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Credit: Emmy Smith
personal essay

In the Pandemic, I Mourn My Grandmother Through the Pierogies She Taught Me

updated Aug 7, 2020
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The dreams began a few weeks into lockdown. Like so many other people quarantining, the deep anxieties I managed to keep at bay during the day came alive as I slept. One nightmare, in which my 84-year-old grandmother got sick and had to be hospitalized, startled me awake in the middle of the night. Losing Mom-Mom has been one of my biggest fears for years — a fear that only intensified in the early days of the pandemic.

I can trace my love of cooking directly back to Mom-Mom, who showed me the special joy that comes from feeding yourself and others. She was the one who took me and my sister to a peach orchard near her home in Pennsylvania when we were kids, letting us run free and pick with wild abandon. And when we briefly moved into our grandparents’ house after our parents got divorced when I was 10, she was always there after school with library books and sweet treats from Rita’s, the water ice chain she tried to convince us had been named after her. Since then, I’ve cooked all kinds of dishes with Mom-Mom — chicken enchiladas, meatloaf, fresh apple pies, pancakes in the shape of the letters in our names, potato chip cookies, peanut butter soup, and plenty of pierogi.

We moved Mom-Mom into an assisted living center a few years ago. When the pandemic hit in March, the staff took necessary steps, banning visitors and restricting residents to their rooms. I worried about what that kind of isolation would do to an elderly woman who absolutely lived for socializing and storytelling. I made sure to call Mom-Mom every few days, even though I knew she wouldn’t be able to hear everything I was saying. To keep her occupied, I went online and ordered her a few books to read — Irish historical fiction, per her request.

About a month into quarantine, the center purchased an iPad and began offering the residents Zoom sessions with their families. My sister, cousins, and aunts gathered virtually to check in with Mom-Mom, who “met” my new boyfriend and smiled big as her youngest great-grandchild hung upside down in front of his dad’s laptop.

It was the last time any of us would see her. A week later, on Earth Day, she was gone.

There’s no good time to mourn the death of a loved one, but doing so during a global pandemic fosters a unique kind of pain. Mom-Mom died from natural causes, not the virus, and it was challenging to find space in a chaotic world to properly grieve her. It still is. It seemed as if her death was less significant than the ones making headlines, even though it didn’t feel that way to me.

The pandemic significantly altered the normal course of grieving. Without access to usual rituals — like holding a wake or attending a funeral mass — I went searching for something else to do with my grief. Stuck inside with nowhere to go, I found the only way to mourn my grandmother was by cooking.

It seemed as if her death was less significant than the ones making headlines, even though it didn’t feel that way to me.

If you asked me what my ideal comfort food was, I’d say Mom-Mom’s church pierogi. Some grandmothers send you home with cash or baked goods, but not ours. Mom-Mom always made sure our arms were filled with plastic bags of pierogi. She was half Polish, and I imagine she grew up eating them, though she didn’t tell many stories from her own childhood. She did, however, have a library of tales about her “pierogi ladies,” a volunteer crew of older women from her church whom she made the pierogi with.

During summers as kids, my sister and I occasionally joined her in the church’s industrial kitchen for a long day of making pierogi that would later be sold at fundraisers. We were too young to be trusted with the important step of pinching the potato-filled Polish dumplings closed, but we excelled at running trays of them to the kitchen, where other volunteers would boil, bag, and freeze them. We’d take home several dozen — our pay for a day’s “work” — and sauté them up with some diced onions, savoring the homey bites of buttery potato dumplings. 

Although I’ve made countless pierogi with Mom-Mom and grew up to be a decent home cook, I never did get around to making them by myself. At least, not until this spring, when I turned to do so in the midst of my grief — a couple weeks after the small, masked, socially distant funeral we were allowed to hold for my grandmother.

Making pierogi requires a few tricks, as my boyfriend and I learned. The ingredients — dough, potato, onion, cheese — may be simple, but the process is anything but. Without any awareness of just how many steps were involved, Hayden eagerly jumped in to make them with me.

As he started the dough, I got to work boiling the potatoes, and thought about how many thousands of times my grandmother had done the same in her lifetime. Mom-Mom always anointed me the potato masher, and so I carried that torch again with pride. To the mashed potatoes, I added shredded cheddar cheese and silky, sautéed diced onions. “Those onions are the secret ingredient,” I remember Mom-Mom telling me as I jotted down the recipe several years ago.

After that, Hayden and I worried every step of the way. He rolled out the dough, and we worried it was too dry. We didn’t have a cookie cutter, so we made do with the rim of a pint glass, which we worried wasn’t wide enough. I added scoops of the mashed potato mixture, and worried they were too big (they were). I gave the edge of each round an egg wash, worried the dumplings would burst open during the boiling process without it. What if we couldn’t replicate them perfectly? As the only one in the family with the recipe, I felt especially pressured to keep the taste of Mom-Mom’s pierogi from fading into a distant memory. 

Then it came time to get pinching. I held the open pierogi in the palm of my hand like a tiny taco, and after clearing away excess stuffing, I gently but firmly closed the edges together between my thumb and middle finger, just as I’d watched Mom-Mom and her pierogi crew do. Hayden worked away on the other side of the table, fumbling the first few before getting the hang of it. As I pinched away, I felt closer to Mom-Mom than I had in months. It was a bittersweet moment, realizing that while she couldn’t physically be with me anymore, she’d always be present while I cooked. And now I had a new kitchen partner to make memories with, something I knew she’d always wished for me. Maybe all along, she’d been trying to teach me a life lesson in her kitchen: The important thing wasn’t what you cooked. It was who you cooked and shared it with that mattered most.

As the only one in the family with the recipe, I felt especially pressured to keep the taste of Mom-Mom’s pierogi from fading into a distant memory. 

We ended up with more than four dozen pierogi spread across several baking sheets. I boiled a tall pot of water, plopping in batches that I boiled for five minutes. Mom-Mom would have been so proud to see not a single one burst open. We pan-fried some of them in butter right away, serving them with sautéed onions and a dollop of sour cream. They were plump and doughy, the potato stuffing slightly sweet and creamy, a flavor that tasted like home. My only remorse was not being able to share any with the pierogi legend herself. 

I dumped the rest of the boiled pierogi into a Ziploc bag and placed it in the freezer. A few weeks later, I pulled them out before our family gathered again at Mom-Mom’s house as we prepared to put it up for sale. Feeling drained after an emotional day of going through boxes of cookbooks, decades of photo albums, and a lifetime of her belongings, I opted for my favorite meal and cooked up the remaining pierogi. We ate them quietly, surrounded by artifacts of Mom-Mom’s life.

“They’re perfect,” my aunt said after her last bite. “Definitely Rita-approved.” It was a fitting tribute, some semblance of familiarity we could all share in an otherwise abnormal time. I might not be able to safely hug my whole family yet, but I can continue the pierogi tradition for us. It’s a labor of love I’m happy to carry on.