One such difficulty we faced was her tumultuous relationship with food. My mother primarily helped – everywhere she went – by cooking or by planning menus or by helping in the kitchen or by grocery shopping. Her area of expertise was food. This was an entirely unquestioned aspect of her being for my entire life up to that point. But in Reno, it quickly became apparent to my partner and I that although food might have been her unquestioned area of expertise, it also caused her so much stress that it was stressing us out too. I remember a particularly difficult conversation after church one Sunday morning with my mother where I had to “confront” her about her food-related stress. I promised my partner I would have this confrontation with my mother before I came back home. We didn’t think we could handle it one more day.
So, somewhere between my egg sandwich and decaf coffee, I took a big breath and said to my mom, “hey, we have to talk about how stressed out you are about cooking and stuff.” It was seriously one of the hardest things I have ever had to say to my mother. It ranks right up there with having to tell her that I was pregnant with no plans of marriage (mind you, I was 28 and already an employed college professor – but I might as well have been 15 working at Dairy Queen for all that seemed to matter to my family). See, my mother simply owned the food in any family home where she was present. If she said you should cook a certain dish a certain way, you did. If she wanted to plan, make, serve and clean up after dinner, you let her. If she woke up before everyone else to make a breakfast for 15 when there were only 3 people in the house, you just didn’t question that – you ate. So, uttering that seemingly harmless little sentence felt nothing short of blasphemous to me. I remember almost steeling my body as I said it, trying to prepare for whatever reaction might come back to me.
Strangely, my mother looked relieved and said she felt relieved that I had brought the subject up. She admitted that cooking for us was stressing her out. She felt like it was the only way she could really help us with the new baby and all but she didn’t understand the way we ate (I was trying to go vegan at the time), what we liked, and going through her divorce she also felt like she really just didn’t want to cook for other people anymore. She admitted that she didn’t really always like to cook, especially when she felt obligated. She had been cooking for my father for 44 years. She would be happy to have a break from it. These admissions were shocking for me. I know that sounds melodramatic to those of you who do not have complicated relationships with food or a mother who is an old-world kitchen matriarch, but it’s true, I sat there shocked.
And my mother sat there feeling relieved but also a little helpless. She genuinely asked, “If I’m not going to cook for you though, how can I really help?” It was a serious question. We both knew it was. But it quickly dawned on both of us that though she hated cooking at the moment, she still loved to shop. Oh, goodness, could my mother shop! She was one of those walk-down-every-aisle, grocery store shoppers who leans on the cart and moves like she’s going for a leisurely Sunday drive, humming and all – the kind who frequently get in the way of shoppers like me who have a list and dart around the perimeter of the store, only ducking into the inner aisles when it’s absolutely necessary, moving like a dragonfly on speed. I have (especially back then) a mostly hate-hate relationship with grocery shopping. So, that was the hallelujah fix we came up with. What a relief it would be for my partner and I not have to do any grocery shopping and what a relief to my mother that she would no longer be responsible for cooking, after 44 years. This deal settled us all into a couple months of cohabitational bliss. She shopped (and played the slots at the grocery store on her way out). We cooked. And every once in a while, she’d watch soap operas with the baby while we snuck out for a beer. Not a bad set-up.
Then my birthday came – my 30th birthday – a big deal. So, what you have to understand about me is that I feel strongly that acknowledging, celebrating or in some way commemorating rites of passage in life is extremely extremely extremely important. I do not understand people who let important days or moments in their lives or throughout a year come and go without recognition. It’s not that I don’t agree with them, I truly do not understand them. I’m realizing that I probably inherited this celebratory gene from my mother. Holidays, birthdays, graduations, baptisms – these were always a big big deal in my family, replete with traditions and rituals I grew up loving and needing (and, of course, taking for granted). These celebrations became their own kind of religion – and still are for me – in that, they were a ritualized way to return our focus to the meaning and significance of life. So, I was turning 30.
And my mother knew she had to make lasagna. It wasn’t even a choice. My mother’s lasagna was my heaven meal, my desert-island meal, my last-wish-before-being-executed meal – THE meal. My mother’s lasagna was a warm, gooey, tangy, delicious, physical manifestation of her love that I would eat and eat until I was on the verge of breaking open. And though she would’ve rolled her eyes and said, “oh, please” at that description, she knew it was what she had to cook for me on my birthday. And though she was on hiatus from cooking, it was never any question that on my birthday, she’d cook for me.
My mother and my partner got into cahoots. They planned a small but sweet surprise party for me with the few friends we had managed to make in our short time in Reno. Tim, my partner (& yes, now, my husband) took me to an Indian place for lunch while my mother decorated the townhouse and made “The Lasagna.” [Side, yet related, note: my emotional eating was perhaps at its pinnacle at this time which might explain why I went straight from one meal to the next]. We came home, everyone said surprise, there were balloons and flowers and a cake and I could smell my mother’s love bubbling and baking in the oven. But then the unthinkable happened. As we stood around smiling and laughing and making jokes about getting older, we heard a crack and then a crash inside the oven. The pyrex baking dish that my mother used to make the lasagna – similar to the dish she had used for the past 44 years – broke into pieces right underneath all that pasta and meat and cheese which was now running down the sides and pooling at the bottom of our oven.
Let me back up for a quick moment. Understand, my mother did not use those no-boil lasagna noodles. She did not use sauce from a jar. My mother made her own sauce and boiled the noodles first. Making lasagna took several hours, sometimes a whole day, the way my mom did it. To have this much work go to waste was frustrating but to have the one way she really knew how to show her youngest child how much she loved her, destroyed, was a little bit devastating. She cried. She felt responsible and terrible and beat herself up for this accident as if she could’ve prevented it somehow. It was awful to see her feel this way. I mean, I love that lasagna but it wasn’t worth my mom hating on herself.
We ordered pizza. I gave her hug after hug and told her it was okay. She still went to bed that night feeling bad about herself. And it was finally around this time that I began to clearly see my mother’s often debilitating self-loathing.
I saw it even clearer when my future in-laws came to visit just two weeks later for Thanksgiving. I don’t understand how I never saw it before except that my mother’s presence was so powerful for me that I never would’ve expected how weak and insignificant she often felt in the world. But it was painfully clear how true this was to me as I observed her with my partner’s parents. She was a nervous talker, my mother, as I think I might be sometimes too. She could not stop talking and bringing up the most random subjects and it was so obvious that she felt uncomfortable and insecure and less-than these people who were essentially strangers to her. Why did she assume they were better than her? Because they are “educated”? Because they are New Englanders? Because they are younger? I have no idea. And, don’t get me wrong, my husband’s parents are lovely people. But, they aren’t better than my mother. Still, my mother’s insecurities forced her to feel like she had to prove herself to them somehow (thus, the incessant talking) and she fell back on her most reliable measure of self-worth: her cooking. And so, my mother made her second lasagna in November of 2003. This time, she used one of those heavy duty disposable foil pans. She was careful. She was still working through the shame and embarrassment of having lost the first lasagna. She couldn’t let anything happen to this one.
But as my mother pulled the foil pan from the oven, holding on to either side of it with her oven mitts, the pan suddenly collapsed in half, the lasagna squeezed out over the sides and fell in little lasagna puddles all over the open oven door. And, I’m certain, that if she had been all alone, she would have sat down on the kitchen floor and sobbed hysterically over that damn thing.
But she was not alone. She was with three people who understood this accident to be a mere inconvenience, frustrating perhaps because of all of the work that went into it, but ultimately something to wash one’s hands of immediately and get on with the business of ordering out. And she was with one person who knew how deeply this accident hurt on levels no one outside of their shared DNA would be able to understand. And yet, my mother’s insecurity was so new to me and I was still a few years from realizing how poorly my family communicates particularly when difficult emotions are in the mix, so I was of no help to her. I hugged again. I said, it’s no big deal again. I tried in the weakest way possible to reassure her that her lasagnas and her cooking were not cursed. She held herself together for the sake of decorum. She was always very good at that. But the tragedy of the two lost lasagnas sent her into a depression. It seriously did. She did not get out of bed for several days after my future in-laws went back home. The shame was too much. Again, this sounds like madness and melodrama to you if you don’t understand the power of food or how a woman can build her entire self-worth off of her ability to cook for and therefore, please, others. But to such a woman, the loss of these two lasagnas -- especially at these special moments, holidays and birthdays, where the stakes felt so high, where it really felt to her like love might be lost if her ability to cook didn’t shine through – was actually devastating.
And as is common with devastation in our family, the lasagnas became a running joke in our house. If my mother had stopped cooking before, she barely even dared to look in the direction of the kitchen anymore. She made joke after joke about how her cooking was cursed. I wish that both of us could’ve seen at that time that the loss of the two lasagnas and her admission that she didn’t always love to cook was a blessing. This could’ve been an opportunity to separate herself from food and cooking and find her worth in other ways, redefine herself and realize that she had so much more to give than food to the people that she loved. But the joking often keeps us from seeing what we can actually learn from our circumstances – at least the way we usually do it.
Last summer, when I helped clean my parent’s home out and sell off all of their things, I took way too much home with me. It’s amazing how important a spoon or an old DVD or a cassette player that doesn’t even work can seem to someone who is grieving. One of the things I kept were all of my mother’s old cookbooks and notebooks of menus and recipes. And I immediately began pulling these together and reading through them as if they were scripture. I didn’t know what I would find out about my mother in these pages, but I was sure I could find something if I looked hard enough. I never found anything profound enough to bring me solace but I did learn a couple of sweet things about my mother.
The first is, even though she had given up chocolate (I never knew or understood why), she collected chocolate recipes as if she ate the stuff every single day. Chocolate cakes. Chocolate puddings. Chocolate sauces. Chocolate cupcakes. Chocolate cookies. The only thing I could imagine with this collection is that she enjoyed torturing herself. I adore chocolate. So did my mother. Even refusing to eat it didn’t stop her from worshipping it.
The second sweet thing I learned about my mother from all of her clipped recipes is that when someone she loved loved a certain food, she would collect endless recipes for that food. My father loved the kibbe that my mother’s Lebanese cousin used to make. She had five or six recipes and a whole book on Lebanese cooking in her collection. My brother-in-law, Dave, loves pulled pork. 9 recipes for pulled pork in her books. My brother Bill loves white chicken chili and makes a mean one. My mother was apparently planning a cook-off with him because she collected 10 or so recipes for various versions of white chili. And of course there were endless recipes for meals and desserts to make for and with children that she undoubtedly clipped for her grandbabies, most of whom were very much adults (and so not as giddy about the mud-worm pie as they once were) when she died. But the thing that got to me most, as I sat at the estate sale in my parent’s yard, at the picnic table where she used to serve my father his meals, were all of the recipes for lasagna. I counted 14 by the time I started crying so hard I couldn’t look through the books anymore.
Shortly after the second lasagna of November 2003 met its end, my mother fell and broke her foot. She became physically dependent upon me, which was fine except for the fact that I had a newborn baby, a full-time job, a part-time job and a master’s degree to complete. We got through the first couple of weeks okay but then Tim and I were going back East for the holidays to visit his folks and then up to Vermont for 10 days for my grad school residency and there wouldn’t be anyone home to take care of her. I suggested she get into some assisted living situation just while she still needed so much help or even just while we were gone. That same night, she called my father – who was just beginning to pull himself together after losing her (she had divorced him only four months before) – and asked him to come get her and bring her home. He was on a plane bound for Reno within 48 hours.
My parents had a complicated relationship that I have finally accepted I will never understand and that I have finally realized I have to stop judging. Their experience of each other, of their love (however unloving it sometimes seemed to me)– that was their business, not mine. The only thing I know is that once they were back together, my mother went right back to cooking, though she did seem to do so with an awareness she did not possess before her hiatus from cooking in Reno and the tragedy of the two lasagnas. It’s impossible to really know what someone else is feeling unless they attempt to tell you so I don’t know if my mother simply resigned herself to cooking out of obligation or if she was able to recapture some joy in it but I do know that she continued to bring others joy with her cooking until the very day she died. I wish that my mother hadn’t taken so much of her self-worth from her cooking but the pleasure and nourishment she was able to bring to others with her cooking was certainly a skill and accomplishment worth being proud of – and a couple of unforeseen and unavoidable pasta accidents can’t ever take that away.
Remember to cook and eat with love.
Vaya Con Dios & Namaste