The Things We Leave Behind


I read a fascinating article today, learning something, a fascinating story I’ve never heard. In prison camps in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Gulags, Japanese-American internment camps in World War II, and other similar desperate places, women collected recipes, secretly written on scraps of paper, and stiched them together with threads pulled from their own clothes, hoping to somehow leave something of themselves for their families. Miraculously, some of these “most beautiful books in the world” made their way from these terrible places to surviving family members.
What is it about family recipes that make them hold such an important place in our minds and hearts? Last night I made my mother’s chicken salad. It’s a very simple recipe with just 4 ingredients and some common pantry seasonings, and yet, I never feel like it’s really summer until there is a big bowl of it in the refrigerator. I can easily make it without looking at the recipe, and I have even altered the ingredients a little bit to try and make it match our desire to eat in a healthier way, but I still got out the handwritten recipe card and looked at it before I started. Those stained little index cards, and a ribbon-tied file folder full of clippings from long-gone women’s magazines, are a connection to my mother and my grandmothers that I can access in no other way. When my sister passed away years ago, the one thing I wanted from her house was a painted tin index-card box that I gave her for a wedding shower present, now filled with her hand-written recipes for chicken curry and sweet potato casserole and eggs benedict (which I still can’t make like she did).
I missed my mom last night while I was chopping celery and dicing hard-boiled eggs. I smiled while dicing the chicking breasts, knowing that she would approve of my preparing my salad with all white meat instead of resorting, as I sometimes do, to pulling the meat off of a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store. I choked up a little bit, but I also felt as physically connected to her as I have in a long time, and she’s been gone for 10 years now. Looking at her perfect handwriting (why can’t I write like that?) on the card with a small stain in the top left-hand corner (likely put there by me – I’m the family lefty), touching the card she touched long ago.

I was deeply moved when I learned of these women, living in starving conditions and knowing that they would likely not see their families again, meticulously writing out the recipes for feasts they would never share, in the hopes that their families would someday celebrate those feasts and remember them. They wrote them on scraps of fabric, cigarette papers, Nazi propaganda flyers, anything that would hold the words, which then had to be hidden away until someday they might find their way to their children and grandchildren. They wanted their loved ones to know something about them other than the tragedy of imprisonment and death.
We need to to leave something for our children and their children and their children, something in our own hand, not just a digital file somewhere. We need to leave something they can hold and leave stains on, and pass along, hand to hand. Even in my own poor handwriting, I think I should do this, and send letters on paper, and make notes in the margins of my books for someone to find years and years from now.
All of our lives are temporary, and the things we leave are, too. But those things are a comfort and a connection to those who love us, and to those who will never know us but will be curious about why the chicken salad tastes so good, and what we put in the vegetable soup. Our senses call out for physical connections.
Tonight, when I steal another bite of chicken salad from the bowl in the refrigerator, I will be blessed by that connection to my mother, and all the generations of women who would never put anything but breast meat in their chicken salad, and carefully chopped their celery to the proper size (about half the size of the chicken chunks). And I hope my children and my great-grandchildren are, too.

If you would like to read the article, here is the link:


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