I had a question I needed an answer to, a question I’ve had for almost 50 years. Not having an answer to this question had sent me down negative pathways at various points in my life. Not knowing the answer had caused me pain, and I was done with that.
And there was only one person I knew of who could answer that question: my cousin Martha.
A couple of weeks ago, I returned to my hometown of Ellijay, Georgia, to tell stories at a folk festival, and I thought I would use the occasion to visit Martha. I called her on Friday before we left for Ellijay to confirm she would be around. We arranged for Stacy and me to drop by her house after I finished my lunchtime storytelling gig on Saturday.
My father was the 11th of 12 children, and I arrived 21 years into his marriage to my mother, thus I have only one first cousin who is my age. Martha is a generation older than me. She has told me many times that my parents made her feel like she was blessed with a second mama and daddy. She’s also told me that she got a little jealous when she learned that I was coming along. But for a long time now, Martha has called me her “little brother.”
My mother died of cancer when I was 11 years old, and in the six months Mom spent in and out of the hospital leading up to her death, Martha and her husband Harold were around a lot, taking care of things for my dad and me.
On our phone call, Martha asked me if she could feed us lunch, I happily accepted the offer. She told me she had a chicken casserole in the freezer she could take out and warm up. It was delicious, simple country comfort food — the sort that warms your belly and your heart at the same time.
And as we ate, I finally got up the gumption to ask Martha my question.
For the six months prior to Mama’s death, she never once told me that her illness was terminal, that she would not be around for much longer to take care of me. So I asked Martha: Why? Why had she made that decision? I needed to know the answer.
“Because she didn’t want to put you in that much pain, honey,” Martha replied. “She thought it was better that you didn’t know.”
Over the next couple of days, I spent a lot of time thinking about that. What would any parent with a terminal illness do in the same situation? What the parent might do today, I expect, would be very different than what my mom could do in 1972, the year of her death. She had no internet that would allow her to talk to people all over the world in similar situations. Today, there are a wealth of books about the topic, both for parents and for children. There were far fewer four decades ago. The idea of sending me to see a therapist would never have occurred to country people like her.
In short, she and my dad and others in the family had to make the best decision they knew how to make. And ultimately, what she felt in her heart was that I should be spared the pain for as long as possible. That’s a big kind of love, and I was lucky to have it.
And that answer, I finally decided, was big enough to allow me to let go of some lingering resentments I’d held against my mother, to allow me to move on without feeling that I was carrying too much weight, to allow me to stop feeling like a victim.
I have not peeked into the freezer in the big kitchen of the Episcopal church that Stacy and I attend in Decatur, Georgia. But I have heard tell that inside it, a casserole cache exists. It is used when folks are in need. When someone has lost a loved one or when life has thrown an unexpected curveball — when someone is carrying too much weight of their own — someone else in the church grabs a casserole from the freezer and delivers it to the person in need.
That’s the way that the world goes ’round. Or at least that’s the way it ought to.
All of us want to know there is someone out there who, when we are in times of trouble or suffering, might bring us a casserole. My cousin Martha brought me some truth that I needed — and served it up with a chicken casserole. It was delicious. Chicken breasts, a can of cream of chicken soup, a can of cream of mushroom soup, half a pound of sour cream, a sleeve and a half of Town House crackers and half a stick of butter. And finally, an unmeasurable amount of love.
Cousin Martha’s Chicken Casserole
- 1 10.5 oz can of cream of chicken soup
- 1 10.5 oz can of cream of mushroom soup
- 1 8 oz container of sour cream
- 4 medium sized cooked chicken breasts (24 oz)
- 1.5 sleeves of Town House or Ritz crackers
- Half a stick of melted butter (4 tbsp)
- Oil for greasing an 8x8 or slightly larger baking dish
- Powdered spices of your choice: garlic, onion, paprika, pepper, etc.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix the soups and sour cream together in a mixing bowl. Sprinkle in some powdered spices of your choice: You probably don’t need extra salt. Add the cooked chicken and mix again.
Grease the baking dish and add the mixture. Crush the crackers down to a coarse meal with a mallet or potato masher in a clean mixing bowl. Pour melted butter over the cracker crumbs and mix well. Sprinkle the buttery crumbs over the top of the casserole until evenly covered. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30-40 minutes or until it bubbles steadily around the sides and the crackers are a deeper color of brown. If you feel the need to measure it, the internal temperature should be 165 degrees. Allow to cool for a few minutes before serving.
Note: You can make this recipe in smaller dishes if you want to share with a neighbor. Just cook until it bubbles around the sides. Smaller dishes can have a shorter baking times.