Little nuggets of wisdom from my brother; he might have been three or four years old at the time. Some of his sayings are now woven tightly into the fabric of the family archives. But yesterday, during a conversation with my sister, the food theme took on another meaning. It’s the evolution of nurturing in our family.
It made me wonder if living through years of near starvation during the war made food such a focal point in their lives. Even my grandmother, when she would visit from Germany, made food her concern. I think one of the very first words in English she learned were “are you hungry”. As though fulfilling this basic need was a key to happiness. Clearly, when there’s little or no food to be had, the comfort of a full belly is a big deal.
My mom carried that tradition and mindset on, too. Over the years food was often the main event. And she strived to ensure our diets were nourishing and delicious. It was a way for her to show caring and love. I totally get it. Food is a pleasurable sensation for us. We live abundantly and enjoy the life of plenty.
I recall as a youngster how our palettes were very different from others. Just like language, food is cultural. While our friends were eating lasagne and sloppy Joe’s, we were eating rouladen and spatzle. School lunches for us were Kaiser buns laden with Black Forest ham while others munched on PB and J. I’m sure it’s a whole new scene out there now especially since peanut butter is verboten.
In grade school we used to walk home for lunch and eat our dinner at noon. Dad would also get a lunch break and come home. That in itself is almost unheard of until covid of course. We would gather around our kitchen table (which had only four chairs as my mom busied herself with serving) and await our meal. One of the best meals was minute steak. A very thin cut of beef that my mom would pan fry in butter (never margarine!) with onions. When the meat was gone mom put the empty frying pan (a big square electric thing) on the table and we took pieces of bread to sop up the bits left in the bottom.
It’s funny that my career revolved around food for the final stages. I recall one of the chef instructors answering the question “who, in your opinion, is the best chef”. His answer (oddly that most chefs in the beginning were men) was: mothers. He explained that mothers took lean budgets (mostly they didn’t work so there was only 1 family income) and limited equipment resources (tiny electric stoves) and had to feed a group three meals a day. There was no such thing as convenience foods like we know them today. If you wanted a snack it was a piece of fruit. I remember going to a friends house and having “hamburger helper” and thinking it was amazing.
Rudy and I reminisce about his mom and her kitchen a lot. Now that I think about it, they had a tiny kitchen with a table and four chairs (they were also a family of 5) and even up to the end of her life, Rudy’s mom had a puny electric stove, one sink (no dishwasher) and a small fridge. Yet she produced the most delicious meals. We try to emulate her recipes frequently. It’s comfort for the soul and enriched with so many good memories.
So yesterday I was talking with my sister. She is the primary babysitter for my mom and dad while I’m away. It’s a decision that still weighs on me heavily as travel is so restricted these days; I’m hopeful that will change sooner than later. I would love to be able to make a visit back to see my folks in person. Alas, it’s a wait and see scenario. My sister is in the same geographical situation; she’s a two hour drive to my parents place. Plus my sister is still very much employed. Her position requires her to work many hours everyday and now she’s doing her work from home. Her office in New York has been shuttered since covid began and won’t reopen until at least May 2021. She’s had to create a home office and zoom in like so many others.
She tried “working from home” at my parents place. As she described it, I could see in my minds eye what the scenario looked like. Mom and dad sleep in our (me and my sisters) old bedroom set up. Two single beds made by our former neighbour, Mr Deiterding, who was a woodworker. Nice pine beds with single foam mattresses. There was also a desk and chair to match. Now it’s the master bedroom suite in their two bedroom condo. And the only place to sit and work other than the dining room table.
My sister has been visiting my parents every other week since I returned from Florida earlier this year (for a while it was weekly! as she did their shopping too). To make it feasible with a two hour drive, she and Frank will stay for a few days at a time. Therefore she has to squish work in there, too.
There she is, set up at our old desk (which was plenty big to hold a binder and pencil case but computer gadgets not so much) with her zoom meeting in full swing. In the middle of the meeting my mother enters the room and in full view of the meeting camera asks if my sister is hungry. “Can I make you a sandwich?” My sister says that some of her colleagues have kids so there’s often a blooper. They view my mom as a kid. They understand.
So in order to accommodate her life situation, my sister has rented an apartment in Stratford from January to May. Juggling and balancing all the moving parts requires ingenuity and will. Sums up my sister pretty well; she’s completely tenacious in problem solving. Don’t whine; fix it. And she’s super smart. No problem too complicated. Luckily Frank is indulgent. Our parents are the only ones he has left, too.
Mom is living a very simple life now. Her daily routine is highlighted by checking the mail. Knowing this we send her cards so there’s something to collect. In her former life she would handle the household finances and the mail was the delivery of bills. Now Frank handles all the bills on line. There’s very little mail. Yesterday she checked the mail three times hoping to find a piece to bring up for my dad to read. Nada. It’s her birthday in a few days and I don’t think my card will make it, but that won’t matter to my mom because whenever it does arrive will be the highlight of that day. Her other mission is feeding everyone. She forgets that we’ve eaten lunch (or any meal for that matter) and slips into her familiar mode of making something to eat. She no longer can cook food but she can prepare sandwiches.
I wondered why there’s often a plate of sandwiches beside my dads seat in the den. It just occurred to me as I type this, that my dad gets tired of telling my mom “no, we just ate … maybe later” and just lets her fiddle in the kitchen to make a sandwich. When I think of how robust their lives were it makes me very sad to imagine their humble, quiet routine. My mom is not able to do much with her disabilities (vision, cognitive, mobility) and my dad is her caregiver; a duty and responsibility he accepts with grace and kindness. He calls her his lamb (in German) as he brushes her hair or puts in her hearing aids. My sister has given her another handle: Evil Baby. There’s definitely a side to mom that’s not very lamb-like. When she hears Evil Baby, mom actually laughs and smiles; she likes it.
It’s hard to say where my moms brain has gone. There are some days that she’s very tuned in. My dad embraces these precious days and savours the company of his “old wife”. He has told me that he likes the conversations with the real mom. Unfortunately those times are fewer and fewer. I think mom knows it too. It must be so frustrating to feel out of control of your own abilities. Especially since she was so in charge her whole life.
I’m so grateful my sister is taking the reins. There’s a fine line for me between living the retired life while my parents are so dependent on help. Even though it’s only a few months, it weighs heavily on me that I’m shirking my responsibility. Luckily Rudy keeps me grounded. I better go now …. he might be hungry.
PS thinking about my brother, I have to chuckle at the memories of him and food. As a toddler he could never resist a puddle to drink from or a metal surface to lick in the winter. Icicles were a special treat! But the thought of him tucking into one of his favourites: cheese curds, captain crunch cereal, potato salad, ice cream pie … all brings a smile to my face. Now that he’s married to a fabulous cook, he’s all set. Love me and feed me. ♥️