Today is International Women’s Day and I’m basking in the memory of special moments with my mother. What surprises me is that most of those happy times occurred relatively recently, within the last 15 years. The memories that made me want to travel back in time were not from childhood; in fact my mother and I weren’t close when I was young. It wasn’t until much later in life that we grew together, probably when I had faced my own adult challenges and could appreciate her story much better.
The same might be said of the bond with my sister, although we started out thick as thieves. Only a year apart, we experienced many of the same things at the same time and, even today it’s hard to imagine a day when we weren’t together. But after graduating high school we blazed separate paths, and they shared little common ground. I’m happy to say that has changed, and we have reconnected. Our common interests, it seems, are greater than whatever broke us apart. And it all goes back to the kitchen.
A Family of Cooks
My mom grew up learning how to cook by helping her mother in the kitchen. My grandmother was the eldest of nine, and served as her mother’s right hand, whether that was watching the other kids, preparing dinner, or seeing to farm work. She was a no-nonsense lady who, even in her later years, maintained a vegetable garden and rose with the sun each day to tend it. My grandfather hunted and fished, and Mom-mom was an expert in preparing whatever he brought home. Mom learned everything first-hand, and became a fantastic cook in her own right.
Some of my earliest memories are of standing next to my sister in Mom-mom’s tiny kitchen, waiting to be assigned a task (or to snatch a scrap of turkey from the carving platter!) As apprentices, we mixed dressing for the cole slaw, shelled beans and peas, or stirred gravy in the big roasting pan atop the gas stove. We didn’t realize it yet, but we were learning to cook.
A Modern 1970s Mother
Our home probably looked like a million others in modest neighborhoods– split level, small kitchen, a few bedrooms. But my mom had this crazy creative spirit that infused everything she did: cooking was a hobby and she outdid herself with every meal. An avid member of the garden club, she created festive holiday arrangements for family and friends. But her most magnificent project was her stained glass lamps.
She claimed a damaged windshield from an auto salvage yard and brought it home to the basement. After smashing the glass into mosaic tile-sized pieces, she painstakingly dyed them in a rainbow of colors. Then she glued them onto large glass globes, fitting the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle until they covered the surface. The grand finale was the lighting of a votive candle inside the globe: all the colors came to life, bathing the room in an enchanting glow. She made a half-dozen and gave them to close friends and family. My sister has the only one left.
Unfortunately, those early memories were clouded by what came later: my dad’s struggle with substance abuse and my mom’s desperate attempt to keep him sober, raise us kids, and maintain a household. That’s too much for anyone, and something had to give. In my case it was a close relationship with my mother.
Many years later, while I was suffering through a devastating divorce, my mother and I got a second chance at our relationship. We became friends. She visited me frequently, and we had some hilarious adventures together. When I moved to Florida, we’d talk on the phone every Saturday night, each of us cooking our own dinners and chatting while we ate. I called them our Saturday Night Dates, and I treasure them to this day.
One of the best weeks of my life happened back in 2009, when my sister and my mom came to visit me in Florida. The trip coincided with my mother’s 70th birthday, and I was excited to plan a lot of fun activities for the three of us. I made reservations at two local restaurants for special dinners out. But the best part of the planning was what we would cook together.
Meal #1: Indian Spiced Chicken Salad with Domaine Saint Amant La Borry Viognier
With their arrival scheduled around noon, I figured a nice lunch would be appreciated after a long morning of flying. I put together this aromatic and tasty chicken salad and chilled a bottle of La Borry Viognier. Most of the prep for the salad can be done the day before, and it’s a cinch to assemble and serve. Viognier makes a perfect accompaniment to the fragrant Indian spices in the chicken. The pairing was a hit all around.
Meal #2: Rack of Lamb with Coconut-Mint Sauce and Glazed Peas with Stolpman Vineyards Estate Syrah
This was the first meal we cooked together. The three of us flipped through an issue of Food and Wine, and decided upon this recipe from Eric Ripert. As with the chicken salad, it is a flavorful and satisfying dish that is quick and easy to pull together. We jostled elbows as we worked in my small kitchen, but it felt familiar: we had traveled backward in time, to the holidays in my Mom-mom’s house.
Meal #3: Seared Cod with Spicy Mussel Aioli with Domaine Ricard “?” Touraine Sauvignon Blanc
Another winner of a recipe from Eric Ripert, this luxurious fish dish had us congratulating ourselves on our cooking prowess. The plates looked like something from a restaurant, and we felt like we were being spoiled. Don’t be put off, though – the execution is super-simple! As for the wine, this bottle is my hands-down favorite Sauvignon Blanc. I’m not much of a fan of the variety in general, but this rich, smooth, delight can sit at my table any time.
What Sticks with You
It’s true what they say: that time flies, and the things that seem important in the moment are seldom those that linger long afterward.
I know this because three months after my mom’s 70th birthday celebration, she had a stroke, the first of several. On Thanksgiving Day of 2009 she was hospitalized for several months and was ultimately placed in a full-service nursing care facility. After a couple of years, she no longer recognized us and had no joy in her life. We wouldn’t make any new memories with her to add to our reflections; two years ago today, she died in her sleep. That’s why I am thankful each day for the times we shared, even if it took a long time for us to get there.
Over the past two years, my healing process has happened in fits and starts. Memories of my mom creep up on me when I least expect it. Managing the “anniversaries” without her (Easter, Mother’s Day, her birthday, the holidays) has been both brutal and enlightening. Some days bring happy reminiscence; others force a reckoning with the complexity of mother-daughter relationships.
But I’m making progress. I guess that counts for something.
Me, My Mom, and International Women’s Day
I hope you take a moment today to honor and celebrate the women in your lives, to look inside your hearts for the gifts they’ve bestowed on you. I’ll be appreciative that time does indeed heal all wounds, but not in the way I expected. Rather than erasing the pain and loss, it has pushed me to focus my attention on the beautiful moments – intimate conversations, silly jokes, and honest admissions – that defined our relationship as adults. The pain’s still there but the volume’s lower; it doesn’t make my head throb and my heart break as often as it used to.
Maybe that’s because I no longer carry the burden of regrets for things said or unsaid. I’ve given myself permission to leave the arguments and unkindness (both hers and mine) in the margins of our story rather than in the main plot. What’s left is the good stuff.
And it’s a lot lighter on the soul.
Now go call your mother! 🙂