A mother’s story: The moon to his sun

Todd Cross/The Washington Post - Marjorie Williams

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The last thing my mother really hungered for was a lump of cottage cheese with mayonnaise on top.

“Mayonnaise?” my oldest sister cried.

Editor's note: Longtime reporter and columnist Marjorie Williams was raised to disdain Mother's Day as a conspiracy by florists, though she later overcame this high-minded prejudice. Williams wrote this profile of her brilliant, complex mother after Beverly Williams's death and long before her own death of cancer in 2005 at age 47. (Excerpted from The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate)

Mother and daughters at the author's 1990 wedding. From left, Annie Williams, Beverly Williams, Marjorie Williams and Wistar Rawls.

“You mean, on top?” I asked. “Really?”

We were entitled to our shock. My mother’s passion for good food was the clearest thing about her, the one brilliant shade in a palette that disguised most of its colors by blending them to their duskiest forms. She was a truly gifted, self-trained cook, and when she ate, she did it slowly, seriously, like an archaeologist plucking bones from a fossil bed, teasing out only the choicest specimens. I see her now in her sunny dining room, one ankle hitched over the opposite knee, working the Acrostic in the Sunday New York Times while eating lunch in her deliberate, cat-like way. She could make a whole hour’s work of a single sandwich of grilled Gruyere.

She loved sharp tastes, savory tidbits: olives and sardines, cornichons and blue cheeses and redolent pâtés. At the end of her life, when her doctors had made her give up almost everything she loved-- caffeine and alcohol and fats and salt and sugar of any kind -- salt was perhaps the loss she minded most. (That’s putting alcohol aside for the moment; giving up liquor was what she must have minded most, of course, but by then her cirrhosis was so advanced that drinking any at all had immediately gruesome consequences.) All she had left, at the end, were her cigarettes, and by then it was almost a pleasure to bring her the ceremonial ashtray, the Bic, the pack of Carltons she had bought by the carton as far back as my memory goes. The hospice nurses looked gently shocked. Had they ever seen a family so avidly pressing carcinogens upon a dying parent? Their kind faces said not.

But our inability to comfort -- ourselves, each other -- through food was excruciating. And hearing her ask for cottage cheese with mayo was the rough equivalent of learning that Vladimir Horowitz’s deathbed wish was to listen to Elton John. It was the real thing, one more undeniable sign that my mother meant to die.

I see Beverly always in her kitchen, moving from sink to refrigerator to stove in her loose, comfy, dark-colored cottons. She moved more and more slowly as the years went by, but always with a dancer’s lightness. Especially in her last years, when she wore mostly sneakers, my mother walked with soundless grace.

In cooking, she almost never took shortcuts. She insisted on buying a restaurant-quality Viking gas stove way back in 1963, before it was a standard badge of Yuppie cultivation. She would happily use three pans in a recipe for which I might use one if three would give her even an ounce of effect -- braising a few tablespoons of minutely diced celery, for example, to liven up the peas. She made an art of such tedious jobs as chopping scallions. First, after washing them and trimming the ends, she would take her smallest paring knife and score up from the root end, then she would turn the scallion and bisect the first cut with another, again working the knife almost to the trimmed green tips. Only then would she lay the scallion atop her weathered cutting board and chop it briskly, cuk, cuk, cuk, with her big Sabatier chopping knife. The scallion would fall neatly into tiny quarter-slices thin as postage stamps.

She put masses of butter in everything -- real butter, from a covered white dish that lived perpetually on the counter, so the butter inside would always be pleasingly soft. Butter and wine and onions, the holy trinity of French cuisine. She taught herself to cook really well around the time that Mastering the Art of French Cooking first appeared, and French cooking was always the basic template for her efforts, the real magic of her kitchen: the long, slow simmers of concoctions that smelled of madeira and beef broth, the huge cuts of top-quality meat, the loving administration of artery-clogging creams and cheeses.

When she first learned to cook she was the mother of three small children born in a span of four years. We lived way out in the country then, in a fieldstone house in Bucks County, Pa., from which my father commuted to New York and to which he returned late in the evening. I picture her passing long, weary afternoons at the stove, as she worked her way through the techniques that the cookbook’s authors, Child and Bertholle and Beck, laid out for what they quaintly called “the servantless American cook.” As an adult I asked her several times what she had felt, living in the country with three little girls and few near neighbors at a time when motherhood involved the laborious boiling of formula and the washing and line-drying of cloth diapers. “I do remember,” she said, “the first time I managed to get you all out of the house and into the car.” She said this with a faraway look in her eyes, but in a weighted voice, as if she had just told a complicated story full of passion and incident. Only after I became a mother myself could I picture her exhaustion, and the scramble of diapers and snowsuits and runny noses and tiny mittens that any such expedition would involve.

In moving to the country and becoming a wife and mother, she had given up a job she loved, in a lab at the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York. I’ve always imagined that the contained intrigue of cooking spoke to the chemistry major in her: For a student, for a good girl, science and cooking share the reassuring quality of exploring the unknown within a preordained scheme. There was a scientific rigor to the way she excised every last bit of offending fat from a cut of meat, to the way she chopped vegetables: Her broccoli had the petite uniformity of Legos.

There was a time, two and three years after my birth -- I am the youngest -- when she turned her hand to writing about food. My father was a book editor, so there were contacts in the business; writing professionally was a plausible dream. Among her files, after her death, I found the slim records of this abortive ambition: a slick, garishly colored clip from Ladies Home Journal, titled “Ham: The Most Versatile Actor in the Kitchen,” for which she was paid the then-handsome sum of $500. Another piece, never sold, called “Soup is the Answer.” (”For anyone who cooks, be she the bride of a week or the most practiced hostess in the land, soup is the answer to all problems.”) Notes toward a third, “My Ten Favorite Expensive, Calorific, Time-Consuming, Difficult, Delicious Spectacular Utter Dreamy Desserts for Feckless and Festive Occasions.”

The effusiveness of these writings was not typical of her; it was only canny marketing. “The copy,” my mother wrote in a note to the literary agent who was helping her place her pieces, “is patterned as closely as I could manage on the Journal’s kind of yummyese.”

In another note to the agent, she wrote, “I’m trying to work out an arrangement which will give me one whole free day a week (!!!) at the typewriter, but before I set out to hire all that baby-sitting I really would like some professional counsel from you.” What counsel was forthcoming the file doesn’t say, and I don’t know if she ever asserted her claim to that whole free day a week.

There are a few mildly encouraging letters from others in the file -- one is a carbon copy of a note that one of my father’s colleagues at Little, Brown wrote to James Beard, asking his advice on the possibility that my mother might write a cookbook about “the feeding of children”; another is a note from Alfred Knopf Jr. of Atheneum Publishers, urging her to give him first crack at any cookbook she might write. (”The idea that you might have to compete with other publishers for this leaves me gasping with helpless mirth,” she replied, with the graceful humility that governed all these efforts.)

At some point (I can’t find a date on the manuscript, or any suggestion that she tried to sell it), she turned her hand to an account of her own self-education in food. “It was not until I gave up my job and began having babies that I really began to enjoy cooking consciously -- anything to get away from pablum and strained vegetables,” she wrote, with an asperity that was resolutely expunged from her spoken statements on motherhood.

My mother’s papers revealed a dry wit and the rhythms of a born writer. But our family narrative assigned all the verbal genius to my father, and, over the years, my mother was ever less able to show this plumage. At the end of 1962 all the correspondence simply stops. Soon after that, she began working as a substitute science teacher at a private day school in Princeton. And, by 1963, when we moved to Princeton, she was a full-time administrator at the school. Ultimately she did all the class scheduling there and stayed until her retirement in 1993, becoming one of those quietly powerful characters who stealthily run all the world’s social microcosms. I believe she liked the work a lot, and I have no way of knowing whether she regretted the abandonment of her brief effort to write about her passion. But I find myself treasuring these few letters and articles, as evidence of a time when her love for food seemed to be aligned -- or do I mean allied? -- with her best, most cheerful energies.

I can’t put my finger on when she changed. In one compartment of my mind I see a mother of graceful shape and flashing eyes, who wore her long hair in a sleek bun, held with big tortoiseshell pins. As girls, my sisters and I watched her dress for an evening out: I see a stiff red silk, heavily embroidered in gold thread; a little black dress with a plunging neckline; a flowing, cobalt caftan covered in bright flowers.

But in the next, much larger compartment is the mother I knew for most of my life, who dressed to conceal. This was the mother we teased because she never wanted to go swimming, until finally, one day, she told me that she just couldn’t stand to be seen in a bathing suit. I associate the change in her with one of those nights out, when she went to New York to meet my father, and then appeared at breakfast the next day with her hair chopped bluntly to her chin. But that’s just a trick of memory: It was a much slower process, cresting when my sisters and I were adolescents.

Looking back, it is as if her camouflage deepened in step with the flowering of her culinary skills. Her table became famous among her friends for its loving excellence. My parents threw frequent dinner parties, at which bittersweet chocolate mousse was served for dessert in old china demitasses, with spares made in the chipped cups for me and my sisters to eat upstairs, using tiny silver spoons. Once James Beard came to dinner, massive and pleasant; my mother made a crown roast of lamb, and always remarked on the way that none of the guests dared utter a satisfied word about the food, so cowed were they by the master’s presence. By the time I was old enough to understand something of adult life, I knew that my parents were an awesome tag team: My father’s publishing career was in its ascendance, and the guests who came to eat my mother’s food were sometimes famous. I have some fine first editions with inscriptions from their authors praising my mother’s food or thanking my parents for a pleasant evening. My parents’ house drew the town’s writers, and the writers who came to Princeton as temporary faculty members learned that it was a haven, where they could eat the best food in town.

Once my parents planned a spectacular dinner for Carlos Fuentes -- how they snagged him I don’t know; they hardly knew him -- and invited a tableful of people who were more ornaments than friends. Afterward, one guest -- the wife of a famous Cold Warrior -- wrote my mother a gushingly patronizing note, all about what a wonderful cook she was, and what a terrific outlet this must be for her creative energies.

My mother bore such condescension well; she was used to being addressed as my father’s supporting cast. She hardly seemed to sit down at these parties, or at big family meals, and always occupied the chair nearest the kitchen so she could dart back and forth. Her province was the kitchen, and my father’s was the living room; thinking back over my childhood, I almost reflexively place myself in the short passage between these two rooms, by the back stairs -- the one spot from which you could see into both rooms and both lives. The conversation in the living room was, to a teenager and young adult, literally fascinating -- the fun these grownups seemed to have, their joy in their own cleverness, the easy eminence of some of the guests, the satisfaction of everyone who was included in the circle of my father’s regard. I listened hungrily for evidence of what adult life might be, and how it could be managed along lines less self-denying than the example my mother was setting in the next room.

I think my mother loved the brightness that burned around my father, but she loved it silently, and at a remove, because there was always something in the other room that had to be stirred or turned or browned or basted. When things in the kitchen were briefly under control, she would steal quietly into the living room, ashtray and cigarettes in hand, and curl with her dancer’s fluidity into a chair; from there she would take in the scene, seldom interjecting herself, until she finished one cigarette and the timer in her head told her that the potatoes were done or the flame should be turned down, and she would steal quietly out again.

The cooking my mother did for family was almost as effortful as what she turned out for company. Somehow she struggled home from her job every evening and managed all the shopping and turned out a real meal every night of our lives. There was a sacramental quality to the care she took. A few days after my son was born, by a harrowing emergency C-section, she took the train to Washington. She wasn’t one to gush over a grandchild, and she didn’t have a lot of motherly advice to offer, but she stood in my kitchen for three days and raised a rich miasma of smells that wafted up to my bed and surrounded me in a downy blanket of home -- her home, the primordial, childhood home. I remember every meal she made for me in those three days, down to the chef’s salad we ate in the den just before my husband drove her to her train. Before she left she peeled me an orange, undressing it in a single careful spiral, picking off all the little white veins and then fanning the slices prettily on a plate.

With adulthood, I had found that food remained one of the few clear channels between me and my mother. She sent me recipes and gave me cookbooks and china and fine Le Creuset pots and Calphalon pans for Christmas; I called her in the middle of dinner parties, to ask why my Yorkshire pudding looked so peculiar. What are you eating? I would ask her, if we happened to talk during dinner. Or, I made that chicken from Giuliani Bugialli the other day, remember that? Yes, she’d say, but I hope you took the skin off; he doesn’t tell you to, but it’s much better that way.

This talk was never an unmixed pleasure. It’s a truism that mothers express their love through the food they put on the table. Yet my mother seemed not so much to express her love, or sublimate it, through food, as almost to overcome it. For she was not an effusive woman or even, in our later years together, a warm one. Cooking, which others praised as her glory, seemed to me her bunker. Sometime during my adolescence, the mother I loved had vanished into the faultless form of giving that ruled her orderly kitchen. You could eat at her table every night and never once taste the thing you were really hungry for.

I know I remember a warmth emanating from her in my earliest childhood: how much I loved to lean into her, hugging the stalk of her thighs. I have tiny patches of memory about moments when we were alone together -- that priceless state that to a youngest child seems rarer than anything else on earth. One cold morning my mother showed me how she could make brilliant red spiders dance above the logs in the fireplace by strumming the poker along the glowing sides of the wood; another day she held up a small blob of mercury from a broken thermometer, inviting me to wonder. As I write these memories I am struck that they draw her as mistress of the elemental.

But as we grew along, and the elements she commanded seemed so determinedly rooted in her kitchen, I learned to think of her mastery as an ordinary one, almost perversely self-limiting. While she loved good food, she seemed much less interested in consuming it than in sending it forth; her own pleasure in eating was a private, almost illicit, affair. There was never anything avid in her consumption of other people’s cooking.

And that, finally, is why I am fascinated by the tableau of my mother at the stove. It seems to hold the mystery of her. It certainly felt like love, a lot of the time, to be on the receiving end of all that effort; any time I doubt it, I remember the sacrament of the postpartum orange and feel embraced by the conviction that she loved me. I am bereft that I will never again sit down to a plate filled with her tender, melting gifts. Yet at the bottom of me, where the crucial certainties live, I don’t really believe that my mother’s lavish, exacting, whole-hearted cooking had much to do with generosity. Could anyone so self-abnegating feel truly generous, for decades at a time? I shrank, and still shrink, from thinking so.

Because here is the rest of the story: My father eventually got tired of living in a marriage divided by that passage past the back stairs. He left my mother for a woman the same age as my oldest sister; a very good woman, as luck had it, who could slap a roast or a turkey into the oven as well as any other middling cook. He had his own hungers, of course, and it’s possible that no one could have answered them completely. I think my mother had overlooked for years his enormous need to seek the love of women elsewhere; sometimes it was sexual, and sometimes it was not, but it was always omnivorous. My father’s mother had killed herself when he -- the youngest, and gentlest, of her three sons -- was 11 years old. It may be too simplistic to draw a straight line between that event and his unassuagable appetite for love and approval, but when you hear hoofbeats, why think zebras?

I think what I watched, over all those years, was my mother’s decision to look away: to ignore and overrule her most immediate passions, the bitter stew of jealousy she has to have tasted all the time; has to have, I insist to myself even now, since I can know this only by the work of my intellect, never by what I witnessed in her outward behavior. She schooled us all to laugh at the time he spent an entire party under his host’s piano, locked in flirtation with a woman he admired. She welcomed, as a friend of the family, a woman with whom he had an affair of many years’ duration. She scolded curiosity into silence. I think she rose above and rose above until she had reached a place where she was quite cut off -- from him and also from almost everyone else, including her daughters.

It was only in secret that she was queen of her own domain. It was the land of late at night, when I would hear her downstairs, moving quietly around her kitchen, straightening a thing or two in the living room, then back to the kitchen. Clink, went her ashtray on the counter, as she stood at the sink to start the dishwasher. Chrhissshh, went her Bic as she lit another Carlton. She sipped from her glass of cranberry juice and soda, which might or might not also contain an illicit jolt of vodka. It was the world of the kitchen, where she made such bounty that you never thought to wonder at the fact that it required her constant removal to a part of the house where she was alone.

My mother had been working at her death for years. She had in her bedroom all the Hemlock Society books that are available; she joked about how if she ever got sent to a nursing home, her best friend was going to come and put a pillow over her face. Once I sought to probe a little past her jokes and brisk comments, and she gave me a look that I only saw about half a dozen times in my life with her: unvarnished by good manners. “Don’t you know?” she asked. “Whenever there’s no one your age around, that’s all people my age talk about.”

And that was before she was really sick. Once her cirrhosis was advanced, she often raised the subject of her estate and continued to drop in allusions to her coming death: She’d leased a car instead of buying one, she told us more than three years before she died, because it might be cheaper from an estate-planning point of view. Once, when we came home for a holiday, my sister opened a cabinet to get a glass and saw, against the back wall, a tiny Post-it note: My mother had saved the box these glasses came in, she wrote, in the basement jam closet. That way it would be easy to pack them up and move them.

One January, her doctor told her that she was unlikely to live for more than another year or two. And once she was given that verdict, she more or less laid down and died. I think now that she’d been maintaining her life by the greatest silent effort, and that it was a relief to her to surrender it. My sisters and I got her hospice care at home, and there was a relative minimum of physical indignity. Once she needed round-the-clock care, she pretty much lost her hold on reality, with only brief windows of lucidity; from the time a visiting nurse deployed her first adult diaper, it was less than three weeks to the end.

One of my sisters lived nearby, and the other sister and I spent most of those last weeks in Princeton. Once again, we three were the daughters of the house, greeting visitors and answering the phone and taking charge. Amid the sadness and confusion of my mother’s dying, it was a weirdly pleasant experience -- to spend so much time with my sisters, in my mother’s well-ordered universe, away from the demands of our own homes and children. Deluged by kind friends with roasted chickens and caterers’ trays, we even had the illusion of reexperiencing the miraculous plenty of my mother’s larder.

But the mystery of Mummy’s life hung over us constantly. Something about the situation -- our bafflement about what we might do for her; the strange normality of the routine that surrounded her desperate condition -- mirrored our lifetimes of trying and failing to meet a need in her that was always obscure.

There she was, in the hospital bed that had been set up in the corner of her bedroom, comatose some of the time and the rest of the time small and frail, with an avian air of confusion. In those times when she was conscious, she had odd, urgent appetites: for things like cottage cheese slathered in mayonnaise. When she was past talking, but still conscious, she would simply open her mouth in a silent demand for drink; and one of us would stand over her with a medicine dropper, dripping milk or ginger ale or water into that gummy, dank-smelling maw. We would drip, she would swallow, drip, swallow, drip, swallow, and still her mouth would yawn open again, almost regal in demand.

That she was faintly demanding in her death we accepted, or tried to; won’t we all, shouldn’t we all be? So we asked ourselves and each other. We read Howards End, her favorite book, to her, and Yeats, her favorite poet; we got her morphine when she was in pain, and held her hand and stroked her brow. I’m glad to know that I did well by my mother. But beneath my actions, I found in myself an undercurrent of outrage. For my mother remained as self-contained, as unexpressive, as always. It seems impossible to me that when I die my last thoughts will not be of my son and daughter, my last urgent will to express what joy they have given me and what joy I wish for them. She had none of these words for us. When my mother briefly came out of what the hospice nurse had confidently predicted was her final coma, she had a strangely girlish, radiant smile. But this she directed chiefly at my middle sister’s boyfriend, a man who had come on the scene quite recently. That same afternoon, my mother’s best friend descended from a visit to the bedroom to tell the three of us, “Your mother just told me, ‘I love you.’” And the three of us cried, “She did? She did? Really?” My eldest sister asked, “Did she just say it, or did you say ‘I love you’ to her first, or ask her if she loved you or something?” Later we laughed off our rivalrous reaction, but our first response was the true one.

It is not, I should make it clear, that my mother was friendless. She had a troupe of women friends, who tended her perfectly in her death, tiptoeing in at all hours to bring her a trio of daffodils in a little jar, or a sheaf of pussy willows. They stood by her bed and stroked her hair and clucked over the flower arrangements that my sisters and I had failed to clear away as they withered. They were wonderful. But I couldn’t help feeling that everyone who crossed the threshold, everyone but my sisters and I, romanticized the woman who thrashed in the mechanical bed. So kind. So generous. Always so ready to give beauty and bounty to everyone who came to her door.

That woman was real, but that woman also drank herself to death at the age of 70. And all my life I have wondered: If that is the definition of being a loving person, how am I to live? I never knew which would be worse: to be right or wrong in my hunch that her life was an unhappy one. I suppose I will always wonder if it is self-justification that makes me see tragedy in the perfection of her kitchen. I only know that, frozen in the passage between my mother’s moon and my father’s sun, I made my choice many years ago. But it is my mother’s life that fascinates me now. And it is my love for her that both comforts and pains me more. In life, I shrank from what I took (rightly, I still think) to be her judgments of me, her anger at my repudiation of the bargains she made. Now, I dream about her often, and usually I wake from these dreams with delight -- at a sense of their somehow sustaining me, and at the fact that they are usually woven around food. In one, I went to bite into a pastry she had made, and found instead that it was a copy of Howards End. In another, my mother made gorgeous individual pizzas for me and my sisters, and I spent the dream wrestling with the age-old temptation to keep one of my sisters’ pizzas for myself, to tuck it away in the freezer against a rainy day.

Mostly, it seems right that I will never have my mother’s equanimity about seeing my efforts devoured by others. These days, I don’t often make the laborious gravy to go along with the chickens I roast for my family. I usually throw out the chicken carcass, buying my stock ready-made from the supermarket. Sometimes I ask my husband to get takeout on the way home from work.

Yet still there are moments when it stops me in my tracks to realize that I will never peel an orange the way my mother once did for me. And sometimes those moments are almost too much to bear.

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