My Mother's Kitchen
Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and the Meaning of Life
By Peter Gethers
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2017 Peter Gethers
All rights reserved.
I have two distinct images of my mother that I will always carry with me.
One is from Christmas 2007, when she was eighty-five years old. On October 5 of that year, she suffered a massive stroke that hit the absolute center of her brain. In the hospital, the next afternoon, a doctor in the ER told me it was likely she would have locked-in syndrome — she would not be able to speak or move ever again.
On October 7, the day after this dire diagnosis, my mother laughed. I walked into her room, saw her gray hair soaked with sweat and plastered against the top of her head, her skin a kind of faded yellow-green, the color of a fish out of the water for too long, the bright hues disappearing at the speed of life, and my first words were: "Lookin' good, Mom." Her eyes rolled in mock annoyance, her lips curled into a "Don't be such a smartass" expression, and she barked out a hoarse chuckle. An hour or so after that, she crooked the index finger of her left hand — the right one was curled up in a rigid fist against her body — motioning me to come closer. "A lot of shit," she managed to whisper.
The day after that, she began physical and speech therapy.
Several days later, she was moved to a rehabilitation center where she didn't just have to learn how to walk and talk again, the therapists had to teach her how to swallow and eat and drink. Their prediction: she would never be able to go home.
On December 18, five weeks or so after she entered the facility, I managed to take her out of the rehab center in a wheelchair, with the help of my lifelong friend Paul Eagle. I probably should say "barely managed to" because it was as if two of the Three Stooges had been put in charge of this maneuver, and unfortunately we were Larry and Curly; we didn't even have Moe's mental dexterity. Forget about getting her in and out of the chair and in and out of the car, we couldn't even figure out how to fold the wheelchair and stick it in the trunk. My mother marveled at our ineptitude the entire way, but somehow we moved her from West 110th Street to West 84th Street so she could attend an annual Christmas party thrown by our close friends, Kathleen Moloney and Dominick Abel. My mom hadn't missed one of their seasonal bashes since she'd moved to New York over a decade earlier.
She would not allow me to wheel her into the party — she refused to enter like that. She insisted on walking in, which, with some assistance, is exactly what she did. She had dinner, participated in the evening's conversation (she mostly listened; I don't want to make her sound like some kind of superhero), and took some pleasure in being the center of attention. Toward the end of the evening, Dominick ceremoniously brought out his glorious special dessert, which he makes every year for the party, a mound of croquembouche: pastry cream–stuffed profiteroles piled high into a cone-like mound and linked with crunchy strands of caramel. My mother was the only other person I knew who ever made them (every Halloween, while most kids got Snickers and jelly beans from the neighbors, my mom made croquembouche, and that's what she passed out to the small ghosts and princesses and aliens who knocked on her apartment door). As Dominick approached with the tray, my mom took one of the doughy balls very carefully with her left hand — her right hand and most of her right side were basically still useless at this point — and bit into it. I remember the look on her face as the taste resonated, and I watched her lick a dab of the custard that had settled on her upper lip. Our eyes met and, although she didn't utter a word, I knew what she was saying to me: This is why I refused to die.
The other is from the late 1970s, a couple of years after another life-changing event. At the age of fifty-three she had taken her first-ever real job, a low-level one, in a fancy Los Angeles restaurant. I knew that she was quite suddenly immersed in a whole new understanding of and appreciation for food, chefs, and cooking, but I had yet to see any manifestation of that.
I was in L.A. on my first business trip there from New York and, not secure enough to trust that my company would actually fork out the dough to pay for a hotel room, I was reduced to staying with my parents. They lived in a beautiful 1920s Spanish-style house above Mulholland Drive, with a glittering airplane view of the San Fernando Valley. Coming straight from the airport, I pulled my Rent-a-Wreck car into their driveway and, small canvas suitcase in hand, went through the gate that led to the patio off the garage, then through the side door that opened into the kitchen. I stepped inside to see my mother, her back to me, preparing something on the well-worn tiled counter that snaked around most of the room. I'm not sure what she was making, but it was something substantial and weighty: an onion, perhaps, or carrots or potatoes. She was chopping, the way a real chef does, slicing down rapidly and efficiently with the knife in her right hand, effortlessly guiding the blade with her left, making sure the sharp edge could only come up against her knuckles and not cut into her skin. She didn't immediately notice that I was there, so for several moments I was able to watch her closely. Displaying a remarkable sense of ease and comfort, she was at peace while she chopped. But there was also something more than that: she was in total command of this small and immediate world. Her movements showed a supreme confidence, a subtle but sublime control of her actions.
I had never seen this sort of satisfaction emanating from my mother before and I realized, for the first time, that I had never quite understood her. There were layers I had missed and a depth that had been kept hidden from me. My father was the dominant personality in our family: he was the public success, the one with the large ego, and our gregarious link to the outside world. But I had never observed this kind of quiet confidence in my father. He always seemed to be shadowed by doubt and, just beneath the surface, was clearly engaged in some sort of internal struggle.
After a few moments, my mother heard me, or maybe just sensed my presence, turned, and smiled. She put down her knife, wiped her hands instinctively on her apron, and kissed me on the cheek to say hello.
Moments later, my father came downstairs to greet me with his usual effusiveness and edgy affection. I went up to my old room to shower, change, and unpack, my dad headed back to his electric typewriter to continue working, and my mom continued preparing dinner. Even though I was now a bit of an outsider in their world, even though we were all well aware that my return was brief and temporary, life for the rest of that afternoon and evening was as it always had been.
Except I knew that, somehow, it really wasn't.
* * *
It is never easy to find comfort.
Not the kind that is lasting and true. Not the kind that confronts reality head-on rather than seeking to disguise it.
Faith is not comfort as far as I'm concerned. Faith is all about hoping to find comfort. I prefer something that will do me some good in the here and now. But the world does not seem to be designed that way. At least for most people.
My mom has most definitely never been most people.
In the early fall of 2014 I got a phone call from my mother, who had recently turned ninety-two. I could tell from her tone that she wanted to discuss something a bit more serious than the oversalted soup her aide had made or the tasteless tomatoes bought at the supermarket.
After her stroke in 2007, my mom couldn't cook anymore — a genuine lessening of the quality of her life since cooking was a true and valued personal pleasure, not just a professional one. But her superb palate was unchanged. Her ability to distinguish between good and not-so-good food was probably more important to her than at any point in her life. So not long after her stoke, I arranged to have a young chef, a lovely woman named Jenny Cheng who had recently graduated from cooking school in New York, spend one day a week cooking for my mom. Jenny soon realized that my mother was more than just a passive diner; her knowledge of food was extensive and she loved to pass that knowledge on. So before long, in addition to cooking, Jenny also started going through the many cookbooks on my mom's bookshelves and talking to my mother about food and recipes and technique, about flavors and taste.
My mother, quite aphasic after the stroke, had dismissed the idea of speech lessons and group speech classes from the very beginning of her home recovery process; she found them condescending for some reason, plus she didn't love displaying her handicap in public. But discussing food with Jenny engaged and energized her and she realized she still had the ability to teach (and to make the food Jenny was preparing a lot better, taking back some of the control she had lost). Talking about her meals — critiquing what she had just eaten, going through recipes to figure out what she would eat the following week, telling stories about her various food-related experiences, reexploring recipes from the cookbooks she'd written over the years — was more than just an important element in her recovery, it was critical to maintaining her daily appreciation of life.
In time, Jenny had a baby and she was replaced by another terrific woman (and cook), Joyce Huang, who eventually also moved on, replaced by yet another wonderful woman and chef, Cynthia Tomasini. They are all passionate about what they do, and they value the time they have spent talking food with my mother; they learned as they worked. For my mom, these three women became a link to the outside world as well as to a much younger generation, a connection she valued as much as the delicious food they prepared for her.
On the phone that evening, my mother seemed subdued. Sensing that something was bothering her, I went over to her apartment — the apartment the doctors said she would never return to but where she is living comfortably with several wonderful live-in companions (thank you, long-term health care insurance!). Post-stroke, it is difficult for my mother to walk without someone holding her and guiding her. She needs help showering and with all bodily functions. Her hearing is pretty much gone. And it's difficult for her to read and focus on anything much longer than a New York Times article. But what frustrates her the most is that her aphasia makes it difficult for her to have lengthy or substantive conversations. Her memory is perfect, she forgets nothing, and there is zero hint of any dementia, but it's an aggravating and sometimes torturous process for her to recall certain words, particularly nouns and proper names. She will struggle, for instance, to come up with the name of the restaurant she ate in the night before or what kind of cuisine they serve, but she'll tell you exactly where it is located, including the cross streets. She'll also tell you precisely what she thought of the food.
On this night, we were having an impromptu dinner of Joyce's leftovers when my mother made it clear that she was determined to say something, no matter the struggle. And she did. It was arduous and exhausting work for her, but she managed to say something she had never said to me before.
"I think ... it's ... too hard."
"What's too hard?" I asked.
A long silence and then: "Life."
I was shocked. My mother has had at least four different cancers and two strokes. When she was forty, she was given a 5 percent chance of living twelve more months due to a melanoma. When she was in her early seventies, she had her first stroke while in a tent, on safari in Africa. With the right side of her body partially paralyzed, she walked several miles, took a boat across a river, got to an airport so she could take a plane to London, spent the night at a hotel there, and then flew back to New York — I swear this is true! — at which point she called me to say she must have eaten some bad giraffe meat or something because she couldn't move her right arm or leg. As I repeated her symptoms aloud, my longtime girlfriend, Janis Donnaud, was frantically mouthing the words, "She had a stroke! We have to get her to the hospital!" Which is what we did, and she spent several weeks there until she recovered fully.
But with all of that, she had never — not once, not ever — hinted that her life was anything but enjoyable.
I was certain my mom hadn't heard me so I repeated, louder: "Really? You think your life is too hard?"
She nodded. And also made a face at me to show she knew I was talking too loud, because she hates any reference to her poor hearing and refuses to acknowledge the need for hearing aids, even though she is pretty much deaf as a stone. The only words she ever seems to hear clearly are those I mutter quietly, the ones she's not supposed to hear.
"As in too hard to keep going?" I asked.
She shrugged. The shrug said: It's possible.
"What's so hard about it?" I asked. "Can you tell me?"
She nodded. "It's hard."
"I know. But what in particular?"
"Hard ... for you."
"For me? What do you mean?"
"Hard for you ... to ... take care of me."
I couldn't help it. I had to laugh. A few days earlier one of her air conditioners had sputtered and quit working — not a good thing during a summer heat wave — and I'd quickly purchased her a new one, arranging to have it delivered and installed. My mom doesn't like that I have to handle many of her day-to-day problems — a new air conditioner, talking to the cable company when her TV goes out, scheduling her physical therapy — and it drives her crazy that I often don't let her pay for whatever needs to be done. Of course, not everything goes off without a hitch, especially in Manhattan, and there was a screwup with the air conditioner delivery — my mother had gone out for a walk (actually, she went out for a wheel, as in wheelchair, but she likes to call it a walk) during the allotted delivery time. I'd gotten aggravated that I had to rearrange the service call and I guess hadn't disguised my aggravation too well.
"So," I said, "you're talking about being ready to die because I had to buy you an air conditioner and got pissed off that you weren't here when the guys delivered it?"
"Yes," she said.
"I promise," I told her, "your being alive is not too hard on me. In fact, I actually like it."
She nodded, accepting the information.
"So other than being hard on me, you still like your life?"
"Yes," she said.
She then took a bite of the duck breast that Joyce had made for her.
"How's the duck?" I asked.
"Delicious," my mom said. And suddenly all traces of her aphasia were gone. "Very well cooked. Better today at room temperature. Outside crisp but moist inside. Maybe too much salt."
And there it was again. The same quiet confidence and discernment, the comfort that comes with knowledge, the calm that comes with understanding something from the inside.
Many months after my mother had her stroke, her doctor, a brilliant gerontologist, Mark Lachs, said something that astonished me and yet wasn't really a surprise. "There's something very odd about your mother's recovery," he said. "She never went through a period where she got depressed or angry. Everyone whose life changes the way hers has — she needs a constant companion, she's lost most of her self-sufficiency, her aphasia, everything is a struggle — gets angry or depressed. I tried to put her on an antidepressant, which is normal for people in her position, but she refused. And I spent a lot of time talking to her about it. She's not in denial, not in any way. She just seems to accept what happened and has refused to buckle under to it. She's decided to do the best she can and be happy with what she's got rather than worry about what she's lost. I've never actually seen anything like it."
I didn't understand how she'd become that person. I don't remember her being like that when I was a child. No one else was like that in my family. Not my dad, who got a huge amount of pleasure from so many things but was, at heart, angry and disappointed with a good chunk of what life had dealt him and frustrated by the compromises he'd chosen to make. Certainly not my brother, who is, as near as I can tell, unhappy to his core. My father's side of the family could hardly be called happy-go-lucky. It would be hard to even label many of his relatives as sane. None of my mother's sisters or brothers came even close to the kind of honorable and intelligent equanimity with which she goes through life. Nor do any of their children.
In some ways I come closest, I suppose. But it still isn't all that close. I get a huge amount of pleasure out of life but also understand melancholy and fury and frustration. I am capable of punishing myself with regret over poor choices and missed opportunities and just plain screwups, can seethe over the injustices I perceive in the world, all too often struggle against the inevitable future, rage against narrow-minded thinking and people who shrink away from knowledge and facts, and feel defeated by the things I am unable to affect and change. I can also be brought to a near-murderous fury, especially when talking to Verizon representatives or pondering our insane gun culture, or reading about female genital mutilation in Africa or having to live through James Dolan's reign over the Knicks, making the odds approximately a billion to one that I will ever see another championship banner in the Garden in my lifetime. (Continues...)
Excerpted from My Mother's Kitchen by Peter Gethers. Copyright © 2017 Peter Gethers. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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