I am without a living form to mimic in the kitchen, unlike when I was a girl following behind my mother, trailing in the breeze of her muumuu. In my mother’s kitchen food was the language of love. It was the way she sustained us in spirit without making deliberate mention of any big to-do. Looking back on my childhood, I see how food represented our best times and our worst, being a financial reflection at any moment. Now with my own daughter clamoring for time with me in the kitchen, I search myself for a way to give her the grounding that was lost when women’s chickens began roasting in the grocery store and our potatoes began baking in the microwave. For me, food brings solace and when a woman loses her mother or loses herself in the process of being a mother, I wonder if there is enough time for both guidance and grief. I certainly miss my mother. I miss her stirring hands. I miss her requests for ingredients from the cabinet. I miss her permission for me to be the taste tester and thereby feel special. Food, my mother, my memories and my daughter collide in the kitchen as I struggle to take ownership of my own stirring spoon. I also challenge myself to understand the modern woman’s legacy of time spent in the kitchen with our daughters during our time.
When I was a little girl, my father called me my mother’s shadow. I was the youngest of eight children and much of my free time was spent with my mother. Her world of stay-at-home everyday living was an adventure to me. One of my greatest joys was going to the grocery store with her. She was known to spend hours there and not many wanted to go along but I did. I loved tasting grapes and squishing my fingers into the dimples of oranges with her. I loved watching her rummage through her oversized purse only to emerge with a crinkled envelop or piece of junk mail that would become her place to log prices. She always used both sides of the paper with several columns to add. When she came to the end of the budgeted amount, my mother would look into the cart with questioning eyes. What could we do without? Shopping for food suddenly became a series of choices between the needs and the wants of a large family.
“Put this back,” she would ultimately say.
I find that nowadays a taste test in the produce aisle with my daughter equates to concern of downing pesticides that could inhabit a single grape. It seems limited budgets inspire envy for celebrities in gossip magazines. They are pictured in the “Just Like Us” section as they saunter through the parking lots of Whole Foods with those beautiful shopping bags that when we were kids would have become our book covers. However limited our budgets are today, we toss our coupons in the trash every Sunday. We reminisce with awe and a feeling of disturbance about the reality show women who had a knack for extreme couponing that could render a five hundred dollar grocery bill down to a mere twelve bucks despite the shopping cart included seven bottles of mustard, gallons gallons of laundry detergent and ten boxes of Hamburger Helper.
In my early days as a mother during my own financially tight times, grocery shopping could take hours as I haggled over items I deemed luxury – potato chips, cookies, grated cheese for pasta. Unlike my mother, I didn’t like to take my daughter along when I had little to spend on food. Even when she was barely out of diapers, I always felt a sense of shame to budget down to the dollar at the grocery store in my daughter’s presence. I didn’t want her to see my questioning eyes. She would eventually figure out that money was limited and sometimes the limit affected the availability of food. I felt this was too much for a child to know.
When I was a teenager food became less about adventuring with my mother and more about social interaction. My friends and I would meet at the local McDonalds and my usual sandwich was the double cheeseburger. This greasy, cheesy indulgence was an assertion of my budding independence. Later, I would arrive home from my after school wanderings and find that my mother spent much of her time cooking huge pots of food – chicken soup to seemingly feed more than her own brood of eight, zucchini casserole to eat for a week, Portuguese jag rice with enough lima beans to last through college. I looked at my mother’s food with a turned-up face of bewilderment and with a knowing that my mother was approaching an empty nest as her brood was down to only three of us.
“Ma, why’d you cook so much?”
“I can’t help it,” she’d return.
My mother was accustomed to cooking for large numbers of people. For me to tell her to stop cooking large portions was like telling her to stop loving. She couldn’t help it. Food was her show of love and it came in oversized pots. Looking back, I see that when my mother finally learned how to scale down her meals, she began a journey of years marching toward her final days. Her children no longer needed her and perhaps she felt there was no place for her love to go.
Today, I don’t know any mothers who have difficulty scaling down in the kitchen. I often wonder if there are any women like me who find themselves afraid to speak the language of large meals. There are times when I lament the lack of leftovers or a little something tucked away in the back of the freezer but mostly I find that I am fearful of putting all of my love into one pot to be tested by those who will leave me one day. I didn’t look forward to the teen years when I thought my daughter would reject my meals whole-scale, only looking in the pots, turning up her nose, and opting for a bowl of cereal. I think I owe my mother an apology. Perhaps many women do. Even more, I wish I could go back to being that teenager again only this time with a pen and a paper to record my mother’s recipes that are forever lost, embedded haphazardly in the mind of a girl who could not see the beauty, the sweat or the love. I wonder how many women like me wish for this. I also wonder how many of our daughters have no cause for such wishes because our repertoire of meals is either “almost homemade” or derivative of what we can find on our favorite recipe websites. Are there no more secret ingredients?
Then there was the day I found myself crying as I was cooking dinner. It was a time of scarcity for my own budding family and the year’s taxes had not gone well. With each stirring of my spoon in the pot it became apparent that due to the lack of food, I would have to skip the meal so that others in my household could eat. While standing at the stove, I recalled all the times my mother said she wasn’t hungry. I remembered how my mother sat at the table and watched us eat. Was this moment a mother’s rite of passage? Had every mother who came before me faced skipping a meal all the while hungry? I wondered how many more meals I would have to skip to show an enduring love that could equal my mother’s. My mother, while she often spoke harshly to us children and lacked eloquence with words, wielded her love with her spoon and with her restraint of hunger. My own hunger was a gift. It gave me a heightened respect for my mother and I forgave any lingering mother-daughter hostilities.
I often think back to the last time I cooked with my mother. It was Thanksgiving and she was physically humbled by the ravages of diabetes and was unable to stand without the use of a walker. I remember looking into the pot of ziti waiting for the instructions that, by now, I knew so well. I knew this would be her last time to make her famous Chippy’s Baked Mac’ and Cheese. I was careful not to help her too much. This was her kitchen on that day. She was not helpless. She did not need me. In fact, that day I needed her for more than just food. I needed sustenance for my heart and she delivered it with every moment. I savored her commands that sent me to the refrigerator to collect ingredients. I savored her request that I be the taste tester again, if only for this final time. I often wonder what memories I will leave my daughter of our time together in the kitchen.
Perhaps every daughter could view her mother from woman to woman, spoon to spoon, and get closer to the point of healing our mother-daughter relationships by soldering our bonds with love found in the kitchen. I wonder about my daughter and how to protect her from the mealtime hunger as a rite of passage. Or, maybe I don’t want to. Just maybe, the real rite of passage here is moving toward becoming a better woman, a better mother, and an authentic cook in our own rites. By understanding the sacrifices made by my mother and women everywhere who looked into their grocery carts with questioning eyes, perhaps we can become present in our own kitchens with our daughters so that they might have something to remember us by that goes beyond our fears, beyond our financial and psychological limits and beyond our collective need for the thirty minute meal. What dishes will our daughters make that conjure our spirits and the spirits of their grandmothers, and all the grandmothers? What will be the collective legacy of our spoons?
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This is absolutely beautiful.