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.