to return and have a home-cooked meal.

It was about this time, unfortunately, that Al became ill with kidney cancer, and after surgery and a remarkable recovery, he became the patient of a famous oncologist noted for his treatment involving diet and supplements. Now Al was very limited in the foods that he would eat, so we often went out to dinner as he could order exactly what he needed, and I could have what I liked. Before that, I was cooking two separate meals. That left us stuck with lots of leftovers, which often went to waste. Most people do not like restaurant food because of the amount of salt they use in their cooking, but we had our favorite spots, and they soon learned to accommodate Al’s dietary needs. Also, after years and years of cooking, I simply needed a break. The solution seemed to fit both our needs.

I still did holiday dinners and made them as elaborate as possible. There was my grandmother’s recipe for turkey stuffing, and my mom’s special mashed yams with chopped walnuts and sherry wine, my baked stuffed fish for Christmas Eve dinner, and a specially-concocted raisin sauce to accompany the Easter Sunday ham.

When my kids got older, they married and began to have families of their own, so now Al and I went more often to their homes so we could be with the grandkids. The wives were both very good cooks, and the grandchildren much better eaters than my own kids. Just around the time the children became school-aged, however, life changed irreversibly. My husband died in a bizarre fishing accident, and I found myself suddenly and sadly a widow.

I can tell you for certain that widows do not often cook a complete and balanced meal for themselves. A couple of times a week I try to find a friend to have dinner out with. I am thankful for a restaurant meal, as of course I do not have to cook it, and there are always leftovers to take home for another meal. Also, there is takeout. In my town, many places have a printed menu you can keep in a little file at home. If you are in the mood for Italian or Chinese, there is a local spot that prepares them well and even delivers. Again, the portions are so large that there is more than enough for another night. There are even a few places I do not mind going alone to. The local diner now calls me by name, and they even know how I like my food prepared. A woman in my town, who too is a recent widow, will often invite me over for a bite and a game of Qwirkle or Phase 10. I will have her back for a movie and perhaps homemade soup and sandwiches. Having company to eat with is so pleasant. Otherwise, I find myself eating in front of the TV in a crumpled over position, which I am certain is not very good for the digestion.

The current Covid situation has changed all the rules and makes eating properly more of a challenge. I really do not like to go into a restaurant now unless absolutely necessary. My women’s club did have a holiday luncheon, but they held it in a place that was able to give us a private room. We wore our masks until it was time to eat, sat six feet apart, and then put the mask right back on immediately following lunch. It worked, and no one got sick!

Food is sustenance. It is with us on a daily and almost hourly basis. We must watch the calories, and beware of carcinogens in prepared foods, but what a treat and pleasure it is to sit down to a well-prepared meal and share it with one’s dear family or friends.

BIO:

Marilyn Pellini has recently published a grief book titled Dear Al, A Widow’s Struggles and Remembrances. Her other credits as a writer include recent articles in Brick magazine (“Memories in My Button Jar” and “Restructuring My World”), pieces in Westchester Parent Magazine, Bay State Parent Magazine, On The Water, Balanced Rock, and others. In May of 2018, she took the first place prize in the N.Y. State Federation of Women’s Clubs writing contest.