Published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Food & Love, November 2011.
My mother’s kitchen was always filled with memories.
Through jobs and business ventures and busy days and tired nights, Mom peppered her cooking with bittersweet stories of the grandparents I never knew.
His strength, integrity and incomparable kindness; her boundless love, courage and support. She told me the stories of all the lessons she learned from them, stories about Jesus and sewing and loving your neighbor and, of course, cooking fantastic food.
I’m four years old.
Mom is always busy working, but she pulls down the big heavy mixing bowls and chooses the huge yellow one. It’s a baking kind of day. She gets out the big amber jar full of flour and lets me pack the brown sugar. My favorite part is when it all slides into the bowl in the shape of the little copper measuring cup. She shows me how to carefully separate the egg shell so no pieces fall in. We make the best chocolate chip cookies. We eat a few chips together while we’re mixing them, and she makes half with no nuts just for me.
She teaches me that sugar is a wet ingredient and how to multiply fractions and that if you pull the mixer out of the batter before you turn it off, batter splatters everywhere.
Mom gets me up in the middle of every night and carries me to the car. It’s time to make the donuts. She lays me in a lawn chair in the back of the donut shop and covers me with her jacket before she gets to work with dad. There, under her jacket and in the midst of all that hustle and bustle, I feel completely safe and secure. I get up and try to talk customers into playing Candyland with me before I catch the bus for school. I get to take donut holes for snack time. I’m everyone’s favorite snack-bringer.
I learn about friends and 80s music and that the way to anyone’s heart is through his or her stomach.
I think that with a little water and some spices I find in the cabinet, I will make a delicious sauce just like the chefs do on TV. Mom teaches me to scramble an egg instead. Be careful of the gas when you light the burner. Carefully crack the eggs so no shell falls in. Keep stirring or the eggs will stick and burn on the bottom. Don’t leave the spatula in the pan too long or it will melt, and don’t use metal in a new Teflon pan.
I learn to get up before my mom to make my own hot breakfast and watch the news, cause that’s what grown ups do. And that when I fall asleep in my chair, mom will pick up my dishes and clean whatever mess I left in the kitchen without ever saying a word to me about it.
Mom takes me to the grocery store with her every day to get the ingredients for endless casseroles, meat loaves and fried chicken byproducts. I complain a lot.
I learn about budgets, green stamps and that all that stuff tastes better than I would ever let on.
I make my first solo fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, all from scratch of course, and I start a fire in the kitchen. My date offers to help from the living room, but I save the chicken and he’s none the wiser about the fire.
I learn that no matter how old and wise I get, my mom is never more than a phone call away when I realize I’m out of my depth. And, later, that they actually make mixes for things like mashed potatoes and gravy, but that that would be cheating and it probably wouldn’t taste as good anyway.
For my birthday, I ask my mom to finally show me the trick to her famous pies for which there is no recipe. She shows me how to mix the ingredients for the crust, just as her mother showed her. She tells me that we’ll pre-bake these for cream pies but that you don’t do that for custard-style pies. We whip egg whites and double-boil pudding for hours.
I learn that regardless how detailed your notes, nothing can replace practice and an inherent knack, and that using my great-grandmother’s rolling pin, my maternal grandmother’s recipes and my paternal grandmother’s pie pan while cooking with my mom creates a feeling of connection I can’t explain.
I finally pin my mom down on her homemade dressing and giblet gravy. Like the pies, she learned from her mother, and there is no recipe. She can’t tell me any specific measurements, but she can go on forever with that dreamy look in her eyes about how special it was for her mother to impart to her these same skills.
I learn that I really can pull together an entire holiday meal and that no matter how great a cook and wonderful a woman my grandmother was, she couldn’t have been better than my mom with all her love, devotion and ridiculously delicious food.
I’m standing in my mother’s kitchen with her and my sister, my memories so thick I can hardly breathe. I’m helping her weed through a lifetime of collected utensils and appliances for their immenent downsize. Throw that away; sell this; keep that. Yes, sell all the new-fangled, modern plastic stuff. But I will never part with those multi-colored glass mixing bowls, the copper measuring cups, the old pie plates and baking dishes and cookie jars from my childhood. With my mom.
I learn that sooner or later, we all have to let go of the things, because the memories are now a part of who we are. But I also learn why my mom was always so happy in the kitchen. With her mom.
And now, no matter what happens, I’ve learned that my mom will always be with me in mine.