Sally Friedman

is a writer in Moorestown

I recently was given a recipe for a hearty meatloaf that included a half cup of oatmeal among its ingredients. I realized that I hadn't had oatmeal in the house for years. So off I went to get some.

And the moment my hands reached for it on the supermarket shelf, a whole rush of feelings almost overcame me.

That familiar carton, unchanged over the years, carried me right back to my mother's apartment in a Philadelphia high-rise.

I'd almost forgotten oatmeal's place in my life - and hers - until that moment. Oatmeal was definitely more than just that old-fashioned staple to me.

Suddenly, 10 years vanished, and I was back in Mom's apartment, watching helplessly as a marauder called Lymphoma changed everything. Mom had faced it a few years earlier, had seemed to conquer it. And then it was back.

She was an amazing little warrior, but this time my tiny, 97-year-old mother, was clearly losing the battle. Most of her hours were spent in her yellow and white bedroom, with occasional friends stopping by for short visits. My sister and I were the monitors who determined whether Mom could even handle those well-meaning visits.

One of the problems, as the wonderful doctor who had cared for her had correctly predicted, was her total lack of appetite. Absolutely nothing appealed to her, including all of the foods that she had once loved.

I remember how Mom once had gotten me through a childhood food rebellion through which I subsisted on a certain brand of crackers and strawberry jelly. How she struggled to tempt me with other foods and food groups, and how stubbornly I refused all offers.

The role reversal in that apartment was so painful.

One day, after I'd tried to offer the very brand of vanilla ice cream she had loved all her life - then a small dish of mashed potatoes and even just a quarter slice of bread - I went into her bathroom and cried. Of course, those tears were for endings.

And when I composed myself, and did one more search of Mom's kitchen cabinets, I spotted it: that familiar carton of oatmeal that always had been in our home when I was a child, when I had children, and in this very kitchen, perhaps just in case a great-grandchild came on a cold winter day.

Such hope resided in that simple box.

This time, I didn't ask. I just went to the stove and began making one of life's simplest pleasures, ignoring the microwave option. No, it had to be oatmeal bubbling on the burner. I was so nervous that I kept dropping things.

I looked for the nicest bowl I could find in this kitchen where such niceties were no longer considered very important. And I spotted a lovely little white bowl with flowers around the rim, a relic from our old home.

I picked up that bowl and held it close it to my heart. Such memories surfaced of a steamy kitchen on a wintry school day. And Mom's loving gesture: a sprinkle of cinnamon went into that oatmeal along with some sugar.

It seemed centuries ago - and yesterday.

On that morning in a vastly different setting, this one with medicines lined up like sentries, I pulled up a chair close to the hospital bed my mother now occupied.

"How about some oatmeal?" I asked, trying so hard for nonchalance.

Those weary half-closed eyes opened wider, and a smile momentarily lit my mother's face.

"Yes," she said. Just "Yes."

And on a winter day, when the rest of the world outside this room turned, a daughter fed her dying mother spoonfuls of warm oatmeal slowly, painstakingly, and, yes, lovingly, until the bowl was almost empty.

"Delicious!" Mom said.

It was the last word I ever heard my mother say, and the last food she ever ate.

What a magnificent privilege to have had the gift of nourishing the woman who had nourished me in every way.

There may be fancier foods in our pantry closet - exotic spices, teas from far-away places, lovely jellies and jams - but from now on, oatmeal is there too.

And always will be.