Since she died in 2012, I have missed my mother every day. That is not particularly special; I suspect most people feel the same way about beloved people in their lives who have died.
Equally un-special is the fact that I wanted a sign. I wanted to know she was okay, even if she is just a bunch of random energy scattered all over the universe. Well, really, I wanted a sign that I was okay, too. Particularly since my father died in 2014 I’ve felt keenly the pain of being an orphan, albeit a superannuated orphan. It’s the cost of having great parents, that they become such an intrinsic part of who you are, your story, your identification and your place in the world that when they are physically gone it’s maybe harder to adjust to the new order of things.
(That was a somewhat complicated way of saying that I miss my parents a lot, and I’m sad).
My mother was a terrific cook and a really great hostess. She was the kind of hostess who made guests feel like it was perfectly natural that the house was clean, dinner was cooking, and the hostess was relaxed and available. The family knew about the ironing of napkins, the cleaning of the downstairs, the chopping, the marinating, the simmering, and the visit to Steve-the-wine-guy to select perfect wine in two-bottle sets. I absorbed the essence of what she (and my father) did on many Friday or Saturday nights: make it look easy, put your guests first, and roll with the punches like exploding fondue or the unexpected picky eater.
I have almost never entertained in my own house. When my parents were alive, their house was easier for family gatherings. Later, my brother’s house became the standard location because we had pet dander and (I have always secretly believed) because my house is not clean or modern enough. Our chairs are mismatched. So are some of our forks. I inherited the cooking gene from my mother and also, apparently, her non-cleaning gene but without the accompanying funding for a cleaning lady.
Lately, though, I have started to feed a group of my son’s friends every weekend. First, we gave them burgers, potato salad, pasta salad,and baked beans on July 4th. It was so much fun that I invited them back the following weekend for pulled pork, coleslaw and fruit salad. Nothing fancy; just good, homemade food at a set table with conversation and second helpings. Last week I made them Greek kebabs with homemade Tzatziki, pita bread and a Greek salad, and next week it’s all about Vindaloo, rice and a cool cucumber raita.
When I am planning, and buying and prepping, when I am cooking, and putting (my mother’s) beautiful summer place mats on the dining room table, she’s with me. There’s an autopilot kind of thing that points me to the next task, reminds me to listen to music as I work, and pushes me to leave space for a feet-up rest before guests arrive. I use paper plates, which she wouldn’t like, and I have been known to put condiments on the table in their original containers which, had she believed in hell, would have earned her nomination for the fastest way to get there. It’s mine, and it’s her’s, and we work well together.
Oh, and there’s this other thing about a salad and a bowl.
The other day I found myself making lunch just for me, from whatever was around. I chopped peppers and celery, halved some cherry tomatoes, drained a can of garbanzo beans and threw it all in a bowl with some shredded cheese and oil and vinegar dressing. To be specific, I threw it in this bowl, which is enameled metal, very 1970s, and lived in my original family home until I brought it here last summer:
Sitting down to eat the salad (with a book, because I am not as mindful as I’d like to be) I had a strong wave of memory. I remembered a salad my mother used to make, kind of a bean salad with kidney beans, maybe garbanzos, slices of celery, tiny chunks of cheese and a dressing she made herself that was creamy but very light. Maybe it was a 70s thing. Maybe it was a Jewish thing. Maybe, like “Hot Dogs Hawaiian” it was a recipe discovered during the early and very impoverished years of my parents’ marriage. Whatever it was, she would never have served it to guests, but to the four of us it was a staple.
“Leah,” I said to her as I put my book down for a moment “you’re totally in my head today. If you’re haunting me, it’s totally okay, but I’m going to keep using the paper plates.” I waited; she said nothing. She was there, though, from book to bowl, from confident hostess to almost confident hostess. She’s here.