Dinner with Baba

Susan Barr-Toman

family dinner table

In the winter of 2006 my sister Sarah Barr created “Dinner with Baba” as part of a series of photographs called “Some Very Short Films.” She used an old-timey large format camera like those from over a century ago, the kind that needs to be mounted on a tripod and that requires the photographer to hide under a dark cloth that resembles a magician’s cape. With long exposures (20-30 seconds), the subjects must remain completely still while the shutter is open in order for their images to be clearly captured. Think of all those sepia-toned men and women with stiff collars and rigid backs appearing as if they were holding their breath, and perhaps they were. Think of lying in an MRI or CAT scan machine. Stillness is key for a true image.

Sarah was going for a different truth, one that involved movement. She wanted to capture the different energies of the three generations. The photograph is of our families in the kitchen. Not all of us are there, the men are missing.

While the shutter was open I moved from the stovetop to the refrigerator, holding each position for ten or fifteen seconds, so that I appear twice in the photo. Around the table are my son and daughter and my sister’s son and daughter too, all under five years old. They do as they please, creating blurs, creating movement. My daughter at age two is barely visible save the purple haze of her sweater. My nephew’s face is ghostlike against the black chair back as he looks at his mother who’s disappeared under the dark cape.

And then at the head of the table there’s Baba, Ukrainian for grandma, my mother-in-law, the clearest of them all. The most still. Her eyes are on her grandchildren, her grandson who stands eating and watching the camera too. She is seventy-nine.

Over the years when I would look at this photograph, when I would talk about it with guests, I’d feel the chaos of that time creep up on me, feel the anxiety rise again. The children were so small, the schedule full with school pick-ups and drop-offs and nap times and doctor appointments. My husband was traveling for work for weeks at a time with little advanced notice. He was in Italy, near Florence. His calls were full of reports about the beauty of the place, the people (women in strappy stilettos riding scooters), and the food. One day he called, excited to talk of his day at the client’s office. The Italian project manager stopped the meeting mid-morning announcing, “Espresso!” Everyone filed out of the conference room to enjoy a cup and a selection of delicate pastries. Later in the day, he discovered that on each long table in the company cafeteria, a carafe of white wine and a carafe of red wine were placed every few feet. He reported that there he had tasted the best calamari of his life. Another time he was able to pop over and check out the Winter Olympic festivities in Turino. The sculpture park, the light-strewed streets.

This, while I stayed home making pasta with jar sauce for the children and my mother-in-law. There was no conversation with her, only her strange rambling, her constant commentary on my every action. You’re making pasta. You're picking her up. You’re answering the phone. She did weigh in on the quality of the food however.

Her son was becoming an amateur gourmet chef; he loved experimenting. His pasta was always al dente. Mine was either overcooked or undercooked. My husband was the cook in the family as had been her husband. Really, she was in no position to comment on my abilities, especially since I’d never had any interest in cooking. A vague feminist stance on my part. My only goal was to keep the children alive in his absence. I was just surviving. The kitchen was chaos. Constant noise.

Baba had just moved to Philadelphia. I’d found an apartment for her and my husband’s father. He’d signed the lease and died of cancer eight days later. She came alone. I felt overwhelmed having to entertain her, feed her, do her laundry while my husband traveled to beautiful Italy and ate amazing food. No mother. No kids. Just calamari, espresso and vino. I was a good daughter-in-law, pleasant while I took care of her, but there wasn’t a connection between us. I did it purely out of love for my husband (even though I wasn’t feeling much love spanning the Atlantic Ocean) and probably a fair amount of Catholic guilt.

Now nine years later when I look at “Dinner with Baba,” I see past the chaos. I see a widow. But then I’m on the lookout for widows. I want to see how they are in the world after their husbands die as I am a widow-in-waiting. My husband has terminal cancer.

Baba’s husband had been diagnosed with terminal cancer right before the holiday season. We’d come with the kids and made Thanksgiving dinner in their kitchen. He’d sat at his place at the head of the table and played the violin at his son’s request. Our daughter danced her toddler dance. He died early in December after waiting in bed for the ambulance to take him to the hospital’s hospice where briefly he lived. Perhaps less than an hour. A week later he was buried—or they tried, the ground was frozen, unwelcoming—in Canada next to Baba’s relatives. The following week my husband packed up what his mother needed for her new home, leaving the many things she’d collected over the years for another time, and moved her to the one bedroom apartment off Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. The next week had been Christmas and Baba had found herself celebrating the holiday at my parents’ dining room table, trying to find a way to be in the world without her husband, without her home among these strangers.

Six weeks since diagnosis, four weeks since his death and she was alone, surrounded by my family. She had so little time to get used to the idea of her husband dying. I’ve had a little over a year now. If the doctors are right, I may have another, maybe more. After all, they say, he is young and healthy, otherwise.

Looking at the photograph, I realize Baba isn’t going to give me much in the way of insight. She didn’t talk about it, wouldn’t talk about it, or perhaps had nothing to say about it. She was not an emotional person, not interested in talking about feelings, her own or anyone else’s. When I think back on her constant commentary in those early days, I wonder if she wanted to firmly plant herself in the present in an attempt to avoid the past and all the emotions it held.

But, this is how she was in the world without her husband in the six years she lived in Philadelphia before she died. She enjoyed the city, walking each day around the park, going to the opera, the ballet, plays, and the Curtis Institute. She enjoyed spending time with her grandchildren. My mother befriended her, and she made a few friends in the park. She also watched her son survive his first battle with cancer, something she’d had to do herself a few years before. I’d ask her if she was okay, if she missed her husband. And she’d say she was fine. She was busy with everything new.

She sits at the table in the illuminated kitchen in “Dinner with Baba,” and I am reminded of an evening after lymphoma had come back for her. She arrived at our house for dinner with a pencil and a stack of Post-its in tow. An act of desperation. Time was running out, she knew. As we sat at the table eating and talking, she told us to talk slower. Stop, she’d say holding her hand up, so she could finish writing down what one of us had said. Baba wanted to get it down and take it home and relive the conversation again, savor the words like morsels of her son’s cooking. Now I better understand that instinct to collect these moments, to archive them for the future, but she couldn’t capture that time. And that evening we couldn’t hit the pause button on our thoughts and words. It was, and still is, impossible.

(Photo credit: Sarah Barr)

Author Portrait

Susan Barr-Toman is the author of the novel When Love Was Clean Underwear. Her work has appeared in r.kv.r.y. quarterly literary journal, Literary Mama, and Philadelphia Stories. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two children.


View the website of Susan Barr-Toman