Where’s My Knife?

“Where’s my knife?” she asks. 

Mom is sitting in her wheelchair at the head of the white butcher block kitchen table, wearing black pants, one of her L.L. Bean pastel-colored long-sleeved shirts, a matching pastel-colored fleece jacket atop the shirt as she is always cold these days. This is her kitchen; it has been for four decades, since I was a sophomore in college. From this kitchen Mom has engineered with scientific organization and constant motion nearly as many seders and Thanksgiving dinners, more meatloaves and pots of meat sauce than a person can count, and thousands of brownies and loaves of zucchini and banana bread. Today she sits, with a far-off look, asking an utterly normal question. But Mom is no longer running her kitchen. 

I pause, stunned. I’d been so busy trying to capture her interest in cooking today, sure I was going to have to work at it, that I didn’t anticipate this response. It was a natural response from the woman who taught me how to bake, cook, set an elegant table, and organize a dinner party. She’d taught me how to lay out the good silver for Passover, all the while reminding me how many times which fork went where, and how the bottoms of the plate and the flatware should line up just before the edge of the table. In my high school years, Mom hired my sister Jackie and me to staff her dinner parties. We learned how to serve – never reach across a guest – and never, I mean never, stack the dishes, or carry more than we could handle. This was, after all, her Royal Copenhagen china, timeless still, decades after Mom and Dad’s 1959 wedding.

Locating something in her kitchen? That was easy. Mom knew where every utensil and gadget was in her kitchen as well as mine, since she’d helped me set up nearly every kitchen I’d lived with, guided by logic like “What is the shortest distance to the dishwasher? What about the table?” Or, “What do you need to reach on a daily basis?” She was a Kindergarten teacher in more than occupation: organized, nearly unflappable, and never raising her voice, meeting children where they were. Mom’s sense of order and pragmatism guided most everything in her life, and taught us pretty much everything we know about cooking and entertaining.

She’s always been in the kitchen with me, even when she’s not physically in the room. When I bake late at night and she is long asleep halfway across the country, she still sits on my shoulder: Cream the sugar and butter first. Add dry ingredients slowly. Don’t crack all the eggs into one container. Take out all of your ingredients before you begin to bake. Clean up as you go. As I prepare to entertain, I always hear her voice: Set your table the night before. Don’t leave it until the last minute!

In my five-plus decades, I’ve repeated Mom’s kitchen advice countless times, firmly telling my children to measure baking ingredients carefully (it’s a science) and not to dump all of the flour into the turning mixer at once. On more than a few occasions I explained to my former husband that other than catsup or mustard, anything that reaches our table must be served in a serving dish, never the container from the store. Countless babysitters and kitchen helpers have set out serving platters and utensils the night before a holiday gathering, each dish labeled with a post-it or small piece of paper noting which food it will hold the next day – for instance, apples and honey, brisket and kugel for Rosh Hashanah.

After I moved from New York to Chicago, I started cooking more often, but couldn’t find the recipes I wanted in the mess of manila folders bulging with stacks of torn pages and envelopes Mom had mailed to me when I was living in Philly, Jerusalem, Anchorage, and the West Village. It was 1995, and fortunately, we had just given Dad a modem for his 65th birthday and introduced him to email. He was ecstatic – he could write Jackie and me daily in multicolored missives with text bolded very particularly. Mom wasn’t yet on email, but now, when I needed a recipe, I could call or email and, voila, it arrived from Mom, courtesy of RABBHG@AOL.COM, aka Dad. Mom was back in my kitchen, now overlooking Lake Shore Drive.

As I printed and propped these recipes on my kitchen counter and tried to recreate the tastes of home in a new city, I could see Mom standing in the guest room in her bathrobe on a weekend morning while Dad, no baker but an awesome cake eater, dressed in his tennis shorts or Brooks Brothers pajamas, sat at the computer dialing onto the internet via his new toy and carefully listing cups, teaspoons, and the other ingredients of her blueberry muffin recipe. He added Mom’s caution to dry the blueberries before adding to the muffin batter, next adding his own parenthetical humor that muffin here means small cakes, not the poodle named Muffin we used to dog sit for. I suspect Mom typed the brisket recipe herself, adding, “Chef Lisa, do not walk away from the stove now,” fearing I would get distracted and burn the meat, showing just how well she knew me and my cooking habits.

I took those papers, and dozens of recipes torn from The New York Times and various magazines for cakes, cookies, chicken, and the occasional pasta dish, along with recipes Mom herself had typed or dittoed for her Kindergarten class at Pleasantdale School where she taught for two decades. I commenced the process of sorting by category – soup, meat & fish, vegetables, cakes, cookies, holidays – and created a recipe binder, placing each recipe in a clear page protector sleeve. Mom’s infinite kitchen wisdom graced the opening pages:

  • Take out all of your ingredients before you start.
  • Bake from scratch.
  • Keep a low flame under butter, milk and chocolate.
  • Don’t over beat your heavy cream.
  • When making applesauce or grape jelly, turn the Foley food mill forward, and then, and then, every few times, turn it backward.
  • Put ingredients away as you cook.
  • Make enough – everyone eats more when they’re homebaked!

Mom’s wisdom resides in each kitchen drawer and cabinet too. She has guided me to set up every kitchen of mine except the one I finished renovating just before the pandemic. And, even then, when she could not physically be in the room giving clear, teacher-tone instructions, I heard her: Put the dishes in the cabinet near the dishwasher, the flatware closest to the table, and the stove utensils near the burners.

In that kitchen’s prior incarnation, Mom did the labor too, as I was not far off from labor of a different sort. Mom unpacked and organized that light-wood Evanston kitchen as I watched from a nearby stool, weeks away from birthing my first child. As that child grew and the two who followed entered the fray, our kitchen became an Evanston branch of Mom’s. She cooked some of its first meals, and continued as her grandchildren were babies, toddlers and school age to swoop into town with recipes, plans, child-friendly cooking activities, and even a frozen Rosh Hashanah brisket in her suitcase.

While I was at work, she would head to Dominick’s a half mile away, and pick up the ingredients for meatloaf, pasta sauce and applesauce, all considered comfort foods in our house. She’d get Pastina, too, or alphabet pasta for the children, and, of course, her favorite Vienna Fingers cookies. One fall, Mom even made her trademark grape jelly in our kitchen, filling the downstairs with that scent of Concord Grapes that draws one to the stove with Saltines in hand, eager to start spreading the warm jam. I filmed that cooking lesson, but it left the house when the video camera was stolen.

In more recent years Mom’s presence in our kitchen came through FaceTime since I was still in Chicago and she in South Orange. My kids and I would call to check on an ingredient, locate a recipe, or ask about the meringues – were the peaks stiff enough? When we visited her and cooked, she held court at the kitchen table, critiquing my doubling of The Settlement Cookbook French omelet (it won’t puff up properly if you double it!) or noting the texture of the whipped cream for Passover strawberry shortcake. “Lisa, don’t over beat it. You’ll get butter!”

And she showed up in every batch of her signature brownies, and there have been many, many of those. To be transparent, the brownie recipe actually came from cooking teacher Rebecca Caruba with whom Mom and her best friend Harriet had taken cooking classes 60 years ago when their friendship and children were young. Mom called them one-pot brownies. Everyone else, Betty’s Brownies, after Mom. You see, she’s baked these ever simple fudgy marvels for nearly as many decades of synagogue special-event Oneg Shabbat receptions, welcome-to-the-neighborhood gifts, expressions of condolence, thank-yous, acts of love, messages of comfort and healing, and, for at least one wedding reception (mine), statements of joy. Everyone we know and love knows these brownies and welcomes their arrival with delight.

The three teenage bakers in my house that Mom helped me raise baking have grown up with an ever-present brownie stash in the freezer (that reminds me…) for their own snacking or immediate plating for the guest who just walked in. And they’ve continued her baking tradition. We’ve gifted hundreds of brownies to their teachers packaged in pretty gift bags and pseudo-takeout containers. One kid baked Grandma’s Brownies for a class project: The assignment? Show something special in her family; she explained that the brownies are our expression of kindness. And another baked dozens of brownies for the soup kitchen nearby as a bar mitzvah project.

While those brownies were baked in the Evanston branch of Betty’s kitchen, those children have also been raised cooking and baking in Grandma Betty’s New Jersey kitchen, under her patient yet critical tutelage. Each stood on a step ladder at the linoleum counter under the faux-wood paneled cabinets, or sat at the white kitchen table under the Hockney Laurel Canyon poster, cutting apples with a table knife for charoset and shaping matza balls for our Greene-Greenstein family seder. All of this done under Grandma’s gaze that gently and firmly, often with just a look, let you know if you were doing something wrong in the cooking or setting-the-table department. The kids have experimented in that kitchen, too, in years of New Year’s Eve Chopped-like cooking competitions, often, though, to their grandmother’s dismay, as many of their competitive creations were not so delectable.

These days we still gather to cook in Mom’s kitchen, and have handed her recipes over to her team of ladies, as we call her caregivers, her bakers by proxy, who make many of Mom’s favorite recipes. Betty’s Brownies, banana bread and pound cake are now expertly baked by Mom’s emissaries, the divine messengers of Isabel, Patricia and Paulette, who lovingly care for Mom at every turn. They have kept up the basement fridge stash, plattered cake at a moment’s notice for a drop-in guest, and are well versed in dropping Betty’s creations at the synagogue and on friends’ doorsteps.

But Mom has not cooked in years. In her own kitchen of late, she’s been at best a taster and observer, an advisor on tried-and-true recipes at the rare moment her synapses allow her to be, illness stealing so much of her physical and cognitive abilities. At 86, cooking and baking rarely pique her interest any more, though their outcomes surely do – Mom would never turn down a homemade brownie, cookie or piece of cake!

My arrival then, lemon curd recipe in hand, was not radical. My intent was to plant myself in my post-college bedroom for ten days of my sabbatical month, to eke out any time and any delight I could with my once nonstop mother who now spent much of her day sleeping in a big motorized recliner in the living room.

The recipe wasn’t radical either. In fact, It seemed like the perfect Betty dessert, recalling some custard or cake that she and Harriet would have made years ago and served as the lightly sweet end to a well-engineered dinner party. It was Melissa Clark’s recently published New York Times recipe for The Easiest Lemon Curd. I imagined serving it with fresh raspberries and homemade whipped cream – all of which Mom loved. I picked up the ingredients and set out to make it.

The radical part? I planned to make the lemon curd with Mom. Thanks to Parkinson’s Disease and Lewy Body Dementia, she could not stand more than a few seconds, her eyes could no longer maintain focus on a given text, nor could her memory allow her to follow a recipe. Grasping a kitchen tool was beyond imagine. Engage Mom in cooking? Probably a fool’s errand, but I was determined to try.

First I needed to convince her to leave her napping recliner in the living room and come into the kitchen. Patricia, the Betty-whisperer, sweetly nudged Mom to join me in the kitchen. In her wheelchair, Mom sat in her place at the head of that white table that wobbled if the legs weren’t straightened out correctly, opposite that Hockney poster whose color and streets evoked her beloved LA teen and college years. We put the juicer and lemons on a silicon cutting board in front of her, uncertain what her response would be. Would she notice? Would the impatience of illness take over? Could she even hold the tools or squeeze the lemons??

I put my hand over Mom’s on the yellow and white plastic juicer and together we squeezed the first piece of fruit. She kept going. Her hands looked elegant as ever, with long slender fingers, neatly shaped short nails, and gold wedding band. They no longer worked as they had; grasping the fruit or a knife was unlikely. But somehow, in that instant, the familiarity of the kitchen kicked in. Seeing the other lemons before her, Mom asked a question: “Where’s my knife?” I handed it to her. Mom took the knife and started to cut the lemon.


Honoring the life and lessons of my mother, my teacher, who delighted in that lemon curd and every homebaked cookie she encountered. Betty A. Greene, z”l, ( 26 July 1936 – 6 October 2022).