Memento: something that serves to warn or remind; also: a souvenir.
When I looked up memento on Merriam Webster, I wasn’t expecting the word “warning” to be a part of the definition. But given the reason I looked it up, it’s actually apt to include warning in my thoughts. Then I looked up memento mori, thinking of the movie Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) and the story Memento Mori (Jonathan Nolan, published 2001). “A reminder of mortality.” Yikes. Even more appropriate. I followed up with memento vivere (a popular tattoo according to the internet): in Latin, remember that you must live; a reminder of life, a reminder of the pleasure of living.
I read a line in a book I just started, Setting Free the Kites by Alex George (2017):
But such a bright light casts long, dark shadows.
George’s narrator is speaking of his friend Nathan, but it made me think of a dear friend of my own.
Late last year, a friend of mine took her own life. She was a bubbly, enthusiastic, cheerful person. So many of us were stunned that her bright light hid such dark shadows. Pain, despair. She was always helpful to everyone else, but left her own needs secret from us.
She befriended me and my dog Einstein when we were new in the neighborhood and feeling friendless. She and her Friday dog invited us on walks and playdates. We both joined a neighborhood book club. We went out together to concerts and restaurants. I didn’t see her regularly or often, but when I did, I always felt comfortable (hard for an introvert) and had a good time. She had the most amazing smile and dimples. Laughter came easily. She really was a bright light.
Just last weekend her family held an estate sale at her house down the street from me. I briefly thought of going in and picking up some memento of my friend. I couldn’t do it. I drove past on my way to work and kept going. Partly, it seemed ghoulish, going to a sale at her house and going through her things to buy something. I decided I’d prefer to remember her one of the times we went out together, for tacos at Xolo and then a Damien Rice concert at the Fox Theater on April 23, 2015.
I had bought 2 tickets, hoping I’d find someone to go with me. Trying to be a “glass half full” kind of person and hoping for the best, I posted that I had an extra ticket. She was the first to respond. She wasn’t sure she knew who Damien Rice was, but it wasn’t just about a free ticket. She wanted to do something with me; it felt genuine. We met at Xolo, had a great meal and caught up. At the Fox, I had splurged on not terrible tickets. We goofed around taking photos of the giant Hindu-deity figures that flank the stage.
We chatted with the people in the seats on either side of us. We were mesmerized by Markéta Irglová, who opened for Damien and also sang backup on a few of his songs. She recognized a few of Damien’s songs. It was a great night.
Life got busy for both of us. We didn’t see each other often. She changed jobs, worked a lot of extra hours. I changed jobs twice. My schedule shifted to weekends and evenings. We liked each other’s Facebook posts. She was always the first to respond when dog Einstein posted on his Facebook page (he can be quite witty). At some point, she wasn’t responding any more. I didn’t give it a lot of thought.
Another mutual friend messaged me, asking if I’d heard the news. She was gone. I went to the service, cried with her friends and family, wished I’d noticed something was wrong. We all asked what we could have done. Maybe that’s the memento I carry forward–an awareness of suicide prevention and the ending of the silence around suicide. As well as the notions of memento mori and memento vivere: remembering our own mortality and embracing life.
My mother passed away in 2009. I have several mementos of her, but one of my favorites and maybe one of the silliest to an outsider is her beloved cookbook, Noted Cookery: Favorite Recipes from Friends of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (1969).
It’s hard to explain how much this cookbook meant to my mother and the sentimental value it possesses for me and my siblings. We still cook some of her flagged recipes from it, as they are old family favorites and standards at family gatherings. They aren’t vegan, so I don’t indulge anymore, but I still have fond memories of helping mom make the Broccoli Puff or the Hello Dolly bars (aka 7-layer magic bars).
The cookbook, one of those fundraiser efforts of recipes submitted by various community members, was a Christmas gift to my mother from her sister Isabelle and her family in 1970, part of the reason for its importance to Mom.
As kids, we were fascinated by the list of contributors, some of whom we had heard of and I still don’t know what their connection to the Dallas Symphony was (but it doesn’t really matter; they generously contributed). Mrs. Bob Hope (Bob Hope’s Favorite Lemon Pie) and Danny Kaye (Chicken with Peppers) were notable among them. Later, I saw names that I had come to recognize: actress Loretta Young (Bride’s Delight), opera great Leontyne Price (Crabmeat Imperial), Mrs. Lyndon Johnson (Pedernales Chili), Mrs. Ross H. Perot (Crabmeat Aspic Salad and Mocha-Nut Tortoni), Mrs. Ronald Reagan (Sweet Potatoes Supreme and Orange Sparkle Cookies), Mrs. Richard Nixon (Apricot Nut Bread), violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin (Birchermuesli), actress Greer Garson (English Trifle).
Don’t discount that lemon pie. Bob Hope lived to be 100, and Dolores Hope to 102. And Danny Kaye is said to have loved to cook and to have been quite a good one. Food writer Ruth Reichl, in a piece she wrote after Kaye’s death in 1987:
“It may be the sense of timing he developed as a comedian, or the balance he learned in music. It may be the generosity of somebody who gave so much of his time to charity. Or the sheer gusto of the baseball lover (you should have heard his discourse on hot dogs). Or maybe it was the much-vaunted hand-eye coordination that made his cooking so incredible. But there was something more.
Danny Kaye didn’t cook like a star. He didn’t coddle you with caviar or smother you in truffles. He had no interest in complicated concoctions or exotic ingredients. His taste was absolutely true, and he was the least-pretentious cook I’ve ever encountered. The meals he made were little symphonies–balanced, perfectly timed, totally rounded.”
Some of the recipes in Noted Cookery horrified us. Hot Citrus Fruit Salad? No thanks! Same to the equally horrific Hot Pineapple Salad on the same page. Blech.
Others we loved, partly for the names. Johnny Bozzini, You Asked For It. Remember, it was 1970 and these recipes ddidn’t seem quite as odd as they do to at least me now. Lots of canned soups and weird things in jars.
The cookbook was lost in a house fire in 1987. Mom managed to save the page with her beloved sister’s inscription, but the rest of the cookbook was a charred lump. She put the remnant in a plastic bag and made the recipes she loved best from memory. Years later, around 2004, I was volunteering at a library fundraising book sale. I always look at the cookbooks for hidden gems. There it was, sitting on the shelf, easily recognizable to me with its ochre yellow cover. For fifty cents. I grabbed it, feeling the sense of excitement I might have felt finding a rare first edition of Catcher in the Rye. I managed not to spill the proverbial beans on my weekly phone call with mom, awaiting the look on her face at the surprise when I gave her the book. My next visit, I presented the book. I don’t remember if she cried. More than likely she did. We cry easily in my family; tears of happiness as well as tears of sorrow. We sat down and perused the old recipes. A trip down memory lane. She put bookmarks in at the old favorites, even though she knew the recipes by heart.
When she passed away a few years later, we were going through her things. Somehow that cookbook had taken on an even greater significance for me after having reunited her with it. It’s a memento of her and our earlier family life that I treasure. It sits with my other cookbooks, rarely used but often fondly brought out just to look and remember.
Not so long ago, my sister Ellen texted me that she was making one of the old favorites from what we call the Dallas cookbook: Chicken Tortilla Casserole. Back in 1970, tortilla chips were an exotic thing in Atlanta, so Mom made the recipe with Fritos instead. I’m trying to figure out a way I can veganize this recipe just for fun.
If you are feeling hungry and inspired to cook, you too can have this gem of a cookcook. I just found it listed on eBay for $5.95. Better idea, think back to a cherished memory and a memento that you can treasure the way I treasure the nostalgic memory of a family, safe and happy, laughing and enjoying a meal together, or the memory of a dear friend who made me feel special.
Memento vivere. Remember to live.