Twenty years after my mother’s death, I still can’t make her breakfast casserole

By Natalie Serianni

During the ‘80’s, Christmas mornings in our suburban Maryland home crackled with comfort. A gurgling coffee pot. A Beatles marathon on DC101. My Rainbow Bright pajamas. The damp air being let in after my mom’s quick cigarette break. My two younger sisters giggling as they stripped wrapping paper off boxes. 

And always, the heavenly smell of an overnight sausage, egg, and cheese casserole baking in the oven. 

It was our family’s favorite. And yet, I’ve never made it for myself or my children.

My mother died nearly twenty years ago, and it’s been a winding road to find food happiness. 

Food was a big part of my grief process. I was 25 when my mother died. After the funeral on a warm September day, I couldn’t eat. For months, there was no room in my stomach that wasn’t consumed by knots or a caffeinated unease. Then, six months into grief, a switch flipped, and my emptiness needed filling. I was starving, and ate mostly at night: the refrigerator light spilling into the 2am darkness, holding the door open with my hip, inhaling cheesy, starchy goodness. A carbohydrate coma was, for a while, the only way I could fall asleep.

As I fell into my newly motherless life, I became obsessed with what foods I let into my body.  A vegetarian since I was 20, much of being careful and watching myself was for health and college soccer, but this time careful meant control. Controlling all that I could after she died was the only way to make sense of fractured living without her.

I have fond food memories growing up. There was always pasta and “gravy,” and weekends were for store-bought stromboli or fresh-off-the-Turnpike P&S ravioli from Philadelphia. Trips to the dentist and doctor’s office meant soft-serve from Tastee-Freez after the appointment. Tummy rumbles during the Communion altar-walk at Saturday’s 5pm mass led us right out the church door, skipping the recessional hymn, and straight to the nearby McDonald’s or Wendy’s for cheeseburgers and fries. But we were healthy, too: summer meant peaches and plums packed for the pool, and as a rule, there were no sugar cereals in our pantry, save for the sugarless top five: Rice Krispies, Wheaties, Cheerios, Chex and Raisin Bran. 

I can taste the tartness of my mother’s lemon meringue pie, swiping a lick off our formica countertops, and the bologna and cheese sandwiches with mayo on white bread (wrapped in foil—an important, gooey detail) that voyaged with me to school. Her mint chocolate brownies of my teenage years, crammed in a bookbag, devoured after math class. And my senior year of high school was marked by her shoving cash in my hand as I backed out of the driveway in an Aerostar minivan with my sisters, for an 8pm run to Wawa for chili cheese hot dogs and BAR-B-Q barbeque Fritos, sustenance after hours of soccer practice. 

Breaks home from college meant bagels after sleeping late in my old room and for dinner, spinach stuffed shells buried in tomato sauce. These foods were solace on our table and welcomed me back in ways that were different than words. 

Over the years, I have been able to make certain dishes my mother made, bringing her spinach quiche and cheesy potatoes to my family table in Seattle. But there’s always been that breakfast casserole, haunting me: eggs, sausage, cheese and torn sourdough chunks, made the day before, served on our Christmas table. The stretchy cheese, the crispy bread. My sister and closest friend have made it part of their family celebrations and holidays. A meatless variation with kale was part of the spread at my baby shower, and I devoured it, like a gift straight from my mother. 

The thought of making the casserole in my kitchen, though, without my mother alive is painful. I kept a safe distance from my mother’s memory and lived there, miserable, for many years. While I wanted deeply to connect to her spark, to momentarily bring her back, I dared not get close to what I missed.

My feelings began to shift after my youngest was born—fifteen years to the day after my mother died. Coincidentally, my mother died on her own birthday, when she was 57. Holding my blanketed baby on my chest, I surrendered. There is something in the events of this day, September 2nd, that assures me that things are, cosmically, okay. From far away, my mother took my hand and pulled me close to her; I have softened into spaces where she used to be. 

This year I’ve thought about that breakfast casserole more than ever, imagining the savory goodness has been a pandemic comfort. Before, my reasons for not making this dish ranged from “I’m not ready,” to “it’s too soon.” But being home, confronting old feelings, has forced a new thinking: get close to what you love. My children have begun to backfill the large hole in my heart. Remembering my mother’s favorite silky pink dress hanging in her closet or the statues of saints on her dresser strengthens me. After years, I can now reach my mother without fear that my still-left sadness will disrupt my life. 

I don’t want to keep my loss and hurt from my daughters anymore. I want to share things, about me and about my mother, that I’ve kept secret: she gave the best hugs. She smelled like pep-o-mints and a citrus grove. And that their own mother feels a pang of longing when she thinks back to the warmth of her childhood or how she wishes, today, to be mothered in her mothering.

Baking helps. It has been a constant in my family of four. I see my girls, now eight and four, as toddlers in oversized aprons, repeating mix a mix a mix a mix as they stirred the batter for banana bread and chocolate chip cookies. Today, a shout from the kitchen, “Anyone want to help make muffins?” usually results in one or both of my daughters pulling up a stool to the counter. Sometimes they’re boxed beauties, made with breakfast dishes still in the sink; sometimes they are from-scratch creations, filling up our winter afternoons. 

My kitchen has become a time marker. My oldest, her lean arms and long, golden hair; my youngest, curls framing her face. My children continue to get tall and transform before my eyes. I learn to let go. We mix ingredients and watch our baked goods—and each other—grow. 

I look forward to having them join me in the kitchen one day soon to make my mother’s breakfast casserole for the first time. Who knows, maybe Mother’s Day? We’ll riff off the recipe, adding veggie sausage and vegan cheese for its debut on our family table. We’ll make it our own.

Natalie Serianni is a Seattle-based writer, instructor, and mother of two who loves coffee and hiking. She’s at work on a memoir about motherless motherhood, fractured living, and the difficulty of letting go of our mothers while seeing them in everything. Connect with her on twitter, and instagram.

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