“Call me tomorrow sweetheart,” my mother said, groggily. “I just can’t today.”
I hung up disappointed. She was supposed to help me choose a new chicken recipe for a party at work. But I knew her illness well. When I was eight, I first experienced how debilitating my mother’s problem was.
“Come on mom, please get up!” I’d pleaded.
It was my first lead in a dance recital, and my strict teacher held parents accountable for their child’s attendance. “Anyone who misses rehearsal is out,” he warned. I shook my mother’s arm twice.
“I’m sorry, I’ll write a note,” she mumbled. Her vitamin bottles on the nightstand caught my eye. I realized later they were antidepressants. When I was kicked out of the show, I cried for hours. My mother felt terrible, but I pushed her away. I was furious.
It wasn’t always difficult to get her moving. She was a foodie — like her mother, my grandmother. My grandmother was an excellent baker and my grandfather was a butcher who owned a deli in Brooklyn. Between the two of them, my mother had delicious food around her constantly. Photos of my mother’s sweet sixteen showed deli platters of corned beef, tongue, pastrami, and salads. My grandmother was a perfectionist and made sure her chocolate rugelach and cookies with fruit centers were perfectly symmetrical. It all looked catered.
My parents grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, where they met on a double date. On my mother’s insistence, they waited to marry until after college. She worked as a clinical microbiologist. My dad, a chiropractor, was just getting started. So she worked more days than he did.
I shared a room with my younger sister and we’d shut the door so we couldn’t hear their constant arguing. One Saturday afternoon, she sent us to a neighbor’s house to stay overnight. The next morning, my mother took us home and broke the news: They were separating.
After the divorce, she stayed in her bedroom most nights. On weekends, she’d take us to a local bookstore where my sister and I picked out Judy Blume novels. My mom bought anything with a colorful salad or coconut layer cake on the cover. She liked to cook and had dozens of recipes stuffed in culinary books everywhere. She also loved to eat.
My mother’s weight went up and down by as much as 60 pounds. I liked to cook and eat too, and she’d let me help out. “Am I stirring this right Mom?” I’d ask, splashing egg whites up the side of a bowl for a honey cake.
“Um, go slower and use the whisk. Yes, like that, good!” she answered.
She bounced from a pot of cranberry meatballs on the stove to testing a spinach and potato kugel. I stirred onions in chicken fat and peeled potatoes. She gave me a test meatball. It was tangy and slightly sweet. I licked the red sauce off the fork and stole a corner of kugel. How did she get the crispy squares so creamy inside?
“You’re just like me,” she said, beaming. But I was annoyed: I didn’t want to be like her. She looked sad or upset too often. And yet, I wanted her cooking skills.
My mother showed me how to tell if oil was hot enough for frying and the way to test if flounder was done; how to poke it without breaking it. Her mood always improved in the kitchen, and I learned from her quickly. By 14, I could make a whole roasted chicken with rice pilaf.
But in high school, my mood changed from apathy to hopelessness. Eventually, I wanted to quit school. My mother took me for the official diagnosis: depression. I had no desire to go anywhere. Like my mother, I felt better in the kitchen. It was almost like exercise — like a high I would get after running on a treadmill. Whether it was sautéing vegetables or baking an apple pie, moving around the kitchen was a mood lifter.
Not ready for college, I found a full-time secretarial job and decided to move out. Mom packed some of her good pots, old cookbooks, and celebrity chef magazines. Things were going well until my 25th birthday, when I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. I moved back home.
My mother went into full nurturing mode. She called doctors for consults and drove me to all appointments. Per her request, lab reports were faxed and she kept a journal. She also insisted on taking me wig shopping and forced me to go outside with her. Mostly from weakness, I let her take over. Sometimes in the morning, I’d see balled up tissues on her pillow and knew she tried to hide her fear from me.
After months of treatment and quarts of my mother’s green tea, I recovered and could live on my own again. Eventually, I went back to school and met a wonderful man. I cook him my mother’s apricot chicken monthly.
Last week, I picked up my mom to stay with us for a few days. Once inside, she handed me a book. I sighed. My shelf was already stuffed.
“You have to see this sour cherry sauce for blintzes,” she declared. “It’s fantastic.” She was having a good day, and I let her open the page. The cherries were glossy jewels in a glaze that draped over golden cheese pockets.
“Gorgeous,” I said, taking the book and moving to my couch. She sat next to me as we flipped through the photos together. She was animated and we sat for awhile looking at toasted almond cheesecake and balsamic short ribs. She wanted me to find something I liked so we could make it together.
These days, when we visit each other, I’m usually the one who cooks. She’s happy to just read on my sofa or knit. That’s fine. She’s content there. I inherited a few wonderful gifts from her, and there are a few traits I wish I hadn’t. But I’ll always be grateful for her culinary passions, her empathy, and her love.
This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.