Sarah Hester Younker died on Easter morning, 1998 of a stroke. Being Easter, a priest was doing the rounds at the Irvin S. Cobb Hotel and Retirement Community. When he reached Sarah’s room on the seventh floor, there was no answer. Once management got the door open, they found her on the kitchen floor in a pool of buttermilk. She hadn’t eaten for a few weeks due to a stroke in March, and buttermilk was about all she could get down.
Sarah converted to Catholicism during her first and only marriage. She had been a widow since 1948 when her husband was killed by a hit and run driver on his way to dinner at a military base in post-war Manilla. Her daughter was less than a year old in 1948, and never met her father. Sarah was born in 1921 and grew up in an orphanage. She had no memory of her parents. I was born in 1970 to Sarah’s only child. Mom was divorced before I was born. My father rarely visited, and I haven’t seen him since 1979. I was raised by Grandma and Mom in tandem. Sarah was a stay at home Grandma, and Mom was a single working parent. Sometimes I say I had 2 Moms, but that just causes confusion. It’s truer to say that my mother took on the paternal role, and Grandma the maternal one.
The final time I spoke to her was about 10 days before she died. She hadn’t eaten for a few weeks, and her doctor suspected, but could not prove, that she had suffered from a stroke that resulted in a total loss of appetite. I cried and begged her to be strong and eat. I assured her that I was in a good place in my life, and that I would marry my then-girlfriend. We both knew that it was going to be one of our last talks. My first marriage lasted just long enough to keep the promise.
Sarah showed love through things and food. She was physically affectionate as well, but the largest demonstrations came from cooking and money. She didn’t have a lot of money, but she was incredibly generous. I never wanted for a toy or a comic book in my childhood. Being Easter today, I have a strong sense of some of the gifts she shared on that holiday throughout my youth. I got my first Star Wars toy in 1978 as an Easter gift. C-3PO. The next year it was a Spider-Man paperback book reprinting the best of Steve Ditko’s work on the character. In 1987, it was the Sugarcubes first EP- Birthday. She didn’t leave the house much by then, and she asked the owner of Ken’s Records to pick out something and bring it by the apartment for me.
I associate so much food with her. Chili, German potato salad, chocolate merengue pie, mashed potatoes, goulash, mashed turnips, fried chicken, catfish, corn on the cob, green beans cooked for hours, pot roast. We would get fancy food together. For the Kentucky Derby we’d drink wine coolers and eat shrimp cocktail. She got caviar for my birthday once. Her chocolate milkshakes were delicious and were used to get my weight up from 135 to 145 pounds my senior year in high school. I was so slight and walked everywhere. She committed herself to fattening me up so my ribs didn’t show. If only we had know that in another year I would take on alcohol as a food group and add 40 pounds all on my own. She supported my vegetarian diet, but still understood that pot roast was the only meal I would eat on my birthday. She didn’t really judge much.
I lived with her twice. From birth to 1981, then from 1986-1991. During the gap Mom got remarried. Grandma got her own apartment, and welcomed me back to it after the husband beat me too much. In 1991 I encouraged her to move back to Paducah from Louisville. She grew up in Paducah and still had friends and family there. I knew I would eventually be leaving Kentucky for good, and felt she needed to be somewhere with more support. My last call to her was placed from Austin, Texas.
Sarah has been in my thoughts for several days. Sometimes I get to her memory through the comic books I read. The Avengers comic from 1979 I read yesterday? She bought that for me at Wobbe’s Pharmacy while we picked up her prescriptions. Reflecting on her, I picked up an old Fantastic Four comic today. It’s one she might have bought for me had she lived. Last night I watched a documentary on Chinese food. It reminded me of the restaurant we would go to for special occasions. Today my wife and I had lunch at a Chinese place in our Dallas neighborhood. I wish they could have met. We could have shared an order of egg rolls.