I have a curious memory from when I was very small. My brother Alan and I are sitting at the kitchen bar at our house and are staring at the bowls sitting in front of us. Inside the bowls is a curious green liquid that my mother tells us is leek soup. The leeks, grown in our backyard garden, were something not commonly grown in the foothills of North East Tennessee, at least not in the mid-60’s, but somehow my mother had found some seeds and grown them for the purpose of bringing just a little bit more of her French culture to us. The color of the soup was just odd enough that I was not quite sure that it was actually edible. I would have preferred a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but soup was what was on the menu. My mother urged us to eat, telling us how delicious leek soup was, demonstrating the deliciousness of the concoction by eating from her bowl placed on her side of the bar as she stood in our small kitchen.
My mother was originally from France and had come to the US with the company she had been working for. Within a year she had met my father and nine months later I was born. One of my brothers followed 15 months later. She threw herself into trying to be the best wife and mother she could for us. She also tried to educate us in French culture, even though we were firmly on American soil. She taught my brother and me French until my Dad complained that he couldn’t understand what his own children were saying. Another one of the ways she tried to instill French culture was through food. I don’t remember too many foods that she actually served us other then the leek soup and the Quiche Lorraine that she made almost every weekend, but according to my father, she often introduced things to the evening meal that were new and exotic, especially to my Dad, who was born and bred in Jacksonville, Florida.
He tells of the time that she served him mussels, and snails. To this day he is not quite certain where she found those French delicacies in a small southern town hours from the nearest ocean or edible snail habitat. Somehow she did so that she could introduce my dad to something she happened to be fond of. My dad, being willing to try anything once, ate what was served him, but never requested a repeat of shellfish cuisine. Shellfish and rabbit stew were about the only things that my father mentions that he didn’t like about her cooking. Once, while at work, my father noticed a group of secretaries staring at him. It was something that he had noticed off and on for several weeks. His ego and his curiosity getting the better of him, he asked the women why they kept staring at him during lunch.
“Oh we’re not staring at you.” one of them replied. “We were staring at your lunch and were wondering if we could tackle you so we could steal it.”
Smiling at my dad, she added, “Every day you bring the most wonderful looking lunches.” My dad, his ego slightly deflated as he realized that he was not the source of the secretaries’ admiration, explained that his wife made lunch for him every day, and thanked the women for the compliments to the cook.
My mother was also an organic cook, long before it became in vogue here in the U.S. My parents grew their own vegetables, and my dad made his own compost for fertilizing the vegetables. They got eggs and unpasteurized milk from a local farmer, from which my mother would make butter and a soft cheese from the cream and the whey she skimmed off the milk. She also made all our bread, nutty, brown and absolutely delicious. The only time I had store bought bread was when I found myself at someone else’s house. I didn’t really like the store bought bread. I found the flavor and texture far inferior then the sliced goodness my mother produced on a weekly basis.
I am not exactly sure why she went through all the trouble she did to prepare our food herself, or make most of her own clothes as well as mine and my two brothers, but she did. Maybe it was because of her own childhood, growing up in occupied France during World War II. She lived in a time of hardship and uncertainty during the occupation, made worse by the German soldiers keeping people from moving about freely as well as the Allied bombing of nearby factories and rail lines in hopes of keeping those facilities out of German hands. Her family, like most of the families in her town, often ate their suppers in bomb shelters while airplanes dropped munitions from several thousand feet above them. Even in the years following the end of the war, things must have been difficult while communities began to rebuild what had been lost because of the war. It is quite possible that skills learned by my mother ended up serving her well when she moved to the states and a completely different culture.
Being quite young, I didn’t understand the reasons why my mother did all the things that she did, and seemed to do so cheerfully. I just know that I adored her with every fiber of my little being. Which is why even now forty years after her death, I still grieve. My last memory of my mother was when I was six and she was only weeks away from dying. When she got sick, we kids were sent to my dad’s parents while my dad took care of my mother. I came home once before she passed. I remember walking into her bedroom and she was sitting propped up on pillows in the middle of my parent’s king sized bed. I barely recognized the beautiful woman I knew and loved with dancing green eyes and cropped brunette curls. Instead the woman in the bed had, hollowed out cheeks, an achingly thin body, and hair that hung limply around her face. To me it looked like she had aged 50 years overnight. When I hugged her, I was afraid to squeeze too tight for fear of breaking her. Even though I didn’t quite understand it at the time, I knew at that moment that my mother was very sick and near death.
We were sent back to my grandparents’ and given the news of her passing after the funeral. It was reasoned by the grown-ups in my life that we were all too young to really understand what was happening and that we would eventually forget. My youngest brother was just a toddler, so he has no memories. I am not sure of my other brother. It was for me a momentous event in my life. To this day I remember crying when I got the news sitting on a twin bed, beside my two brothers, and my father hugging us all in a group as he too wept. I don’t remember if I cried about her death again until decades later. I am sure that I did, but the long passage of time has thankfully blocked out much of that time in my life.
My father soon found a woman to come and live with us and act as housekeeper and nanny. She was known as Miss Mack. Miss Mack had permed steel gray hair, bifocals and ran the house like a well oiled machine. She put up with no shenanigans from us kids. Desperate for a motherly figure, I clung to Miss Mack, though I was secretly terrified of the woman. She kept us clothed and healthy, and well fed, but the memories of that time in my life are few indeed. I have small snapshot of memories, my hair being pulled into two pigtails and set on metal perm rods to sleep in so that I could wear teased out puff balls on my head to church; going to get my first set of glasses, and being given not the cute blue frames I wanted but the more practical, and frankly ugly cat eye ones; playing on an amazing swing that my dad had made of gunny sacks and a very long rope tied at one end to an oak branch a good 20 feet off the ground. The two memories of meals served by Miss Mack are not exactly pleasant. Even though I am sure she served perfectly delicious meals well suited to the palate of the average grade school-er, I remember only three dishes, loathing two, and wishing I had gotten to eat the third more often.
The woman had a fondness for organ meats. We knew that dinner was going to be Liver and Onions if we came in from playing outside to see the table set with the silver edged china dishes decorated with purple grapes, trailing leaves and vines surrounded by our sterling silverware, candles lit on the silver candelabra in its place in the middle of our small table. The side dishes were always things we liked, with the promise of dessert, usually in the form of a big tri-colored Baked Alaska. There was a mantra at our house when it came to food and picky eaters. “Eat everything on your plate. There are starving children in China who would love to eat what you are having right now.” That guilt loaded statement usually got me to eat most things served, except liver, even though I was destined to become the grand master of picky eaters. There was another rule.” You don’t get down from the table till you are excused.” I remember sitting at the table for hours, staring at the now cold liver staring back at me on the plate, onions draped in congealed lumps around the edges. Of course by the time I had choked down enough of that stuff to be excused, the promised dessert of Baked Alaska was no longer a part of the deal, and I’d be sent to bed. The only dish that was worse than liver, was the time that we were served cow’s tongue. I can still conjure the mental image of a slab of taste buds displayed on beautiful china. I don’t think I manged to eat but one bite of that bovine delicacy. All I could think about was that I was tasting something that once had the capacity to taste me.
Surely one of those Chinese children could have this. I thought quietly to myself. Can we arrange to send it to them? I didn’t dare express that thought out loud for fear I’d discover tongue sandwich in my lunchbox the next day.
Miss Mack was a part of our lives for two and a half years. I am sure she did the best she could with three small children and a father who all missed the woman who had been taken from us so cruelly, the results of a ruptured appendix and the fast acting infection that followed. Dealing with us on a compassionate emotional level, I suspect, was out of her skill set. I don’t remember any discussions about my mother after that talk that my dad had with us in the downstairs bedroom of my grandparent’s summer home when he told my brothers and I that our mother had died. To us it was a topic left silent, probably because no one knew exactly how to talk about it. Somewhere along the way, I withdrew somewhat emotionally becoming shy at school, and trying not to find myself in the midst of confrontation.
Eventually Dad met someone and they married. My step-mom had two children of her own, and a year after they married my dad and step-mom had another child. We moved from our little house with the back yard containing massive oaks, our sandbox and cow pasture just beyond the fence to a much larger house more suited to a family of eight people.
I was delighted to have a real mother again, but it still wasn’t the same. Mom, as I soon began to call her, was quite different from my mother or Miss Mack in personality, plus she had her hands quite full with all those mouths to feed. While Mom ran a tight ship as well, it wasn’t with nearly the sternness we had come to expect with Miss Mack. We were quickly enlisted to help with chores, according to our ages and abilities, and we girls, myself and my step-sister, often found ourselves helping with dinner.
Mealtime was always an event at our house. She cooked at least two meals a day for us, usually breakfast and dinner, the proportions fairly large. Her cooking style reflected her upbringing in Pittsburgh, PA, and most of what she prepared was excellent. Even though I have never really liked fried chicken, I always ate hers. Her roasts were melt in your mouth feasts, and her potato salads were usually the first completely consumed dish at church pot lucks. Her forte was in the common home cooked meals prepared in American homes all over the country, like meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans and German Chocolate cake served up in serving dishes for easy access while we sat around a large table with picnic benches for seats. Meals were usually lively affairs with everyone sharing their days, and my brothers playing a subtle game of “gross out”. The rules of that game were to continue to do something or say something that would prompt one of our parents to say “That’s enough”. Whomever that statement was directed at would win.
Mom cooked for the small army that we were and did it quite well. She also froze and canned fruits and vegetables for the winter months. I remembered helping to shuck corn, snap green beans and scald, bushels upon bushels of tomatoes, apples and peaches most of which would be completely consumed by late May of the following year. She kept shelves stocked with canned goods, and a large chest freezer filled to the brim with meats and what she opted not to can. Our grocery bills were certainly massive as to feed us as a typical dinner would involved at least two chickens, a quart of green beans, 10 pounds of potatoes, a gallon of tea and a monstrous tossed salad. Dessert of banana pudding would be served in a huge bowl, that would seem to serve 20, but was easily devoured by six kids and at least one neighborhood friend. My dad had to scrape the bottoms of the serving bowls to glean enough leftovers for the next day’s lunch.
Mom taught me how to run a house, knowing well that one day I’d have to do it myself. I do remember having disagreements with her on our differences in cleaning styles. My idea of cleaning my room was to throw everything into the drawers, and under the bed, to run the vacuum and fluff my pillows. Mom expected me to have neat drawers, nothing under the bed, and that hiding books under my pillows was not how to put books away. At the time I didn’t appreciate her attention to detail, but I respected her too much to not do as she asked.
We were just too different on several levels. We tried to connect but our pasts, our personalities, our approach to faith, the things we liked, the people we found important, our views on many things were simply not aligned. She tended to be more emotional and forceful, and I had years to go before I figured out how to properly express myself on issues I felt were important, especially emotional things.
When I decided to marry, my Mom fought me every step of the way. She really didn’t like my fiance, and was not afraid to express it. I simply shut down emotionally and insisted on going through with the wedding. Finally my dad stepped in and told me to just let my Mom have her way, at least with the wedding. I almost eloped because that, but like my father, I didn’t like making waves so I gave in, and we had my wedding her way.
She was right about my now ex-husband in her assessment of him. She felt he lacked stability, emotionally and financially, I thought he had great potential and beautiful eyes. Mom may have been harsh in how she shared her takes on people but her intuitiveness could be quite sound. She was right about him. I wish that we had been able to have the discussion I know she was trying to have with me, but it was impossible. Being able to communicate better could have likely saved us both a lot of grief, and myself a couple of decades of living in a horrible marriage.
All three women are gone now, and I miss them each, my mother and my step-mom most of all. To all three I am grateful for what they taught me, or tried to instill as important in my life. They did well, yet I am still in many ways nothing like them. I am only an average cook, although I make a quite tasty Quiche Lorraine. I have a black thumb, can only sew on buttons, and buy my vegetables already canned. You will never see me cook anything that I wouldn’t eat myself, so my children never had to suffer through “liver night”. I run a loose ship when it comes to the state of my house, clean but cluttered, and it bothers me not one bit. There is one thing that I vowed to do, however, something that I somehow decided was vital because of those important women; to be available for my children, physically and emotionally, no matter what.
It has taken until just the past few years for me to find my voice, and I learn how to use it. I’ve learned to stand up for myself and what I felt was right. I’ve learned to discover why I felt the way I did about things. I’ve learned that emotional hurts are best manged when expressed, examined, evaluated, and that it is perfectly ok to take one’s time figuring that out. I’ve learned that forgiveness is a gift, something to be given liberally. I’ve learned that forgiving myself of the mistakes I’ve made in life is the best gift I could ever give myself. I’ve tried to teach my children those lessons. I want them to be able to talk with me about anything, to share our lives, to laugh and cry and grow up together. To me it is so very important. Although my childhood was hardly bad, by many standards, it was emotionally lonely. I spent a marriage with large stretches of emotional loneliness as well, especially as it came to an end. I do not want that for my children, for them to spend their lives feeling that they have no one to turn do. I have tried very hard to prevent that. I’ve fallen short many times in that goal, but I’ve inherently known that I must keep trying, for the sake of my children, for their children; for the sake of myself.
I wrote this essay as part of an assignment for a creative non-fiction class I wrote few years ago. I’ve since remarried. I am pretty sure my step mom would approve of my current husband.