a red onion over a white surface

Caramelizing Onions

Grief is a lot like onions. It makes your eyes sting and tear, even if you think this time, you will have it under control. You try to distance yourself from your grief, like you stand away the onions when you cut them, or hold them under water, place them in the freezer, distract yourself—all the tricks we use to avoid the tears—and yet they come. But that sting turns so sweet when you caramelize the onions. Whether in butter or in oil, cooking them slowly to allow the sugars the brown, brings out the natural flavors and removes the sting. Too hot and they burn, too cool and the taste never ripens. And so too with grief. It seems that sautéing your memories, slowly, in just the right amount of heat, can bring out the sweetness and mellow the sting.

I lost my mom last month. She was 95 and her death was not unexpected, but it was still a huge loss. She was such a strong woman and a dominant force in my life. It was hard to watch her suffer and waste away as her body slowly failed. And it was hard to reconcile the frail and withered woman of her last few days with the driving force that she was through most of my life. The sting brought tears to my eyes at unexpected moments and the grief weighed on me like a lead blanket.

Surviving with Love

But as the weeks have passed, my grief has begun to mellow. My phone feeds me photos of her that we gathered for her memorial, pictures of her in her youth and glory, her adventuresome spirit shining through, and I smile. I see the watercolors she painted that adorn the walls of my home, and I am reminded of her perseverance. I wear the scarf I bought for her and reclaimed after her death, still smelling of her perfume, and I feel her love. And I feel her strength as I remind myself of the benefits of striving, of pushing just a little harder than I think I can, of who you can become by setting and achieving your goals.

When I was in college and collapsed from exhaustion and stress and confusion about life and its expectations, not leaving my bedroom except for meals, Mom gave me a week, then told me to stop wallowing and get on with things. Everyone faces adversity, she said, and the sooner we rise to the occasion the sooner we can put it behind us. It felt harsh at the time, but it was good advice that taught me that I, too, was strong. That I could survive. That I could overcome adversity and get on with things, as she had so many times in her life. 

Finding Resilience

That lesson in strength came in handy when my first marriage ended in disaster, and bore fruit when I was diagnosed with cancer. I could wallow in my fear and the grief of what I had lost, but when the time was right, I also could find the strength to get on with what I needed to do. It was not a question of bravery; it was remembering the necessity of facing what life throws us and finding a way to grow. And balanced with the self-care that I have come to understand is such an important part of finding the strength to persevere, her encouragement helped me find resilience.

And now, as I reflect on Mom’s life and mourn her death, she continues to provide lessons in persistence and growth. Believe in yourself, she said. Work hard, she insisted. Set goals and work towards them, she modeled. As a family, we shared love and laughter and so much good food, but there was always the expectation that no matter what got in your way, you find a way to get on with it, even if it means tears in your eyes. And cancer meant so many tears.

Golden Onions

Having been raised by generations of great Italian cooks, there is not much that I prepare that doesn’t involve onions or garlic or shallots or leeks or scallions—all alliums that possess that sulfur-based chemical that brings tears to our eyes. A soffritto is the necessary first step in so many delicious Mediterranean preparations, and sautéing aromatics of some sort is an almost daily ritual. And with it, the tears, some from the onions, and these days, some from the loss. 

As I braised the onions and celery last night in preparation for turning a simple rice dish into a delicious risotto, I thought about the many cooking lessons Mom had shared over the years. Fresh ingredients, a mix of tart and sweet, the judicious use of salt, and the benefits of a dash of wine, and smiled. My onions are golden, not yet rich brown, but the sting is gone, and I know my memories of her will add richness and flavor to life. 

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