John Green says that creativity is about making gifts for people, and this is a gift for my mother. A tribute to all the millions of tiny, loving actions she gave us that we never thanked her enough for and that I’ll never be able to repay.
HWY Magazine is no longer around, but you can find the piece reposted below. Thanks for reading.
How My Mother Fed Me
Published in HWY Magazine, October 2014
I’m seven. I’m flipping through a book with my younger sister as my mom cleans up lunch. It’s a book with a different activity for each letter of the alphabet – we pass glitter, paper dolls, magic card tricks, and water balloon games. We land on J, jelly doughnuts. There are a handful of different options: eat a whole powdered doughnut without licking your lips, feed a friend one while both of you are blindfolded. We’re thrilled. She must have left, it can’t have been magic (in my memory, it’s magic), but then we’re in the freshly mown backyard, a box of raspberry jelly doughnuts between us, bright bandannas tied over our eyes, our smiles big and sticky. With five dollars, she has taught me what pure joy and a sense of possibility feel like.
I’m eighteen and idealistic. I read one book and announce that I’m a vegetarian forevermore. It’s only later, when I’m away at university, that I realize being a vegetarian could actually be a challenge. At home I got handmade five cheese cannelloni, delicious salads, black bean burgers formed by hand and slipped onto the grill alongside turkey burgers, all meatless versions of all my favourite meals delivered to me. How could I have known, when in our house my vegetarianism was a fun excuse to experiment with deep-frying tempura vegetables, taste testing different brands of tofu sour cream, deciding whether I preferred tempeh or seitan. Without knowing it was happening, I learned so much about unspoken support, creativity and the fun that can be found in a challenge.
I’m sixteen and late for work, which of course is my own fault. I sit on a stool at our kitchen island with its cool, forest green tiles and watch my mother make me pad Thai in ten minutes flat. It’s quiet except for the hiss of tofu and eggs frying in the pan, the drip of the noodles steamy and draining in the sink, the hollow stirring sound of her big wooden spoon. She’s quick and smooth and practiced in her movements. Then she’s finished, sliding it all into a Tupperware container for me, and we’re out the door, leaving piles of crushed peanuts and chopped cilantro and a cutting board soaked with lime juice in our wake. It’s a lesson in efficiency and choice: the decision to make instead of buy fast food to feed your family.
I’m eight, or ten, or seventeen or any of the years before and between, bleary eyed and inevitably cranky before school. I’m at the kitchen table with my younger sisters, all of us in various states of readiness. On these mornings we eat malt toast rounds, two with butter and two with margarine. I always eat the ones with butter last because of course, they’re better. Occasionally we wake up to homemade pancakes or fresh Pillsbury cinnamon buns with huge bowls of fruit salad. Sometimes we eat eggs and toast, my mother standing at the stove (she’s always standing in the mornings, reading her newspaper and eating her granola) like the world’s best short order cook because she always remembers what you want. She knows how we like our eggs cooked, our toast cut (soldiers, on the diagonal, in half), and whether or not we like ketchup. Once, at lunch, my father tries to step into this role and I realize just how absolutely I’ve taken for granted that other people should know my personal condiment preferences. On birthday mornings, we have 3 layer cakes, baked in secret and covered with chocolate frosting, candy and cute cake toppers. By the time I leave for university, I have had a home-cooked breakfast nearly every school morning for my entire life. I will be proud if I can ever embody a fraction of the care, patience and true love required for such a feat.
I’m twenty-two, and about to leave for a three month solo backpacking trip through Europe. It’s summer, and my mother, self-employed, takes the day off to be jittery and excited and terrified with me. We go hiking together and afterwards she offers to take me out for lunch. For once, I don’t want to, so we end up at home, quietly slicing up yellow peppers, mango, and avocado on our big wood cutting board. We make a dipping sauce with soy and citrus and green onion for the little packages we form with delicate rice papers. The freshness doesn’t soothe the butterflies in our bellies but at least it doesn’t make them worse. Less than a year later, I’m 23 and about to leave for a year teaching in Korea. We make spring rolls again, turning it into a ritual for the days that we can’t make it through a single song without getting emotional and when our appetites are uncharacteristically non-existent. Unsaid is the understanding that the things that are very hard can only be weathered, something more easily done with someone you love by your side.
For a long time, I thought that all kids got from-scratch Belgian waffles, blueberry and raspberry preserves and whipped cream for special Sundays. I thought it was normal to get still-warm croissants on Saturday mornings and have bread baking in the machine on a random Wednesday after school. If you’d asked me then, I would have complained about the little plastic Ziploc bags of potato chips and the rareness of miniature chocolate bars in my school lunches. I would have been indifferent about my thermoses full of homemade chili or stew, which had been filled first with boiling water in the morning so that my food would stay hotter for longer. I would have told you I looked forward to lunch money days when I could buy greasy pizza or dry popcorn chicken or giant sour keys. Now of course, as I learn to feed myself and others, I’d give anything for one of those hundreds of lunches carefully packed by my mother. Now, I miss the quiet, small celebrations we had in our household, like breakfast for dinner on Shrove Tuesday, latkes on Hanukkah despite our lack of religion, apple crisp on a weeknight as soon as it was the season, stretching out pizza dough with flour-covered hands, or taco night with heaping bowls of toppings on the lazy Susan and tortillas my mom always insisted on warming up.
Once I shared some of these memories with a friend. After a pause, she told me that I’d described the childhood she desperately wished she’d had, and that momentarily, I’d made her feel like she wanted to give that childhood to someone else. I know what she meant, because that’s all I want too. With every elaborate birthday cake I make, every heavy-handed glass of wine I pour, every pasta sauce I add extra garlic to, I want to embody the warmth and love of my mother had every time she hugged me or fed me. I want to do the work it takes to make everyday moments magical, and to breathe generosity and care into the food and the moments I share with the people that I love. I know I may never live up to my own childhood, but my mother gave me inspiration enough to last a lifetime.