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A life ends, but lessons will live on

My heart sank when I saw the phone number on my caller ID. That Toledo, Ohio, area code could only mean bad news.

When I put the receiver to my ear, I thought I heard laughter in the din. I let myself hope for a miracle. Then my brother-in-law weighed in.

“She’s gone,” he told me, the upbeat note in his voice at odds with the news. His mother, Rene, had died of lung cancer minutes ago, with her four sons at her bedside.

She simply slipped away, stopped breathing, he said, narrating the scene from her bedroom door. Her body was still in bed and warm; her face looked peaceful, like she was smiling, he said.

The background noise I’d heard was the sound of relief. The family had watched her for months: bedridden, in pain, gasping for breath. That kind of suffering can make death seem like deliverance.

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I shared Rene’s story with readers last month, after my daughters and I made what would be our final visit to see her. Their father was one of her five sons. He died 17 years ago, but she held tight to her granddaughters.

She’d hidden her diagnosis from the family; for how long, no one knows. We found out Christmas Day, when she was too weak to cook.

When she turned down chemotherapy, the doctors gave her a few months to live. That gave us time to absorb the idea, but not to accept the reality.

And while I don’t think Rene was afraid to die, I don’t believe she was ready to leave.

::

Rene was 83 years old, with Southern roots that made her a relic of history.

She grew up on a farm in Alabama, married young and followed her husband north to Ohio. She went only as far as sixth grade in school, the highest grade the “colored” schools offered. She spent three years as a sixth-grader because she didn’t want to leave school behind.

In a different world, she would have liked to have been a classroom teacher. Instead she wound up cleaning houses and working factory assembly lines. These were the ingredients of her life. She made with them what she could.

I learned a lot from her about mothering — the long-range view, not the Hallmark version.

She came out when I brought my first-born home from the hospital. When the baby cried in the middle of the night, she came to our bedroom and offered help.

She was worried that the baby’s wailing was disturbing her son. “He has to get up early for work,” she said. She tiptoed over to my husband in bed, pulled the comforter up to his chin, leaned over and kissed his forehead.

She was tucking him in, a 35-year-old man. The gesture spoke volumes about being a mother. The newborn I was rocking to sleep was a lifelong bond. There is no end to mothering.

::

I’ve been struggling to comfort my three daughters and to grasp the reality that Rene is gone.

My girls have lost their grandmother, the closest link to their long-dead father. And I’ve lost a woman who became my friend when she ceased to be my mother-in-law.

I felt desperate this week for tangible things to connect me to my memories. The presents she sent, the notes she wrote, the recipes I took down in her tiny kitchen, where biscuits always seemed to be just coming out of the stove.

I dug through my crowded recipe binder until I found a faded, unlabeled set of handwritten directions, for something I couldn’t quite decipher.

“3 potatoes. yams or sweet potatoes? whatever’s on sale.

2 or 3 eggs. a small can of Pet milk. 1 tblspn of flour. ¾ cup of something — butter or sugar? a sprinkle of nutmeg and lemon juice.

45 minutes at 350. cool before you cut it.”

It was her recipe for sweet potato pie, my family’s favorite, so uncertain and incomplete I couldn’t possibly follow it.

Or could I?

What sort of instructions was I looking for — a roadmap to the perfect pie, or a metaphor for a perfect life?

Rene didn’t always get to choose her ingredients. She had to build on what she had; she learned to adjust and fill in the gaps. That explains why her sweet potato pies always seemed to hold a hint of surprise, and never failed to satisfy.

Stumbling through her recipe, with its incomplete orders and imprecise portions, I turned out a sweet potato pie that might have embarrassed me once. It was pale and soggy, a little too sweet. But I didn’t worry.

I’ve learned from Rene. Life doesn’t offer the perfect ingredients. Some recipes must be built around whatever’s on sale, whatever you have, whatever you can improvise around.

Your husband dies. You have little children. With measures of indulgence and correction you raise them. They become beautiful young women, hard-working, kind and responsible.

And I can only hope to become more like Rene. It’s a debt I owe.

sandy.banks@latimes.com


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