KristinLWare_FloatingontheSurface_ComfortFoodI woo Jeanne’s appetite with her favorite Southern foods. Grits, banana pudding, Miracle Whip, and bologna loaf on white bread. French dressing over cottage cheese. Sausage gravy over biscuits: pallid sauce so thick with grease that the leftovers will congeal, gray and lumpy. Tomorrow I will reheat them to mash over her toast.

When she first moved in with us I made things my way: stir fry, one-pot dishes, beans and rice. She ate only after fishing out the veggies. If I used tofu, she asked, “What’s this stuff?” and pushed it aside. And yet she bragged, “Lisa is such a good cook!” Years passed and I learned to reserve a handful of raw veggies for her plate; she loved vegetables, as it ended up — just not cooked.

Back when I was Todd’s girlfriend, Jeanne invited her minister and his wife, among others, to a dinner party. She cut the greens quickly with scissors and tossed the salad in a large trash bag. She made the entire meal a day ahead, so when the guests arrived we all were relaxed and ready, and all she had to do was reheat. I remember chicken Parmesan that night, a salad with honeyed almonds and red onions. I remember the smell of garlic cheese bread rising as my mother-in-law’s minister said grace. I remember bringing the savory bread to my mouth and crunching in to find that instead of garlic butter under the melted cheese she had spread Miracle Whip, warm and cloying. After a long wash of ice water to get the hunk down, I poked at the rest of my meal.

Once I had a ring on my finger, I volunteered to make the cheese bread whenever she cooked Italian. And when I had the Harris name firmly attached to my own by vows, I also picked the red onions out of my salad and laid them on the side of my plate.

In recipes calling for milk I now substitute heavy cream. Jeanne has lost seven pounds in two weeks and we’re not sure why, except the doctor says the mass in her lungs — three months ago the size of the doctor’s retractable pen clicker — is now the size of both his hands fisted one over the other.

What the tests will show, what the future will be, I do not know — what I do know is this: break the sausage apart as it fries in the pan; sprinkle in flour to absorb the grease; add heavy cream and stir until the sauce is thick and no lumps remain. Spoon the mixture over biscuits or toast and grind fresh pepper on top. When I bring it to her, the plate will be warm through. She will take and eat.

Lisa Ohlen Harris‘s mother-in-law passed away in 2008, several months after this essay was drafted. Lisa now teaches ESL and freshman writing at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. She is the author of Through the Veil, a memoir-in-essays about living in the Middle East.

Photo by Kristin L. Ware