Photography by Winky Lewis and
Processing grief while making mac and cheese
I’m in the kitchen when the vet’s assistant calls to fill me in on my dog’s supposedly impending death. Signs point to the aggressive melanoma we thought we’d beaten back having metastasized. As she talks about opi-oids and pain management, I wander from the table to the stove to the island to dodge the doom in her words.
There is concern in my goldendoodle Gryff’s big brown eyes, always wise to my subtlest moods. Not that this one is subtle; my face is raining. He’s tall, so his soft head is right there, ready to be under my hand. It’s getting dark, nearly dinnertime. Left to my own devices, I’d eat chocolate chips from the bag, but in addition to my dog, I have a teenager. Whatever we eat needs to look like a meal; it needs to comfort my discomfort.
The last tomatoes of the season sit in a wooden bowl on the counter. I took them off vines wizened by cold. There is cheese, milk, pasta. I will make mac and cheese and stewed tomatoes the way my mother did, the way she taught me. Does any child born after 1995, the year Annie’s went public—and viral—prefer old-school macaroni and cheese to the boxed stuff? Not mine. But he will have to cater to my needs, tonight. I tell him this with my face tightened by drying tears. He nods and says it’s fi-ne.
The binder, a béchamel, needs no real recipe, just some measurements to ensure an even ratio of butter to flour, and attentive whisking.
A brisk whisking is a sure way to feel better, with its sense of purpose but also its brevity. If you give your concentration to one small, short thing, it dashes the grief. The beauty of thinking about nothing but béchamel is that the sauce gets golden and thick without browning. I add the milk slowly, whisking, balancing, watching.
The vet’s assistant spoke of knowing when it would be time for euthana-sia.
Last summer, I sat in my car in the parking lot and watched as the vet crouched to speak to an elderly couple in the car next to me. He was asking their permission for the thing you can’t really say “No” to. I was still there when the vet came out with the empty collar, the folded leash, handing the items to them through the rolled-down window. The woman’s head sank to her chest and shook. The man’s head dipped too as he turned the key.
My friend John calls Gryff the “sensitive man in a dog suit.” Now I imag-ine the body, the gentleman no longer in his golden suit, the bulk of what will remain.
I whisk harder.
When I first made this dish as a child of maybe 10, it would have been because my mother and I were watching television (soap operas, most likely) and she had a glass of sherry she wanted to sit with. My want was to make it easier for her. She had me at 43, and I came with the sixth child’s guilt of gratitude.
I pause in my whisking to dig in the fridge. I have a hunk of good parme-san from Micucci’s in Portland, some shredded mozzarella, a chunk of cheddar. There’s a stub of goat cheese.
As I undercook the elbow macaroni so it can better soak up the bécha-mel, the dog sighs while lying on his bed nearby, maybe wondering about his own dinner. He is not worried about the cancer. He lost a toe to it, months ago, and did not like being led outside to pee with plastic wrap-pings on his paw, but he runs now, just as before. When I house-trained him nine years ago, I would walk out in the cool spring nights with him and ask him to pee. The dog training book suggested saying “HURRY UP!” I always added “PLEASE ITS TIME” to conjure T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land" for me there in the dark yard. That refrain appears five times in one of the early, most despairing parts of Eliot’s epic poem. Eliot’s “ITS TIME” refers to last call at the bar, and also death. Exactly when will it be Gryff’s time?
All the cheeses go into my vintage yellow Pyrex bowl. Many people—most, really—melt the cheese into the béchamel. My mother stirred the cheese into the warm pasta, then added the béchamel to her own yellow Pyrex bowl. The classic way makes for a smoother sauce, but her way is my way. I liked how she sprinkled wheat germ on top. I picture my father at his end of the table, gleefully slicing through the slightly hardened wheat germ crust with his spoon. But I skip that at this moment because my child has limits, and I’m already trying to slip goat cheese past them.
My son pats me on the back as I bend to put the bowl in the oven. Tinfoil on top for the first 25 minutes, then the final 10 without it. He loves the dog too, of course, but he is instinctively better than I am at taking a Wendell Berry approach of coming into the peace of wild things (and, presumably, of domesticated dogs)—that is, those beings who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
It’s dark now. I cut bits of rot out of the tomatoes and stew them. My mother believed all mac and cheese should be served in a bowl with a ladle of warm stewed tomatoes on top. It’s retro, cafeteria-style food, and until the era of online recipes, I thought it was her own special twist to cut the richness. I have more tomatoes in the cupboard, garden tomatoes I stewed and processed in September in preparation for the long winter, when bright things are so important.
I try not to think about skiing alone. The dog is always pretty but prettiest in snow, when he bounds through it leading the way into the woods, his coat a dark gold against the bright white.
My son declines the tomatoes but digs into the cheesy bowl of pasta and says he loves it. He swears he’s not catering to me in my weepiness. We watch our soap opera—Buffy the Vampire Slayer—while we eat, and when the bowls are empty, we invite the dog onto the couch to curl be-tween us.
He’ll stay as long as he can; I know this in my heart. And then he will live somewhere inside me, like my mother, and I will find a way to summon him as I did her tonight.