When her mother was diagnosed with early Alzheimer's and began to forget how to make the Italian meals that marked her childhood, Yonkers native Barbara Magro decided to save those recipes by publishing a cookbook, aptly titled "Recipes to Remember."
It is heartbreaking to witness the demise of my mother’s memory. Denial was my first reaction; I tried to ignore it and blame it on old age. But in December 2005, as I saw my mother’s memory fail and then heard the diagnosis from the doctor, the reality hit hard. I wept for the loss of the feisty, outspoken mom I knew. The one who always told me to call when I got home, no matter what time it was, the one who told me she didn’t like some of my friends (and I should have listened), and the one who was always making sure I was safe and protected.
Author Barbara Magro (right) with her mother, Carolyn Aloisi Magro, who inspired her to write the cookbook “Recipes to Remember: My Epicurean Journey to Preserve My Mother’s Italian Cooking from Memory Loss.”
After reading many articles and books on what could happen over time, I realized the path could be long and winding. The clock ticks and we all watch as the disease slowly progresses. The little things have become more difficult. Cooking was the first activity that suffered; she couldn’t remember if she had just put an ingredient in one dish or how long another one had already been simmering on the stove. It became clear that the days filled with Mom’s luscious meals, infused with love, were coming to an end. My dad grieves the most about these meals gone by, as he now has to be in charge. Mealtime is just not the same without my mother at the helm.
It was January of 2006 that her cooking regime began to decline. Although we had all commented that she repeated herself more frequently, we called it “old age” and didn’t take much notice. However, several months into the new year, her forgetfulness became more serious. After several tests, my mom, at the age of 79, was diagnosed with severe memory loss, or dementia, which is common in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
It was then that I realized something about many of the Italian recipes my mother has prepared for years: I never learned to cook them myself, including her wonderful Italian sauce, spaghetti, and meatballs! I also realized how important these traditions were to me, as they symbolize the love our family has shared for generations. Before it was too late, I decided to gather the recipes and create a cookbook, Recipes to Remember: My Epicurean Journey to Preserve My Mother’s Italian Cooking from Memory Loss (AuthorHouse, 2011), which includes all the meals that my family’s life has revolved around for the past 100 years or so.
Although I learned many gourmet recipes during my career and ate at some of the best restaurants in the United States and Australia, quite frankly, my mother’s cooking is better than any Italian restaurant in which I have dined. I realized how fortunate my mother was to have learned these various recipes before her mother and grandmother lost their memories. I felt a sense of urgency to get these written down before she forgot them, as I quickly learned that one of the first activities affected with dementia patients is their ability to cook. Stoves are often removed from dementia patients’ homes, as it is not uncommon for sufferers to put dinner on the stove and then go for a walk around the block while the evening meal burns back home.
Although I took a different spiritual, career, and lifestyle path and experienced many things that no one in my family ever has, I have come full circle to realize how wonderful it is to celebrate with tradition and to appreciate the unity that comes from sharing these traditions with family and friends over a beautiful meal that is made with love.
Spaghetti e Polpette
In a sneak peek at Magro's cookbook, Recipes to Remember, check out her mother's recipe for classic spaghetti and meatballs.
Facts About Alzheimer's
Dementia is the general term for loss of memory and other mental disabilities that are severe enough to interfere with daily life. It is caused by physical changes in the brain. Alzheimer’s disease, a fatal brain disorder, is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of cases. The disease destroys brain cells, causing memory loss, problems with thinking and behavior severe enough to affect work, lifelong hobbies, social life, and basic daily activities.
• As many as 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s.
• Every 69 seconds, another American develops Alzheimer’s.
• Alzheimer’s is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States.
• In 2011, 15 million family and friends provided 17 billion hours of unpaid care to those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
• The cost of caring for those with Alzheimer’s to American society was $200 billion in 2011.
• Alzheimer’s disease is on the rise. With an increase of 66 percent between 2000 and 2008, Alzheimer’s is the only cause of death among the top 10 in America with no way to prevent, cure, or slow its progression.
• 80 percent of care provided at home is by family caregivers who find caregiving the number-one stress in their lives.
How you can help: Join the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, which raises awareness and funds for the Alzheimer’s Association and its mission to support research on the disease, provide and enhance care and support for those affected by it, and reduce the risk of dementia through the promotion of brain health.