I made dinner for my mom one night a couple of weeks ago, the first time I did so in I don’t know how long. She was recovering from surgery, so my sisters and I helped with laundry, cooking, whatever. I was glad to do what I could.
As I stood at her stove, I was jarred by how strange it felt. She has done the cooking for nearly all of our events, family parties, even weekend visits. It’s been that way my whole life. Homemade, at our table. I almost never ate out until I enlisted, back when I was in college. It was just normal. While she long claimed it was only fun for her, the rest of us thought it evidence of a personality tic — either the expression of a need for control, or the desire for insurance against someone else (*cough*) screwing it up.
So there I was, all that flashing through my mind as I pictured myself in a spotlight, being judged, a la Worst Cooks in America, on my simple chicken and mashies. Was it tasty? Well presented? Expertly prepared? TV food nobility barked down at me from their high table: What is this, a brick that’s landed in a puddle of melted drywall?! No, that’s not fair — a brick would taste better! What are you trying to do, put her BACK in the hospital?! Get out — and take your construction debris with you!
I shook it off, sort of. Who was I kidding? It was my mom — it wasn’t like she would dramatically gag and hock it out onto the carpet, right? At least not in front of me.
Fortunately, it worked. She mentioned more than once how it hit The Spot (lucky me that she hadn’t wanted Osso Buco or something similarly out of my reach). Relieved, I realized that my simple menu with its sloppy presentation had probably been a nice change from the last couple of weeks. I was helped by the fact that she was just glad to be getting away from all that clinical food and restriction.
She’d spent the week of Valentine’s Day in the hospital. I dropped in to see her sitting up on the bed with a sour look on her face. The room was a typically drab box wrapped in pastel wallpaper, most of the furniture and decorations a muddy brown. Some vases with bright, fresh flowers provided the only color. Foam cups, the standard beige princess phone, wads of napkins, open magazines, the remains of her dinner, the typical pile of hospital-stay junk covered the usual rolling tray that straddled the typical jumble of wires snaking across the floor to unseen destinations. The cheerless fluorescent light at the foam tiled ceiling reminded me of the parking garage I’d just walked from. At least it was private, if hardly conducive to stimulating appetite.
Our conversation inevitably turned to what she was eating, which despite a five-day stay after nearly eight hours of surgery, was what she seemed most unhappy about.
The food plan had not amused. Not only did the restrictions annoy her (her usual fruits and veggies were not permitted), but all the salty and sugary stuff she could eat turned her off. For someone who eats very little processed food and plans her menus as a way to keep herself well, this was less than helpful. By the time I visited, she’d already given the dietary specialist a long earful, as if the poor lady was the head cook at a labor camp. “How do you heal sick people with stuff like that?!” she’d asked, only semi-rhetorically.
Constant reminders made it no better, as trays came in regularly. Her mother took up the slack in between the disagreeable meals. “She calls three times a day and always asks what kind of diet they have me on,” she said. I had to sit down and laugh.
Back at her house, I realized something else as I cleaned the dishes. I had been worried about how bad I was going to feel about her reaction to my inferior cooking. I should have worried about how strongly she had been affected by this small thing, and that she was grateful for my effort even if it did turn out as nicely as a brick. I should have felt bad about not helping with it sooner.