Remembering My Troubled Mother on Mother’s Day
I miss my difficult mother’s cooking, but not our relationship
When I was a child, from time to time my mother told my sister and me that she would never have more children because the two of us were so horrible. Nonetheless, I endeavored to please her on Mother’s Day. I might have been six or seven years old when I saved up my 10 cents per week allowance to buy her a cheap heart-shaped box. It was the first time I chose a gift for her and paid for it myself. She screamed at me when I presented it. I didn’t understand her fury, but I never forgot it.
Decades later, thinking about her creates a twist in my stomach. My throat feels itchy and my chest hurts. She’s been dead for 19 years, but the prospect of remembering my mother on Mother’s Day still freaks me out.
I know I am not alone, that not everyone loves celebrating their mothers on this day. For people like us, choosing a greeting card can be a minefield. I would like to think most mothers are deserving of celebration, including mine. But to get there, first I had to get past her frequent barbs and torments.
Even when all I wanted was to eat her food, her negative comments continued. One day after school, when I opened a jar to extract one of her Iraqi-Jewish pastries, stuffed with date paste and sprinkled with sesame seeds, she sidled up to me at the kitchen counter and asked, “Are you sure you should be eating that?” I wasn’t overweight, but I accepted her critique. By age 14, I had an eating disorder and body dysmorphia so disabling that I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror.
The worst blow came after my father died when I was 28, four years after I moved away from our home in Vancouver to California. I flew back for the funeral. My mother told me, in an offhand manner, that the two of them always thought of me as a “total failure.” I didn’t ask why. I just accepted that message and internalized it. She was the parent, and I was brought up to obey.
At the time, I was the editor of an international magazine, the first woman to have that title. I graduated university with honors, won a $1000 scholarship from a national journalism society, been a senior reporter at a newspaper and the editor of a restaurant magazine. But I wasn’t married with children, and so to her, not good enough.
Eventually, after I realized that I wanted to write about her, I decided to research my mother’s past. I didn't know how much this work would help me understand her. I realized that she wasn’t just mean, or maybe depressed. She had grown up as a British citizen in Shanghai, and spent three years while she was in her 20s in a prisoner of war camp in China during World War II. There, she starved. Before that, family servants and a teacher had beaten her at home while her parents were away at work. She had survived a world war to become a refugee in Canada.
I felt a new sense of understanding about her after learning about what she had lived through. I can’t prove it, but I think my mother had post-traumatic stress disorder, at the very least. Maybe she didn’t mean to be that way towards me. I realized that, despite her handicaps, my mother loved me and lived a creative life. She loved to garden. She sewed many of my sister’s and my dresses. She knit clothes for our Barbie dolls. She taught us how to embroider flowers with silk thread she had brought from China. There were good memories of her, too.
Most of all, she cooked. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, she prepared daily vibrant, vegetable-forward dishes that burst with flavor and textures. But she had to be alone in the kitchen, telling me and my sister that she didn’t want our help because it would “ruin the food.”
I, too, am alone in the kitchen often, and I don’t mind. Like her, it makes me happy to decide which ingredients go together, shop for them, and imagine how the dish will taste. A little bit of love goes into every bite. Maybe that is why I like to remember her food. Perhaps cooking was the main way my mother felt comfortable showing affection. When I consider that, a warm feeling courses through my body. I’m nostalgic; content, even.
Like her, I make Middle Eastern and Asian dishes most often. It’s because of our complicated ancestral origins. My parents were Iraqi Jews from China whose ancestors left Iraq because of persecution, traveled to India, and then on to China. I grew up eating Iraqi-Jewish food, Baghdadi-Bombay (Mumbai) Jewish food, and vegetarian Shanghainese food.
Once my parents left China, there was nowhere to eat their kinds of meals unless my mother cooked them. She faced an existential crisis. No one in the new country was like her or her husband, so she solved their identity issues through food. Food was how they connected with the old country and the big family that had surrounded them in China. They ate the dishes of their past to remember who they were.
Once I left home for my first job, I was similarly lonely, and wanted to connect. To do so I had to learn to cook. At first, I rejected my childhood foods and experimented with exotic-to-me recipes clipped from the food section of the newspaper, such as trout stuffed with shrimp and egg foo young. They were less labor intensive and more assimilated than my mother’s food; I chose those dishes as a sign of independence and rebellion against her.
But I missed the food of home. Once I was far away, I wanted a taste of the familiar. I wanted that familiarity and recognition at the taste of a Chinese preserved plum or Kubbah Hamuth - dumplings cooked in a flavorful soup.
Like my mother, I missed the dishes that told me who I was and where I came from.
When she was in her early 70s, my mother began to decline from Alzheimer’s. I wrote a piece for a magazine about how her cooking was my comfort food, rather than the expected meatloaf and mac and cheese. I tried to read the essay aloud to her, in person, at her dining room table. I wanted her to see that it was a tribute and that I loved her. I wanted her to see me as a success.
But it was too late. Within minutes, she couldn’t understand and cut me off, turning away. The kinship I wanted to build with her left me, like a tide going out. I had to accept that she never saw how much I was like her, at least in the areas of food and cooking. Even though I don’t want to be like her in many other ways.
After she died, I went back through the few childhood recipes I’d written down, and tried them out. Then I took the same actions that my mother did. To connect with her and our shared history, I recreated a few dishes from our home.
:Get the Recipe: Kubba Hamuth (Sweet and Sour Soup with Stuffed Dumplings)
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