When I was a girl I was well aware of my mother's opinion of Mother's Day.
She hated it. And she made no secret of that.
I don't really know why, although now that I'm a mother myself I have my suspicions. She had four kids and a full house--besides me, three boys who were no end of trouble. The house seemed overrun with them and their friends. Her life was loud and exhausting, to be sure. She was unfailingly unsentimental.
Somehow those troublesome brothers seemed to engage her interest far more than I could, her introspective sighing child who wanted to talk to her, not to watch baseball with her.
Truth be told, Mother's Day was complicated in both directions.
But I hated knowing she hated Mother's Day. It seemed even to my little self that the least she could do was pretend to like all our colored-paper-and-paste fawning over her.
We kept on with the Mother's Day exercises every year despite it all, as children and mothers do, have always done, will always do, locked as they are in a timeless, iconic Mother's Day dance, sponsored by Hallmark.
One May, I don't think she hated it any more. This is the story of that May, although this is not, strictly speaking, a Mother's Day story.
* * * * * * * *
There was a time when I needed to make—I was obligated to make—perfect scrambled eggs. It was the least that I could do.
Now in the waning weeks of my mother’s life, she had little desire for food of any kind but she did like a nice plate of buttery, salty scrambled eggs, still.
She had extremely advanced lung cancer. This was no surprise because she was a smoker since age 12 (“We didn’t know any better then, honey,” as she always told us). And the cancer hadn’t been discovered till it had metastasized to her brain and her original tumor was roughly the size and shape of her entire left lung. When I’d gotten the news I had taken a few days to gather my wits and my things, departed my Chicago home and new husband, and crossed the country to the desert to spend what weeks she had left to help out around the house.
Mostly we sat on the back screened porch, she on the chaise and I in a chair, watching the birds at the feeders, letting the extraordinarily cool May breezes wash over us. I tucked her into light blankets. I was her secretary and she dictated letters. I arranged and watered and trimmed the dozen bouquets she’d received, and when these withered I and my brothers brought her more, armloads more.
Sometimes I helped her into and out of the bath, returned her phone calls, received her visitors.
Sometimes I practiced my cello for her. As only a mother could, she loved it, closing her eyes and smiling meditatively as if she were listening to Yo-Yo Ma playing the Bach cello suites, even though I had been at cello lessons an appallingly brief time. “What is that beautiful melody, honey,” she’d say, going so far as to insist I play “Lightly Row” at her funeral. (I didn't.) (Would you have?) (I mean, seriously, "Lightly Row.")
I also cooked. Mostly for her. As they typically do, neighbors and friends brought large loads of food for everyone else, of whom there were many. My job was to figure out plain food, simple food, healthy food, for my mom. Her doctor had said she should eat colorful things, lots of reds, oranges, and greens.
Well, we weren’t on any kind of nutritional rescue mission. Healing was not an option. And while she did drink much of the juice we pressed for her in someone’s borrowed juicer, she was not altogether interested in the crisp, the raw, the colorful, and the fresh. For her only a small range of comfort foods would do—grilled cheese, tomato soup, toast with peanut butter, and scrambled eggs. I remember once—only once—I offered her quinoa, inwardly crowing about the health benefits of this underutilized nutritional giant. Of all that I fed her over those weeks it was the only thing she politely declined, saying it would nauseate her immediately if I did not remove it at once.
So it was a small thing. I could do very little for her really. I just wanted this one thing, scrambled eggs, to come out right, to be just perfect. Not dry and overdone with a thick skin stuck to the pan, as was my habit. I was persuaded that low heat and lots of stirring was the key, but factoring in my mother’s glass cooktop and its vagaries made things even less successful.
My mother, excellent cook that she was, never complained. She simply beamed. I think this period in her life was in some ways the sweetest—she simply relaxed in her family’s love and attentions, she basked, she luxuriated.
She had done for four kids and all their friends, and nieces and nephews, and quite a few hangers-on all her adult life, and now by necessity she was on the receiving end. If she wanted, she could have snapped her fingers and barked orders like a diva, and my brothers and I would have seen to it. But she didn’t. She smiled, and sighed, and obediently sipped at her carrot-strawberry-spinach juice, closing her eyes and enjoying our presence.
It seemed that lung cancer put us somewhere new, my mother and I. We were in a time out of time, a liminal place. She found me delightful and important, and I found her open and joyful and generous. She shared herself with me. She told me stories about her life, revealed opinions long-held-in about everything--gossipy observations about others in her circle; why she married my father; laments about the silliest things, like the fact that not only could we not find the unfinished scarf I had knitted when I was 8, but she couldn't even remember me knitting it at all. ("How could a mother not know that her little daughter was knitting a scarf?!") I listened, rapt.
“I tell all my friends,” she confided to me when the two of us were alone on the back porch enjoying the late May desert afternoon, “that everyone should have a daughter. Everyone should have a daughter.” This was completely and totally news to me, but I accepted it, gift that it was.
And so we gave each other many such gifts, hers in the form of unprecedented conversational surprises, and her obvious joy at all my ministrations, however inadequate. I gave her my service and myself. My cello. My flower arrangements. My quinoa and my not-at-all-perfect scrambled eggs.
Without any question it was the best time of my 32 years with her.
But of course the unfortunate booby prize of those gladsome weeks was that she died. Our time was preposterously ephemeral like cool desert breezes in May, like spring's tissue-frail cactus flowers, briefly luminescent under a blistering sun.
In my mother's kitchen I was a poor stand-in for her: she was a wonderful cook who also happened to understand that horrible cooktop. When she was gone I could no longer heckle her about her annoying stove and beg her to tell me again how to make it do my bidding. And though I was always blaming the stove, in truth I couldn't make decent scrambled eggs anywhere.
It was many more years until I got them right. Incorporating tips from a Greek uncle-in-law (the family’s breakfast patriarch), I was now able to feed my baby girl a nearly-perfect version of the only food she wanted. With my sweet one-year-old picky princess on my hip, I made scrambled eggs for her every morning one-handed. With the heat on high and a good thick pat of butter melted to sizzling, I’d pour two well-beaten, salted eggs in the pan, give them three or four quick stirs and about 30 seconds, and slide them out into a little plastic bowl.
That’s how I do it now, except for the little plastic bowl (and usually using two hands to crack the eggs), and it works every time, and I make better scrambled eggs than almost anybody, thanks to my uncle.
It’s a good, handy thing to know, but not as good as knowing that one’s mother thought everyone should have a daughter. Armed with this knowledge now I can pass that gift on to my young daughter so she can hold onto it her whole life and mine. I’ll teach her how to make scrambled eggs too.
Beavertail cactus blossom photographed by Ron Niebrugge of Niebrugge Images and my-photo-blog.com
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