How My Mother Fed Me

I’m seven. I’m flipping through a book with my younger sister as my mom cleans up after lunch. The book lists a different activity for each letter of the alphabet – we pass glittery things and paper dolls, magic card tricks and ways to play with water balloons. We land on J: jelly doughnuts. There are different suggestions: eat a whole powdered doughnut without licking your lips; feed a friend one while you’re both blindfolded. We’re thrilled. Mom must have left, it can’t have been magic (in my memory, it’s magic) and suddenly my sister and I are in the freshly mown backyard, a box of raspberry jelly doughnuts between us, bright bandannas tied over our eyes, our smiles big and sticky. A five-dollar ticket to joy and sweet spontaneity.  

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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, meatless versions of all my favourite meals were delivered to me; handmade five cheese cannelloni, delicious salads, black bean burgers formed by hand and slipped onto the grill alongside turkey burgers. How could I have known, when at home my vegetarianism was a fun excuse to experiment with frying tempura vegetables, taste-testing brands of tofu sour cream, deciding whether I preferred tempeh or seitan. 

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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 in our wake piles of crushed peanuts and chopped cilantro on a cutting board soaked with lime juice. It’s a lesson in efficiency; deftly fast food.

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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 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, my father tries on this role and I realize how I’ve taken for granted that other people should know my condiment preferences. On birthday mornings, we have triple 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 can’t imagine the patience.

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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. Uncharacteristically, I don’t want to eat out, so we end up at home, quietly slivering 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 aberrantly 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. 

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For a long time, I thought that all kids got from-scratch Belgian waffles, 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 random Wednesdays 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, filled first with boiling water in the morning so that my food would stay hotter longer. I would have told you I looked forward to lunchmoney days when I could buy greasy pizza or dry popcorn chicken or giant sour keys. Now, as I learn to feed myself and others, I’d give anything for one of those carefully packed lunches. 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 September weeknight, stretching out pizza dough with flour-covered hands, or taco feasts with heaping bowls of toppings on the lazy Susan and tortillas my mom always insisted on warming up.

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Once, I shared some of these memories with a friend. She hesitated, and then told me I’d described the childhood she wished she’d had, and that I’d made her feel like she wanted to give that childhood to someone else. I told her I understood, that I wanted the same thing. A desire to breathe generosity and care into the moments I share with the people I love. With every elaborate birthday cake I make, every heavy-handed glass of wine I pour, every pasta sauce I add extra garlic to, I know I want to give the way I was given to when my mother fed me.