If you think about it, a lot of us have actually more than one mother. There are the neighbor ladies who keep a subtle eye on us when we’re playing outside, or the teachers or mentors we look up to. Or there are the mothers of our friends – they have a natural shine to us, because we’re friends to their kids, and so sometimes they end up passing some Mom Wisdom on to us as well.
Lisa and I lived across the street from each other when we were kids, and were near-constant playmates. One thing we did a lot when we were bored was bake, in either her family’s kitchen or mine. I credit both mothers for teaching us how to cook, but Lisa’s mother and my mother had very different supervisory styles. When we were at my house, Mom would stick close by, offering advice from the sidelines and reminding us to clean things up if we spilled them. Maybe she’d step away for a minute or two to catch up on an errand, but she would pass in and out of the kitchen a lot, checking in on us.
Lisa’s mom, though, was almost completely hands-off. She’d vet our recipes first, checking for any tricky steps; but then she would just ask Lisa if she remembered where the fire extinguisher was, and then she’d say “alright, give me a call if you need me” and then she would turn us loose. Sometimes she’d be outside in the yard, sometimes she would leave the house entirely and visit a neighbor. And Lisa and I would then go on to make an utter mess of her kitchen – ignoring spilled flour, dripping batter on tables, digging everything out of the cabinets. We’d wipe up any spills on the floor so we wouldn’t slip, but otherwise we would save all the cleanup until after when we were done.
We screwed things up plenty of times. Once we had the bright idea to put three different kinds of chips in a cookie recipe (chocolate, peanut butter, and butterscotch), but forgot we would need to keep things to the original quantity of chips, and ended up putting triple the amount in and making some vaguely cookie-laced burnt chocolate things. Lisa learned the hard way that a quarter cup of butter was only half a stick, not the whole stick; and I once overfilled the coffee machine and caused a small, yet aromatic, flood. A few of our sessions ended with us frantically dumping smoking things in the sink and running through the house swinging towels to fan smoke away so Lisa’s mom wouldn’t notice when she came home.
The trust she gave us was liberating. Some of our experiments didn’t work, but we felt free to make them in the first place. We were free to screw up and figure out our own way out, free to color outside the lines, free to leave a mess sit for just a few minutes if we were in pursuit of a thing. I cook a lot now, and I cook with that same freewheeling chaos that Lisa and I had in her kitchen – things splotch on counters, ingredients are eyeballed if I feel like it, and sometimes I’ll experiment. If I screw up, no big deal – it’s just food and just a mess, and I’ll clean up later.
Lisa’s mom taught me that creativity is sometimes messy, and always should be exuberant.
I first visited my Irish pen pal Cliona when I was on a college spring break. She didn’t have her break at the same time, so a couple mornings she had to go to class and I was left to myself; she was still living at home, so I was usually entertained by either her mother or father, or one of her two brothers. One morning, the plan was to meet Cliona at noon, so her mother offered to let me sleep in and she’d make up a full Irish breakfast (“so ye can see what that’s like”) before sending me along. She made up a smaller plate for herself, and we ate together, me tucking into everything greedily – the egg, the sausage, the thick cut bacon and fried tomato.
But I cringed a bit when I saw she’d rounded things out with a grapefruit. I’d only had grapefruit once before, when I was very small and found it much too bitter. I kept up the polite chat as we ate, but the whole while I was frantically trying to think how to break it to her that I didn’t care for grapefruit. She noticed about midway that “you haven’t touched your grapefruit yet,” and I just made some kind of noise, and kept eating, subtly trying to nudge the grapefruit a bit further away from my plate.
Then everything else was done, and we were lingering over the table, making polite chat. She observed that the grapefruit was still there. “I…actually don’t care for grapefruit,” I said, blushing.
“Really?” she said, eyebrows raising. “I find it quite refreshing myself.” I just shrugged, and we talked about something else for a few minutes. “Are ye sure you won’t be having your grapefruit?” she asked again. I blushed further, and stammered out something about how it was so kind of her, but I’d tried it once before and it wasn’t quite to my taste, and I’m sorry, but there it is.
And then she fixed me with the Queen of all Mom Stares. “…Will ye try it, at least?” was all she said.
I blinked, then meekly said “yes, ma’am” and reached for my spoon.
….Turns out I like grapefruit after all. Eibhlin said something about how maybe I’d just not put enough sugar on it before, or gotten a bad one, and otherwise made no further comment.
Years later I had a similar moment when I got some beets in my CSA. I didn’t like beets, I thought. I’d tried them once as a kid, I already knew I didn’t like them. But then when I was puzzling what to do with them, I suddenly thought of Eibhlin asking “will ye try them, at least?” and swallowed hard and looked up beet recipes and learned that huh, I guess I like beets after all.
Cliona’s mom taught me to revisit your opinions – at least with food.
I only met Colin’s mom a couple times; they lived in Florida, and usually when they were visiting they were caught up with Colin and his girlfriend Niki. But one time they came up to help Colin and I with a benefit party for our theater company; one of their friends had a lavish garden apartment overlooking Tompkins Square Park, and had generously offered it as the venue for a cocktail party to benefit the company.
I lived about ten blocks away and offered to make all the food, planning a lavish, elegant spread – cheese puffs, little toasts with three kinds of spreads, an Italian pizimonio hot dip. I did a lot of the prep work at home, then decamped to the apartment an hour early to do the final cooking stage for everything. Colin met me there, parents in tow – they’d offered to come along and help set up. They all turned to the chairs and table setup while I hit the kitchen.
One thing I was making was suppli – little cheese-stuffed balls of risotto, deep-fried. I’d brought the risotto in one big tub, and had only to scoop out the balls and deep-fry them. But it was taking a bit longer than I thought, and the approaching arrival of all our guests had me a little flustered, and I splashed one of my fingers with some hot oil. I ran my finger under cold water for a few seconds, then decided I couldn’t wait and got back to work as best I could.
Carol came into the kitchen at some point to offer help and saw me gingerly trying to keep one finger as far away from things as possible. “Oh, did you burn your finger?”
“A little bit,” I said. “Just a drop of oil. I’ll be fine.”
“Oh dear….do you want some ice for that?” she said, heading to the fridge.
“I’ll be fine, really.”
Carol hesitated, then gave me a Mom Stare to rival Eibhlin’s. “….I think maybe you should have some ice for that.” I froze, then meekly stopped and came over to let her take care of my hand.
Colin’s mom taught me that even when you’re on a deadline and in the midst of chaos, you can stop to take care of yourself if you need to.
My friend Richard and I actually started out as a couple. So meeting his mother had me a little nervous. And then Richard told me that she had multiple chemical sensitivity, and explained that I couldn’t wear makeup, hair product, antiperspirant, lotion, or anything that had any kind of potential fragrance – I could have a shower with plain soap and water, wash my hair with Johnson’s baby shampoo, and that was pretty much it. So I was going to be looking ungroomed on top of everything else.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t the elegantly thin woman with bright red lipstick who welcomed me in to her apartment with a handshake and a big smile.
I think I hung back most of that first meeting, letting the two of them carry most of the conversation – she’d been a single mother most of Richard’s life, and Richard her only child, so they doted on each other. But time to time that warmth got turned on me, and I was soon talking with the both of them, bonding with her over Richard’s ridiculous jokes. Sometimes I’d sass Richard back, and I think she actually clapped at that. She was so welcoming and vivacious that I totally forgot about the chemical sensitivity.
Richard and I only dated a year, but stayed friends for many years after – and Pelda stayed in touch too. Every couple years she would send me a Passover card, along with a poem she’d written. A couple times I even got invited to the family Seder – usually it was just Richard, Pelda, and a couple Pelda knew, and Richard sometimes got sick of being the youngest person there, and invited me so he wouldn’t have to always be the one to ask the traditional Four Questions from the Haggadah. I think Pelda knew I’d be a little uneasy at that – growing up Catholic doesn’t give you much exposure to Passover- and found a small sort of “Passover 101” book for me to follow along with as we went. She even encouraged my fumbling attempts to recite the Four Questions in Hebrew. Towards the end of the first Seder I spent there, she brought out small gifts for everyone – and presented me with a small gold necklace, with a charm that depicted the famous Robert Indiana “Love” sculpture done out in Hebrew characters. I had nothing myself and felt guilty, but she waved me off – she wanted to share, that was all. Same with the cards – I once told Richard I felt guilty I often didn’t remember to send her a Passover card, and he just shrugged and said “that’s more about her wanting to share something with people. She doesn’t expect anything back.”
Richard’s mom taught me the importance of generosity and hospitality.
I couldn’t have learned anything from these other mothers if I hadn’t been open to them. And that’s where my own Mom comes in.
Mom is a pretty observant Catholic – she attends Mass every week, still observes Lent, and she was in the church choir when I was a kid – so some people think that she holds everyone else to that standard. Richard once asked me, while we were dating, whether she had a problem with the fact that he wasn’t Catholic. And at my sister-in-law’s wedding shower, she took me aside at one point and asked if Mom was okay with the fact that she and my brother weren’t doing a traditional Catholic wedding.
I told them both the same thing – “no – her attitude is, she’s Catholic, but that’s just her. Whatever you do is also cool.” Mom was always this way – sometimes when I was a kid a friend would invite me to a sleepover on a Saturday night, and Mom would say sure, you can just go to church with them, whatever church that is. So I got to sit in on a Protestant Mass and a Quaker meeting as a kid. When I got home, Mom would curiously ask me what it was like – and would find it fascinating or beautiful rather than weird.
There are also connections between all these other mothers and my own Mom. Lisa’s parents befriended my own, and when I was about 15 they invited my parents over to help them make pierogis, and so Mom had a taste of the merry kitchen chaos herself – and surprised me by diving right in. On another trip to Ireland, Eibhlin had to nurse me through a case of food poisoning after I ate a dodgy kebab; she let me call Mom the next morning after it was all over, and Mom spent a few minutes chatting with Eibhlin and I think they traded a couple letters or cards themselves after. Carol and Mom both painted, and I’ve noticed similarities in their styles. And as for Pelda – she passed away last year, and I had the sad task of helping Richard clean out her apartment. He said I could take anything I wanted, and I saw a couple books about Paris – Mom had just been to Paris, and asked to take them for her. Richard is fond of my own Mom as well, and the fact that she has them has been a comfort.
But my own Mom taught me that the fact that other people do things differently from you doesn’t make them weird or different – it’s what makes the world rich.
Happy Mother’s Day, with love, to Carol, Eibhlin, Pelda, and both Janes.