The Friday before Mother’s Day my second grader came home with a “Top 10 Reasons Why I Love My Mom” note in his hand, one he couldn’t wait until Sunday to give me.
This was one of those fill-in-the-blank, extra generic worksheets with cartoon illustrated smiling kids at the top, one of those pages of homework that will go into his bin of saved second-grade pictures and stories, one that serve as an artifact of a moment in time, when the child I’m raising wrote about the mother he knew more deeply than any other human on this earth, but only the me at this moment. Only the me who mothers him.
Some answers he got just right, exactly as I hope he’ll remember me. “I love my mom because she reads me Lord of the Rings,” number 10 says. (I love myself for that, too.)
“I love my mom because she taught me how to read.” (Yes!)
“I love to hear my mom sing Reptill Song” (also known as “Reptile Song,” my own invention, thank you very much.)
And then there are the other answers. “I know my mom is smart because she knows multiplication.” (Ha! Of all the things that *might* make me smart, my math skills are not among them!)
“I know my mom cares because she makes dinner for me.”
“I love my mom because she works so hard at dinner.”
. . .
When I was a junior in high school my mom went out of town and put me in charge of one—only one!—meal. Spaghetti, in its most elementary form: Boil the packaged pasta. Brown the ground beef. Pour some sauce on top.
The problem is that I had absolutely no basic knowledge in the kitchen. At that point I could scramble some eggs and make a pretty sweet grilled cheese. But the idea of standing over a stovetop and stirring something gave me hives.
I never could quite put my revulsion into words for my poor mother, who tried her best to help me learn some basics. I’d even taken an eighth grade home economics class culminating in my creating my very first breakfast casserole!
Still, there was something, a cultural expectation for girls, that I feared would force me into a role I didn’t want. In my childhood world, though my grandfather baked bread and my dad made pies, men didn’t stir pots. I was the only daughter, happiest when I was in the same room with my smart and funny older brothers, laughing at their jokes. If I learned to cook I would suddenly be stuck in a kitchen far away from the interesting conversations in the other room. I’d officially become a Real Woman.
That night when I was in charge of spaghetti, I literally burned the pasta in the pot of water. I had never even looked to see how much water one poured into a pot. I threw in about a cup of it with the hard pasta noodles. Even my dad was shocked and appalled.
My plan, of course, was always to marry a man who cooked, something that did not happen too often in the Texas Panhandle in the 1990’s. But I pulled it off, married a man from the east coast in 2004 who not only made dishes I’d never even thought of eating, but who taught me that it was okay to love food. I took my role as Official Taster in our marriage very seriously. I started learning my way around the kitchen with him, something I assured him, was a way for us to bond, not a plan for my gender conformity.
Twelve years later he is still the one who moves around the kitchen like an Italian grandma, sticking spoons of sauce into people’s mouths, asking our oldest son if it needs more salt, more lemon. My husband plans the elaborate meals for dinner parties and I’m happy to be the sous chef, content to chop a thing or throw together a salad.
But then there’s regular life: A transformation occurred in our kitchen life when I became a mother and then began to stay home with my firstborn. Suddenly there was a child who needed to get to bed on time, and a husband who was working late. Suddenly, I was the woman in the kitchen standing over a pot.
So then I was asking my mom for the recipe of that soup she always made, and reading Real Simple to learn how to roast a pork loin. I was the woman putting her baby in the bouncy seat while straining my eyes to understand a recipe.
Now I have an almost-eight-year-old, a five-year-old, a one-year-old, and on the weekdays the kitchen is the place I spend most of my time: slicing pears for my baby, dishing out snacks after school, washing dishes, washing dishes, washing dishes.
I don’t think of myself as a cook. That job is reserved for my husband. Joy doesn’t radiate from me at the cutting board. I don’t “play” in the kitchen. I still follow recipes because I’m a rule-follower and, to be honest, I don’t trust my instincts.
But still, night after night, I’m standing there before the stove, stirring something. Throwing some olive oil on the veggies and tossing them in the oven. Shouting over the stomping boy feet that it’s somebody’s turn to set the table. I’m the one pouring the glasses of milk, setting out the napkins.
I don’t know when it happened, but my son knows I care about him “because she makes dinner for me.” My little boy loves me “because she works so hard at dinner.”
Some forms of hospitality are hard-earned. I am not the best cook in this family. I am better at appreciating food than I am at creating it. But for the little boy who didn’t know my younger self—the girl who groaned about “women’s work” and burned the spaghetti. For the little boy who has only known me as a mom who makes his week night dinners—chicken tikka masala, tofu salad, pan seared salmon—to him I am a great cook. I am the one who takes care of him. I am the one who works hard doing something important for my family.
Top 10 Reasons Why I Love My Mom is hanging in the kitchen, the center of our home, the center of my world. It will be an artifact, something that points to a moment in time when, no, I still wasn’t good at multiplication, but one in which I became not a Real Woman who could cook, but a woman who practiced loving, everyday everyday everyday. A liturgy of care for my children.
I fed them. Imperfectly. And they knew I loved them.