Yesterday was the third anniversary of my mother-in-law, Ruth’s, death, and I had previously decided to mark it as a personal feast day. “Yahrzeit” is the Jewish term for this occasion, typically observed according to the Hebrew calendar. Their practices include lighting a candle at home, attending synagogue services, visiting the grave, and making charitable contributions. The specificity of this word, yahrzeit, both invites and empowers me.
Our commemoration arose rather organically and reflected Ruth’s spirit still present in our lives. Coincidentally, my husband’s dad, sister, and aunt were already scheduled to come over for dinner, so it was natural to select a Ruth-inspired menu. For me, that can only mean meat loaf and mashed potatoes with gravy, childhood favorites of mine that became significant in our relationship. Ruth knew I liked meat loaf, and without any prompting, it was among the earliest meals that she brought us after the birth of our first child, and each subsequent one as well. Through the years, from time to time she’d call and invite us over when she was making meat loaf. Her thoughtfulness in this way always touched me. Then, the meat loaf menu became permanently linked with Ruth’s memory because we served it the last time she dined at our house, the evening before the stroke that ended her life.
Yesterday I had a lot of carrots on hand from our CSA, but feeling tired of plain steamed carrots, I searched online for something different and found an easy recipe for roasted carrots with balsamic vinegar that sounded good. While not done intentionally, an unfamiliar item on the menu was also Ruth-inspired. She always called a dish she was trying for the first time an “I hate it,” because when her children were growing up that was their reflexive response to the prospect of something new. Turned out everyone liked these carrots!
Spending a good bit of the morning alone in the kitchen, chopping and prepping, evoked Ruth for sure, but so did the afternoon stint at the food pantry where I volunteer as a shopping assistant for clients as they select food from each category. Until she was physically unable to do so, Ruth regularly volunteered at several soup kitchens. Feeding the hungry was certainly one of her passions, but she knew it was as much about relationships as food. My most memorable meal with Ruth occurred in the unlikely setting of a rehab facility where she spent a few weeks recovering from a broken hip. At the outset she made it known that the food was not to her liking and she wanted meals brought in. It seemed a bit much to ask but we knew she’d be the first to do it for us, so we gladly packed up casseroles and tableware a couple times a week during her stay. The first time we felt a little silly carrying in a cooler and unpacking it in the cramped common room while other people watched television. But Ruth just smiled and chatted, sipping a Fresca. When my father in law arrived a little bit later, the meal began. Joe and I expected to feed just the two of them, but no, she wanted all four of us to eat together. Suddenly our eyes were opened, and any distraction or embarrassment fell away. I felt privileged, not silly. Ruth presided over that meal. She was the celebrant, though Joe and I had prepared the food, delivered it, served and cleaned up, and no special words were said.
“Do this in memory of me.” Treat one another with dignity. Savor one another’s company. The kingdom of heaven is like a banquet.