Find the Sweet Potato

Jun. 27, 2018- Normally I’m so balanced about my mom’s loss — working in the field of suicide prevention has only helped matters, as it’s given me the ability to frame it — but the news about Kate Spade, and then Anthony Bourdain, threw me a little. (Mom was more of a Louis Vuitton girl, but that’s beside the point.)

I’ll share a random memory that popped up. There might be something to it.

About six months after I moved to New York, Mom sent me a little brown notebook inscribed with a note, and recipes of hers she thought I should have. This seems like a perfectly natural thing for a mom to do when her baby’s first out on his own — and it partly was — but as I said, it was about six months in, and her dedication at the front was a little too formal. She’d signed it, “Mother,” which wasn’t like her. She threatened and attempted suicide on a fairly regular basis, and I knew she hadn’t been doing well, lately. I trusted my instinct that this was her making sure not to leave me without her recipes once she killed herself.

(This kind of thing – giving stuff away, making preparations like this – is a warning sign, FYI.) She knew I would call her once I got the package.

She answered the phone. I thanked her for the recipes.

She sounded tired. “I just wanted to make sure you had them for when I’m not around,” she said, ominously.

I got right to the point. “Mom, are you planning on doing something? Do I need to be concerned?”

“I just want you to have the recipes,” she said sullenly.

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“Life is very hard, Brett,” she said. “I’m just existing.”

“Will you promise me not to do anything?”

Pause. “I can’t make that promise.”

“Mom…”

“I’m tired. I’m getting off the phone.”

“Wait.”

I quickly, desperately tried to think of a way to keep her on the phone. I knew that if I didn’t keep her on long enough to come to some kind of resolution, I would be left feeling helpless, unsure what to do. Mom directly, dramatically threatened suicide so often – almost on a weekly basis – that it didn’t feel right to call the police every single time she implied she might do something.

Still, she sounded tired in a way that felt different — a lack of drama, if anything. All I had was my instinct. I had to keep her on the phone.

I could feel the seconds going by. I glanced down at the page in the notebook that happened to be open. I stared at a random line of her familiar, loopy handwriting.

“Mom,” I found myself saying. “For the beef stew. Can I use sweet potatoes, rather than regular potatoes?”

She hesitated for a moment. And then, suddenly, her voice brightened, surprised by the question. She genuinely started to think it through.

“Huh!” she said, sounding a million times more engaged. “I don’t know. I’ll have to ask Barbara.” This was the friend who’d given her the recipe. “She’s away right now, though,” she realized. “She’s gone for the week. She won’t be back until next Tuesday.”

“Oh,” I said, letting the problem hang in the air.

“Hmmm,” Mom said, sounding alive and engaged with the problem. “Sweet potatoes. Huh. I think it would be okay? I’m honestly not sure. Hmmm.”

“So you’ll ask Barbara when she gets back on Tuesday?” I confirmed.

“Yes,” she promised. I could hear her reaching for a pen on her messy night table. “I’m just making a note on the calendar.”

So I knew I would have her until Tuesday.

What can we take away from this memory? I don’t know. Plenty of stuff, probably. It’s good to trust your instinct, and ask directly if you’re worried about someone. Certainly, it says something about my mom, and her genuine, heartfelt sincerity in not wanting to leave me with a jacked-up beef stew recipe.

I also think it says something about the natural human urge to live, in general. Sure, she didn’t want to leave me without sweet potato closure, but really…she was just looking for a reason to stick around. Suicidal people don’t generally want to die. They just want a way out of the tremendous, very real pain they’re feeling.

Take whatever other meaning you want from it, but I’ll leave you with this — and this is very much in line with my improv background – but if you’re having this kind of conversation with someone, listen really actively to everything that’s being said, beyond the immediate stuff you think is important. Take pleasure, and delight, even, in the detritus. Rummage around. Listen to EVERYTHING.

Find a sweet potato in the conversation.

Engage with it. Ask how to cook it. Find the sweet potato.

Her beef stew is amazing, by the way. (No sweet potato.)

 

Sandi Wean’s Beef Stew Recipe

Ingredients

1 lb. of beef cubes for stewing

1-2 cups beef bullion

1 cup tomato sauce or tomato juice

½ teaspoon dry mustard (or a teaspoon of mustard)

½ to ¾ teaspoon curry

2-4 tablespoons brown sugar

3-4 sliced carrots

2 or 3 baking potatoes

Some sliced onions

Garlic and Wine – Mom didn’t include these in the original recipe, but I’m sure she’d approve

Celery – Mom also didn’t mention celery, and it does kind of cook down, but I throw some in anyway

Additional suggestion: warm bread or rolls – might I suggest a French baguette? — to serve alongside it

Instructions

Preheat oven to 325 degrees

Brown the beef cubes on all sides with veg oil or margarine (or whatever you kids are using nowadays)

Throw all the ingredients – except the carrots, potatoes and celery – in a pot

Bake at 325 for an hour

Add the carrots, potatoes and celery

You can add some wine if you’d like

Put back in for another 1-2 hours

ENJOY.

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