I did not expect to meet my mother, six years after her death, in a blog post. I thought I had cremated her, dealt with the seething, strangled ball of anger, honor and confusion I tried to unravel as she lay dying eight thousand three hundred and forty-seven miles away. But there she was. In my Facebook feed, my friends’ conversations, suddenly, everywhere I looked. The more I read, the bigger thought bubbles my memories blew. They got larger, threatening to pop all over me, spittle and all, demanding to be noticed. My childhood had finally come, screaming, swinging in the swiveling kitchen door, naked, begging to be diapered, powdered, clothed. It was time, I decided - time to either kiss the wound and send it away happy or put that disobedient, tear-streaked cheek in the corner, to mete out punishment or take it upon myself in the name of womanhood.
I knew what she would have done. I knew only too well.
Cooking was how my mother showed affection - and the lack of it. Making dinner was her weapon of choice. She wielded it extremely well. On days she and my dad fought, there would be no dinner cooked, as if to force my dad to acknowledge that he needed her after all. On the flip side, she made homemade wine, pickles, party food, pizza, festive food. Growing up, I didn’t know a single person who intentionally stayed away from a celebration at our home. I knew no one went home and didn’t tell whoever he met that he had just gained five pounds and wouldn’t mind gaining another five if this woman invited him over again for dinner. My father’s friends were jealous, as were mine.
Except for this one thing.
“Don’t you ever, ever quit your job after you have kids!” she often warned. “You lose your worth. All you’re ever good for is cooking and cleaning.” She didn’t teach me to cook, intentionally, I think, even though some of my fondest childhood memories are puttering around in the kitchen with my toy pots and pans while she cooked. As they say in shorthand parlance, my relationship with cooking was complicated, right from the start.
So I was disconcerted, to say the least, to be confronted with the same acerbic complaining that still echoes in my ears thirty years later on the other side of the globe. Cooking is too hard, it takes too much time and no one appreciates it anyway. There should be something better I could be doing with my time, something not inside this house. Why all this focus on the homemade dinner, this onus on the mother? This restlessness, this unnamed self-pity, the seeming sadness classified as the woman’s lot, propped by ditties claiming a woman’s work is never done draw me into darkened corners of my psyche I never wished to visit again, places that I wanted to leave dimly lit, cobwebby and dank.
“Mommy, can I help?” my daughter asks me today. She wants to chop vegetables, admire them. She wants to learn to make aioli. She wants to do dishes, revel in the feel and worth of a kitchen apron cut just to her size. She wants to learn my imperfect art. And I have to look at it anew – not through my mother’s eyes but my own.
I have to do what my father wasn’t willing to do to my mother - shake her out of her dark reverie, her imagination that didn’t allow her to see the truth. That cooking is work but it isn’t drudgery. That it is a tool, not a weapon. I have to remind myself, gruffly, if I must, that I actually do like my food, even if I don’t necessarily like to make it every single day. There are days when I’m tired, not interested, would rather be reading or soaking in the tub, wine tasting with my friends, but when I’ve had my fill of the world and all its delicacies, I would rather just eat something cooked in my own kitchen. It’s not gourmet and it’s not always fantastic. Yes, it’s work. But like all work, it is ultimately satisfying and God-glorifying, even when it falls far short of perfection. I have to remember, especially when it gets hard, that our family dinner is more than food – it is life lived together – a culmination of all our individual labors: my husband’s work away from home, my planning and shopping, the children’s cooperation in the store and assistance in carrying in the groceries and, finally, my cooking, in which my daughter sometimes joins. This is not romanticizing our family dinner. This is just looking at it from a point of view that is not borrowed and stitched together from the rags of feminism.
If I didn’t have a little daughter, I would remain heartless, I sometimes think. She reminds me, innocently, quite efficiently even, of what I wanted to be when I grew up. And I am surprised but ready with an answer when a friend asks me the same question.
“I wanted to be like my mother,” I say wistfully. Never having known the working mom side of my mother who quit her job when I was three, I loved the notion that I would be a stay at home mom when I grew up. I don’t know when it became a bad thing, when cooking for people who depended on you to nourish and love them became an insult, when it diminished your worth. I don’t know when I began believing my mother’s lies. “I wanted to be like my mother. Only happier with my life,” I say to her. And realized, then, that I am.