By Charlotte Veri as told to Ben Waldman
Before my mom died, she made sure to stock the freezer.
Her specialties were beef stew, cabbage soup and stuffed peppers—nothing fancy; the most exotic food you could get in Caledonia, Ont., was an avocado. On Friday nights, my dad would go out and get any groceries she needed. On Saturdays, while I was at karate class, my mom got started in the kitchen. When I got home, even if I couldn’t see her, I knew she was cooking. I could smell it, and I could hear it—she’d be listening to Van Halen or Meat Loaf while prepping.
In the kitchen, my mom was a perfectionist, always focused on making every bite better than the last. She’d ask me to help cut vegetables, but when I did it wrong, she’d guide me to make sure I did it right. When I was younger, we’d make dill pickles together. Sometimes we’d have as many as 50 jars in our cellar at once, it would be enough for several years. In the deep freezer, there seemed to be enough beef stew and cabbage soup to last us forever.
So when I lost my mom to cancer in October 2015, she had already prepared our meals for two to three months, all labelled neatly in containers stacked in the freezer.
My mom worked from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, so my dad would handle nightly meals and school lunches for my brother, Tim, and me. He’d make the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and pack me Dunk-A-Roos while she’d focus on the wholesome meals ahead.
I’ve tried making the meals she made but mine are never the same. I follow the recipes she had written out, but she always improvised, throwing in something extra that put the meal over the top.
When I was younger, I hated breakfast and refused to eat it. But my mom realized that if she put something on a plate, I’d feel too guilty to not eat it knowing she put so much effort into it. She would make faces on the plate, using English muffins, eggs, oranges and blueberries as the facial features. Now, I eat breakfast every day, no questions asked.
Eating was a way for us to connect. Preparing food for us gave my mom a genuine sense of joy. Each year on her birthday, July 9, we’d go to Hoover’s Marina, a nearby seafood restaurant. She’d order the fresh perch—her favourite—with a Caesar. I didn’t inherit her love of perch, but her love for Caesar was definitely passed down to me.
When I lost my mom to cancer in October 2015, she had already prepared our meals for two to three months
About three months before her 52nd birthday dinner, and the day after I accepted my offer to attend Ryerson University, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Two hours after I found out she was sick, she still came with me to get my prom dress. She insisted I leave the city for school despite her illness, so I packed up and headed to Toronto, even though I felt I should have been around.
I’d come home every few weeks to have lunch with her at our favourite restaurant when she was sick. She didn’t have the energy to cook, so my aunts would bring us meatloaf, casseroles and spaghetti to fill the gaps in the fridge and freezer.
After first year, my mom was given a clean bill of health, and my family was relieved. But two years later, things took a turn for the worse.
I had no idea the Thanksgiving of 2015 would have been my mom’s last, and neither did she. So I stayed in Toronto to work my restaurant job during the holidays. I spent the day serving other families while mine dined together.
A few days later, she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, and doctors found a 10-centimetre tumour. Soon, we found out the cancer was terminal.
After her diagnosis, my mom’s health declined quickly, and within days, she was in the hospital hooked up to a respirator. My mom knew she was going to die and planned to remove her breathing tubes once she was ready. On Oct. 23, she was prepared to end her hospital stay.
Before that though, she and I shared a final meal together: a breakfast sandwich on an English muffin from the hospital cafeteria along with caramel lattés. My brother, dad and cousin didn’t want to eat, so the two of us were the only ones with an appetite. At the time, I didn’t think the sandwich meant anything, but I later realized it was one of my favourite meals because she had always made it for me.
The doctors removed her life support with our family surrounding her and within an hour, she was dead. One of the last things my mom did was eat with me.
Every year, on the anniversary of her death, I eat a breakfast sandwich and drink a caramel latté.
And on her birthday, my family still goes to Hoover’s Marina to celebrate her life and remember everything that made her special. It’s still a happy day, but I still cry afterward. I usually get a Caesar salad and Tim normally gets a hamburger.
None of us order the perch.