Learning from the best

Our little joke has persisted for a couple of years now. That’s the way it is with Alzheimer’s. Things tend to get repeated over and over again.

When Mom’s memory started failing, her organizational skills also disappeared. With these losses came her inability to find things in her kitchen, follow a recipe, and remember to get things out of the oven or off the stove. Consequently, there were several failed attempts at cooking. Dad took over much of the meal prep, even though his repertoire was limited.

“What’d you have for lunch today?” I would ask, noticing the bare refrigerator shelves.

“We had our usual BLTs. We’re kind of in a rut. We have BLTs or macaroni and cheese almost every day.”

I did my best to add a little variety to their lunch and dinner fare whenever I’d come for a visit. I’d bring fixings for a pot of chili, an easy chicken parmesan dish, tacos, or a good old fashioned pot roast. Well, not completely old-fashioned, as I used a crockpot for convenience.  

Mom would often help me set the table, while I prepared the food. If she wanted to help with the meal prep, I’d give her a small task like chopping lettuce for a salad. If the task didn’t require following too many steps, she could do it.

When the meal was ready, we’d sit down at the table, and after Dad said a prayer to bless our food, we’d dig in. This is when the banter around compliments started.

“Wow, Linda, you’re a good cook!” Mom would exclaim as she filled her bowl with chili.

“I learned from the best!” I’d say. She looked at me with a questioning expression, not getting the reference at first. “I learned from you, Mom, and you’re the best!” I said, placing my hand on her shoulder.

“Oh! Did you?” she would laugh.

Two or three minutes later, as our taste buds took in the savory spice, she would say, “You sure are a good cook, Linda!” The previous conversation had already been forgotten.

And so I hit replay. “I learned from the best!” I’d say, with a little love tap on her shoulder. She made the connection and laughed, “Oh you think so?”

“Yes, I did!” I assured her. And it was true. I learned the basics of meat-and-potatoes midwest cooking by watching Mom. I recall standing on a chair or step-stool when I was little, observing her skill in peeling potatoes and slicing up vegetables from the garden. When I was older, she taught me the mysteries of browning the meat, measuring spices, sautéing and simmering. She was no gourmet, but she didn’t need to be. We were plain folk, and ordinary farm food was all we needed to be satisfied.

As we spooned the last dribble of soup from our bowls to our mouths, we repeated the dialogue once more. “You sure are a good cook!”

“I learned from the best!” Cue the laughter.

The same conversation has been repeated time after time over the past couple of years. Each time I prepare a meal, Mom praises my cooking skills and I give the compliment right back to her. And each time she is genuinely surprised at my response, and she laughs.


Last week, my husband, my daughter, and I stopped by for a visit on the day before Mother’s Day. When lunchtime rolled around, Dad suggested BLTs. “Oh, I think I can come up with something different. Let’s see what you have in the freezer and pantry,” I said.

I thawed and browned some ground beef, dumped in a jar of pasta sauce, and cooked up some linguini. I ripped a head of iceberg lettuce into bite-size pieces and diced a tomato. Mom set the table and pulled some rhubarb sauce out of the fridge for a side dish. Twenty minutes later, lunch was on the table.

I could predict how the conversation would go. But this time it was Mom’s turn to surprise me.

“Boy, Linda! You sure are a good cook!” Having just taken a bite, I paused a moment before responding. That’s when I noticed Mom looking at me with a sideways glance, an expression of great anticipation on her face.

I swallowed my food and turned to her, placing my hand on her shoulder. “I learned from the best!”

“I was waiting for you to say that!” she replied through boisterous laughter. We all cracked up, loving her spunk and sense of humor.


Alzheimer’s can be so surprising. Just when I assume Mom is not remembering any new information, she shines through with a glimmer of recall, tells a joke, and makes us laugh and love her even more. Although I know her fading memory and loss of everyday skills are frustrating for her, she handles it with grace and humor as she forgives herself and accepts our help. Oh, she can be stubborn as well; but she is quick to smile and laugh at herself, stick out her tongue and be sarcastic, or be just plain silly.

When I was a little girl I watched Mom cook. Now I’m paying attention to how she manages this latest challenge in her life, the task of dealing with dementia.

When all is said and done, if you’re fortunate enough to live a long life, aging and dying are the natural ends of living. If I’m still around in 20 or 30 years, I suspect I’ll start my own slow decline, be it mental or physical. Although I don’t look forward to that day, I hope I too can accept it with grace and a sense of humor, as Mom has.

I’m still learning from the best.