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Memorial Day, the Pandemic and Mom's Potato Salad

A daughter helps her 93-year-old mother find the memory of a favorite family dish

By Jean Anne Feldeisen

It's Memorial Day 2020, and I'm at home in Maine talking on the phone with my 93-year-old mother in New Jersey. Since my dad died in 2014, Mom has lived alone in the house that he built for our family back in the 1950s.

My sister and brother live near her and do what they can to help out. My sister brings groceries, gives out medications, handles Mom's bills and takes her to doctors' appointments. My brother brings meals, cuts the grass, sings hymns with her or just sits on the porch keeping her company. 

An old photograph of a mother and child. Next Avenue
The author and her mom, Milly  |  Credit: Jean Feldeisen

Our parents made a point of celebrating that special day because they wanted us to remember the people who had sacrificed their lives for us. 

Because I live so far away, all I can contribute is a daily phone call. It's the beginning of the pandemic, and in Maine we haven't been able to travel out of state. Mom and I haven't seen each other in person for months and I'm not sure when I'll be able to visit. My uncertainty is heightened by the worry that I may not have much time left to spend with her.

While my mother sometimes can't remember where she left her teeth, how to call someone on the phone or which buttons to push to get her favorite TV shows, she still enjoys her life. She looks forward to a daily breakfast of fried eggs, raisin toast and coffee. She loves watching her great-grandchildren. She likes to feed the birds and gets excited when the occasional deer wanders through her back yard. And she still hasn't forgotten the significance of Memorial Day.

An Important Day for Our Family

Memorial Day was always an important day for our family. Dad served in the Navy in World War II, and Mom was an American Military Cadet Nurse. Both lost family and friends in the war. When we kids were growing up, our parents made a point of celebrating that special day because they wanted us to remember the people who had sacrificed their lives for us. 

"I'm so sorry I can't be home on Memorial Day, Mom," I say. "When I was a kid, it was always a special day for our family."

"We always went to the town parade," she says.

"And visited the cemetery," I say. "Then we had a big backyard picnic."

"I remember watching you kids playing in the yard."

"It wasn't Memorial Day without your potato salad, Mom."

"Yes, it was fun running around like crazy with our cousins, trying to swing on the willow branches, picking cherries and spitting the pits at each other. And the food was so good! I remember PopPop standing in front of the stone barbecue, cooking hot dogs on a long fork," I recalled.

"And my mother always made clam chowder."

"But my favorite was your potato salad. It wasn't Memorial Day without your potato salad, Mom," I tell her.

"I wonder if I could still make it?" she says. "I have some little red potatoes already boiled."


Remembering the Recipe

"Do you have mayonnaise? Celery?" I ask.  


"Don't forget the celery seed," I say.

"Celery seed? What's that?"

Suddenly her voice sounds a little lost. My mother has made this recipe for decades and suddenly she's forgotten about celery seeds? I've always thought she could make potato salad in her sleep, but now the memory is slipping away. 

A portrait of an older woman. Next Avenue
The author's mom, Milly  |  Credit: Jean Feldeisen

"Yes, the little seeds. You always put them into your potato salad."

"Oh, that's right."

"And eggs, don't forget eggs."

"What kind of eggs?"

"Hard boiled, of course."

I am determined to talk her through this recipe. "They get peeled and chopped."

"I'd forgotten about that."

Mom doesn't remember but assumes I am right, which I am. She taught me to make the salad when I was ten years old and I've been making it ever since.

"I remember the home front during the war and the lists in the paper of soldiers and sailors who had died each week," she says. "You know, these lists of people who have died from COVID-19 remind me of the war. So many people dying. And I can't do anything to help."

I say, "But Mom, you did help for many years. You were a cadet nurse and spent the war years volunteering. You spent your free time wheeling disabled soldiers up and down the boardwalk in Atlantic City and arranging dances and parties for them." 

"But that was so long ago," she says. "I can't do anything to observe Memorial Day now."

"Yes, you can," I told her. "You could still make the potato salad, Mom."

"Yes, I can," she brightens. "And I will. But what if I forget how to do it?"

"I'm here, Mom," I say. "You can always call me. I'll help you remember."

Mom's Best Potato Salad

Boil 5 pounds of new potatoes in water until tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife. When they are cool enough to handle, peel and dice them into a large bowl. Peel and chop six hard boiled eggs and add to the potatoes.

Add a cup or more of Hellmann's mayonnaise, half a bunch of finely chopped celery and 2 medium (or one large) chopped onions. (My mother hated onions, my father loved them, so she usually held out the onions until last and made a bowl without them.)

Add salt and black pepper to taste along with a tablespoon or more of celery seed. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Refrigerate until needed, to blend the flavors. Stir before serving.

I like to add chopped herbs to this mixture, usually parsley, chives, scallions or perhaps some fresh dill. But if I fiddle too much with the recipe, the original taste of family back yard barbecues and the sting of biting gnats might get lost.

Jean Anne Feldeisen
Jean Anne Feldeisen Jean Anne Feldeisen is a psychotherapist, a grandmother, a writer and podcaster. Her first poetry chapbook, Not All Are Weeping, is forthcoming from Main Street Rag Publishing Company in the spring of 2023.  Read More
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