As part of the memoir writing workshop assignment for the Big Read 2012, we have been asked to write about our moms and tying our experiences with our mothers to a recipe. Not one recipe will do with my mom since she is a multifaceted woman who has represented different flavors to my life.
And I am not writing about the hot dog today for that is too ordinary and does not represent the creativity and resourcefulness of my dear mom.
Growing up I found my mom in the kitchen cooking the nightly meals faithfully from 4:30 on after she took a brief nap from which she rested from her long day of making sure the house was kept nice and clean, plants watered and clothes washed. And the cupboards and refrigerator and freezer and pantry stocked with enough for the coming week.
My mom loves to find bargains and growing up, I always saw her carefully cutting out the coupons and sorting them in her envelopes: each one with a different category. One for frozen foods, one for dairy, one for produce, one for canned goods and so forth. And we heard about these bargains when Dad, Mom and I would eat our evening meals sometimes in the dining room.
This came from her growing up as a babe and a child when our country was faced with the Great Depression and World War II. When my mom grew up at home, her dad and mom would discuss the progress of our nation during World War II and kept charts on how the allies and axis powers were moving in the world. And she listened with the family the fireside chats with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
For she probably heard many stories growing up during that time of how her mom and dad carefully saved and made it through this life. Of how her mom's relatives came from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. And being first generation Americans meant a lot to my grandmother and grandfather.
Of being able to build on their lives from having started with virtually nothing.
For when I came along to this earth, my mom was already prepared for handling crises in life for she had practice handling them while growing up at home. When her mom went to the hospital to give birth, she thought one child was going to be brought home. Yet, when she walked through the door, two kids emerged onto the scene. Mom's mom gave birth to two-not one. They were my Uncle Dick and my Uncle Bill. My mom and her sister, Jean, took care of them and helped to raise them. Providing her with good guidance and insight later on how to raise her two children later on.
Prior to my arrival, my mom was planning on studying for a masters in library science for she always loved books. Growing up, she used to go with her mom and dad to the public library and browse the stacks and sit by them and read her books. And she brought home a full sack of about 10 books of which she completely read them when she returned them to the library the following week.
This was a definite reason-a voracious appetite for the written word- for her volunteering at my junior high and high school libraries. It was always comforting to see my mom at the front desk as she helped to check out the student's books or provide some advice on what a good book to read would be.
And even now in her retirement community, she has served on the library board and helping check out and return books to the shelves and even weed out the unread books and remove the cards from the card catalog.
And when I arrived a little over 49 years ago, the ordinary path that a child takes was not present. A few weeds were present and had to be cleared away. My mom and dad served as detectives with the counselors and doctors that they gathered around them: to figure out how to bring me to full life. To take the broken synapses in my mind and find a way to form them a new. To build the correct bridges from which thoughts could cling and grow upon. Once that foundation was formed after many intense hours on the floor helping me to crawl and stand up and walk. Of forming those first guttural sounds, to those first syllables, to the first words, to the first sentences and then the first paragraphs and off I went. And my dad built a closet of shelves in our family room in which I stored the toy giraffe that I got around with as I held onto it and walked behind it. And how I loved playing with the wooden puzzles with 6 pieces as I moved the shapes around to fit the carved out spaces on the block of wood.
And my mom often served as a harbor which calmed my days from being out on the ocean of the world with some rather tall waves splashing against me. It was good to just sit in a chair and tell her my tales of what I went through so that I could be calm and study and be better prepared when I went out to the ocean of this life. As I listened to her at her brown chair underneath the thriving green plant over it. My own personal fireside chats of my own. At a time when my personal nation was forming in the middle of a very big storm of life!!!
And her resourcefulness carried forth as I was preparing to graduate, she learned of an excellent condominium complex, Cartright Towers, that was on the bus line. And when an apartment in this building opened up, mom and dad arranged for me to have it and got it ready for me so when I graduated from college, I would have a place of my own. And be a stable place where I could grow and not worry about many of the things other kids have to worry about.
In a way what I have described of my mom's growing up and maturing into an outstanding woman for our world and my maturing as a strong adult son, it has a lot to do with our recipe box. This box is a plain tan wooden box which had a hinge. In the box, it was divided into several categories: meat dishes, fish dishes, pasta dishes, pastries, fruit mixes, and etc. On each of the recipe cards, the recipe was neatly printed by my mom and then after we tried it for the first time, we rated them. We had a star system which ran from 5 star to 7 star. If the recipe did not pass muster the first time, it got a 5 star and probably was not served again. Maybe once to see if it could have been improved. Then there was the 5 plus star which meant it was satisfactory. Then we had the 6 star which meant above average, a 6 plus meant it was excellent and the 7 star meant it was outstanding and had to be served often in our family. Some of these recipes came from the New York Times, The Garden City Register, from the Better Homes and Garden Cookbook, or some magazines that she read at home.
My mom wrote with fine felt tip colored pens and when looking through the cards in the box, I could see the marks on the cards=from the times that some of the colors may have run from the flicking of some inadvertant water on the cards.
Some of our favorite recipes growing up were the spaghetti and meatballs, the liver and onions, the chicken stir fry recipes , the spaghetti pie and ultimately the meat loaf recipe which many friends and family have tried to duplicate-but ultimately failed to do so.
This meat loaf recipe has twelve simple ingredients in it. It has a bread crumb mixture with the bread crumbs and milk. And there is the mixture of meat and eggs and spices and onions that get mixed together in the colored mixing bowl. And then there is that special sauce of the catsup, brown sugar, nutmeg and mustard which sits upon the top of the meatloaf-crowning it with glory. As I said, 12 simple ingredients and 4 easy steps. Many times, conversations between my Uncles and Aunts or my grandmother or even my brother would say, "we have tried your recipe, and it just did not come out the way that we remembered having it when you served it." My mom would often say, "did you let it sit for those extra 15 minutes before carving into it. Did you let the juices on top settle down and sizzle less? Maybe that is why." But my hidden thought is that it is my mother's love that knows how to make that special dish=that sizzled and hardened up in that hour of heat in the oven and came out golden brown and perfectly packed. And that special yellow meat loaf pan with the glass lid. Many secret ingredients not in that original list of 12. It is that 13th ingredient=a mother's love-that makes a dish like that so special. Something one can not find on a recipe card no matter how hard one can try. But which was worn as it was made. As each ingredient was placed into that pan, pot, mixing bowl or cutting board. And stirred into a delicious loaf. Something talked about to this day. As long as you let it sit. That real thirteenth ingredient is patience. Of letting life settle down before digging into it further.
And then it was dished with the peas and the boiled or baked potatoes and Dad and I would take our plates into the dining room to eat and my mom would follow us in. And often after having a brief chase with a pea that did not make it into the pan and escaped. Pea finder to the rescue.
Now I have to get out my cutting board, bowls and meat loaf pan and do the very same thing. And to remember to let it sit for the extra 15 minutes. And not cringe when the meat goes between my finger tips as I go forth and make my first meat loaf. For I crave a good sizzling piece of meat loaf-having enjoyed it for almost 2 decades growing up.
And that box with its neat divisions and its cards well worn with care. And the memories each of these dishes brings. Of the flavors that come to mind. Of the great aromas that filled the house and the kitchen.
Thanks Mom for your tender loving care- with each kneed of the dough or meat. With each kneed of time on your knees or on the phone or a counselor or doctor's office-making sure that I had the best of resources that only the best librarian could find. And you are always there still doing the same.
And even now, when I go home to visit, I don't have the privilege of that home cooked meal since my mom is in a retirement community and one of the meals is provided for. But I still enjoy the tuna salad or egg salad sandwich that can be whipped up in the kitchen or a can of pink monkey soup served for lunch. But many times when I was starting out in the world of work and periodically mom and dad came home to check on how I was doing, I would find my cupboard filled up and a meal stirring on the kitchen stove when I walked through the door: which I found comforting after I came home from a long day at work. I miss those times but now that I am older, I still reflect back and am glad that I have had them and they are part of my life still. For I am thankful for them!!!
And I even have had the opportunity to be that role model to the Kennedy Center where I assisted in the evening meal and even sat at their dining room table and shared special moments in our lives. Modeling exactly what my mom taught me throughout my life as well.
For those times of reflection, protection and provision.