If the Fourth of July means family and your mom’s just passed, then what? Make her German potato salad and Jell-o poke cake and carry on.
Rusting on the patio in my mom’s backyard is a mini smoker/grill I bought years ago mostly because I thought it was cute. It looks more like one of those old silver canister vacuum cleaners on short skinny legs than a cooker. But it always did a good enough job with the black-bean burgers, veggie dogs, and corn on the cob my mom and I would break out for the Fourth of July.
My mom died of Covid-19 at the end of January. This will be the first year of the Anniversary Effect — facing all of the holidays and anniversaries without her.
Fourth of July is coming up. Without her it will be sad and weird.
My mom loved Independence Day. She always told us we were Revolutionary War Americans on her dad’s side of the family — that’s how far back our story and love of country went. An unquestioning patriot for most of her 88 years, in the end, she didn’t know what to make of what was happening to her beloved United States.
As kids, we always celebrated the Fourth with a day at the pool. When we got home from hours of playing Marco Polo and doing can openers off the high dive, my dad would crank up the military marches and get the charcoal going for a backyard cookout presided over by my mom. In the early evening, we’d decamp to the local park where they were having fireworks and watch together as a family on a big quilt spread on the grass.
When my son was little, one of the ways my mom passed on her values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was to insist that we participate in the annual Fourth of July bike parade. We would festoon his little-boy bike in red, white, and blue and join pedestrians and other pedalers to stream our way through town in the brutal Texas sun, ending up at a tree-shaded park near the fire station for hotdogs, cold lemonade, and iced tea.
My son eventually outgrew bike parades and spending holidays with Mom and Grammy, but I was still on the hook. Because I was the adult kid who lived nearby and my siblings were far-flung, it fell to me for years and years to keep up the spirit of family with my mom.
On the Fourth, when my own friends were having pool parties and backyard cookouts or going to concerts and gathering for grownup fireworks, I would always forego their invitations for the standing date with my mom and our vegetarian cookout with her German potato salad and her Jell-o “Poke” Cool Whip cake, followed by the short car trip to watch the local fireworks.
There were times when I resented how much my mom dominated my life and my social calendar. In truth, she was my social calendar — I had no time for anything else. People gently warned me that my complaints would ultimately become regrets: “When she’s gone,” people who’d lost their moms would say, “you’re really going to miss her and all the stuff she expects you to do with her.”
It turns out that they were completely right, of course. Now that she’s gone, I miss my mom like a phantom limb.
For so long, it was just my mom and me, even as — especially as — her health declined during the final decade. At the end, down to the last minute of her life and her very last breath, it was just the two of us.
Without her, I don’t know what to do with myself — I can’t even find an appropriate word to describe the confusing emptiness that has become my constant companion in her absence.
This year, I won’t be sitting with my mom in our folding blue camp chairs in front of her big blue Buick sedan with its “God Bless America” bumper stickers, patriotic music coming out of the open car windows, in an abandoned parking lot that we discovered a few years ago had an amazingly close view of the town fireworks.
It was our special private viewing spot, and even when she barely had the energy to get to the car, let alone get out of it and into her camp chair, she’d somehow manage to pack a cooler of something cold for us to drink while we watched the display.
I don’t know if I’ll make the effort to go there to see fireworks this year. It just wouldn’t be the same without her. Pulling up on the lot’s broken asphalt and weed-cracked concrete, then waiting alone for dark to descend and the show to begin would be painful. No amount of John Philip Sousa could fill that haunted silence.
I tell myself that it’s been five months and that it’s probably time to try moving forward, even if it’s just baby steps.
Baby step: I got myself a little portable gas grill to replace the rusting one. The thought of grilling on this new rig on the Fourth actually makes me a melancholy version of happy. So that’s something.
And I’ll get a little boost if I wear red, white, and blue like she always did.
Beyond the fanfare, the point of the Fourth of July for my mom was being together and counting our blessings as Americans. There’s no being together now, but I can still try to count my blessings.
And I can try to replicate the little party she would have planned. Make her German potato salad and Jell-o cake. Grill an honorary veggie dog. Go crazy with the fixings and condiments like she always did — making sure the pickles are those tiny cornichons she always loved. Maybe I’ll buy a watermelon.
Then I’ll just have to see if the spirit moves me to get in the car, drive to our special parking lot, find the best vantage point, and wait for sparkling bits of color and light to explode and drift away in the smoky night sky.
Missing-Mom Memorial Cookout
I’m still looking for my mom’s old metal recipe box with all her well-worn, food-stained notecards bearing our family’s favorite dishes. In the meantime, this recipe from Rachel Farnsworth of The Stay at Home Chef sounds pretty close to her German potato salad. And this Jell-o poke cake from Julie Evink of Julie's Eats & Treats looks a lot like the one I fondly remember my mom making for special occasions (this version or the cake is strawberry, which is what my mom always made, but you can also make it with cherry or raspberry).
Photography: (Fireworks) courtesy Addison Kaboom Town, (All others) courtesy Dana Joseph