It is never easy to find comfort.
Not the kind that is lasting and true. Not the kind that confronts reality head-on rather than seeking to disguise it.
Faith is not comfort as far as I’m concerned. Faith is all about hoping to find comfort. I prefer something that will do me some good in the here and now. But the world does not seem to be designed that way. At least for most people.
My mom has most definitely never been most people.
In the early fall of 2014 I got a phone call from my mother, who had recently turned ninety-two. I could tell from her tone that she wanted to discuss something a bit more serious than the oversalted soup her aide had made or the tasteless tomatoes bought at the supermarket.
After her stroke in 2007, my mom couldn’t cook anymore—a genuine lessening of the quality of her life since cooking was a true and valued personal pleasure, not just a professional one. But her superb palate was unchanged. Her ability to distinguish between good and not-so-good food was probably more important to her than at any point in her life. So not long after her stoke, I arranged to have a young chef, a lovely woman named Jenny Cheng who had recently graduated from cooking school in New York, spend one day a week cooking for my mom. Jenny soon realized that my mother was more than just a passive diner; her knowledge of food was extensive and she loved to pass that knowledge on. So before long, in addition to cooking, Jenny also started going through the many cookbooks on my mom’s bookshelves and talking to my mother about food and recipes and technique, about flavors and taste.
My mother, quite aphasic after the stroke, had dismissed the idea of speech lessons and group speech classes from the very beginning of her home recovery process; she found them condescending for some reason, plus she didn’t love displaying her handicap in public. But discussing food with Jenny engaged and energized her and she realized she still had the ability to teach (and to make the food Jenny was preparing a lot better, taking back some of the control she had lost). Talking about her meals—critiquing what she had just eaten, going through recipes to figure out what she would eat the following week, telling stories about her various food-related experiences, reexploring recipes from the cookbooks she’d written over the years—was more than just an important element in her recovery, it was critical to maintaining her daily appreciation of life.
In time, Jenny had a baby and she was replaced by another terrific woman (and cook), Joyce Huang, who eventually also moved on, replaced by yet another wonderful woman and chef, Cynthia Tomasini. They are all passionate about what they do, and they value the time they have spent talking food with my mother; they learned as they worked. For my mom, these three women became a link to the outside world as well as to a much younger generation, a connection she valued as much as the delicious food they prepared for her.
On the phone that evening, my mother seemed subdued. Sensing that something was bothering her, I went over to her apartment—the apartment the doctors said she would never return to but where she is living comfortably with several wonderful live-in companions (thank you, long-term health care insurance!). Post-stroke, it is difficult for my mother to walk without someone holding her and guiding her. She needs help showering and with all bodily functions. Her hearing is pretty much gone. And it’s difficult for her to read and focus on anything much longer than a New York Times article. But what frustrates her the most is that her aphasia makes it difficult for her to have lengthy or substantive conversations. Her memory is perfect, she forgets nothing, and there is zero hint of any dementia, but it’s an aggravating and sometimes torturous process for her to recall certain words, particularly nouns and proper names. She will struggle, for instance, to come up with the name of the restaurant she ate in the night before or what kind of cuisine they serve, but she’ll tell you exactly where it is located, including the cross streets. She’ll also tell you precisely what she thought of the food.
On this night, we were having an impromptu dinner of Joyce’s leftovers when my mother made it clear that she was determined to say something, no matter the struggle. And she did. It was arduous and exhausting work for her, but she managed to say something she had never said to me before.
“I think . . . it’s . . . too hard.”
“What’s too hard?” I asked.
A long silence and then: “Life.”
I was shocked. My mother has had at least four different cancers and two strokes. When she was forty, she was given a 5 percent chance of living twelve more months due to a melanoma. When she was in her early seventies, she had her first stroke while in a tent, on safari in Africa. With the right side of her body partially paralyzed, she walked several miles, took a boat across a river, got to an airport so she could take a plane to London, spent the night at a hotel there, and then flew back to New York—I swear this is true!—at which point she called me to say she must have eaten some bad giraffe meat or something because she couldn’t move her right arm or leg. As I repeated her symptoms aloud, my longtime girlfriend, Janis Donnaud, was frantically mouthing the words, “She had a stroke! We have to get her to the hospital!” Which is what we did, and she spent several weeks there until she recovered fully.
But with all of that, she had never—not once, not ever—hinted that her life was anything but enjoyable.
I was certain my mom hadn’t heard me so I repeated, louder: “Really? You think your life is too hard?”
She nodded. And also made a face at me to show she knew I was talking too loud, because she hates any reference to her poor hearing and refuses to acknowledge the need for hearing aids, even though she is pretty much deaf as a stone. The only words she ever seems to hear clearly are those I mutter quietly, the ones she’s not supposed to hear.
“As in too hard to keep going?” I asked.
She shrugged. The shrug said: It’s possible.
“What’s so hard about it?” I asked. “Can you tell me?”
She nodded. “It’s hard.”
“I know. But what in particular?”
“Hard . . . for you.”
“For me? What do you mean?”
“Hard for you . . . to . . . take care of me.”
I couldn’t help it. I had to laugh. A few days earlier one of her air conditioners had sputtered and quit working—not a good thing during a summer heat wave—and I’d quickly purchased her a new one, arranging to have it delivered and installed. My mom doesn’t like that I have to handle many of her day-to-day problems—a new air conditioner, talking to the cable company when her TV goes out, scheduling her physical therapy—and it drives her crazy that I often don’t let her pay for whatever needs to be done. Of course, not everything goes off without a hitch, especially in Manhattan, and there was a screwup with the air conditioner delivery—my mother had gone out for a walk (actually, she went out for a wheel, as in wheelchair, but she likes to call it a walk) during the allotted delivery time. I’d gotten aggravated that I had to rearrange the service call and I guess hadn’t disguised my aggravation too well.
“So,” I said, “you’re talking about being ready to die because I had to buy you an air conditioner and got pissed off that you weren’t here when the guys delivered it?”
“Yes,” she said.
“I promise,” I told her, “your being alive is not too hard on me. In fact, I actually like it.”
She nodded, accepting the information.
“So other than being hard on me, you still like your life?”
“Yes,” she said.
She then took a bite of the duck breast that Joyce had made for her.
“How’s the duck?” I asked.
“Delicious,” my mom said. And suddenly all traces of her aphasia were gone. “Very well cooked. Better today at room temperature. Outside crisp but moist inside. Maybe too much salt.”
I didn’t understand how she’d become that person. I don’t remember her being like that when I was a child. No one else was like that in my family. Not my dad, who got a huge amount of pleasure from so many things but was, at heart, angry and disappointed with a good chunk of what life had dealt him and frustrated by the compromises he’d chosen to make. Certainly not my brother, who is, as near as I can tell, unhappy to his core. My father’s side of the family could hardly be called happy-go-lucky. It would be hard to even label many of his relatives as sane. None of my mother’s sisters or brothers came even close to the kind of honorable and intelligent equanimity with which she goes through life. Nor do any of their children.
I wondered how my mother could be so damn accepting, wondered if I could ever be like that. If I really wanted to be like that. The fact is, I have always kind of liked my anger and thought I had it contained just enough so it worked in my favor. But now I was intrigued: What would life be like if I found that kind of peace? That kind of comfort? And I began to wonder how the hell one could achieve it.
I am not in any way a spiritual person. I never accepted that inner peace could come from something I basically think of as make-believe. I also never saw much difference between worshipping dead religious figures of yore, be it Jesus, Mohammed, or Joseph Smith, and worshipping circus clowns or balloon sculptures. They all have the same degree of believability as far as I’m concerned. I don’t understand patriotic fervor, either, which seems to be the other thing that grounds people and links them together. I’m not quite able to grasp the whole concept of thinking you’re better than someone else because of the geographical location in which you were born.
Narrowing things down, I also never thought that contentment could truly come from other people—from relationships or children or family. I think that to have a good relationship, one has to bring a certain amount of confidence and stability to that relationship, not hope to just make a withdrawal. Love and relationships and all that good stuff could build upon a foundation of happiness, but, for me, they could not create that foundation.
That pretty much exhausted my perceived channels to attain some kind of spiritual peace. I didn’t really know what the other choices were.
I looked at my mother across her dining table as she took another bite of Joyce’s duck, abandoning the whole hard-to-handle fork thing and taking the last piece in her good hand and putting it into her mouth. Chewing firmly, a small piece of the duck hanging from the corner of her mouth, she smiled without bothering to look up at me. “Yes,” she said, ending the conversation about the air conditioner and how hard things were for her or for me. “I still like my life.”
I wondered: How did she get to be who she is?
I left my mother’s apartment and for several days afterward I found myself obsessing more and more about the idea of family: What is it? Why do we either cling to our natural one or create new ones? What actually holds a family together or splits it apart?
Why does it seem to be the one thing in the world that, for better or worse, winds up defining who we are and how we respond to the world around us?
And perhaps most important: What is it about family that seems to be our main source of comfort—or the main reason we can’t find any?
At some point during my grappling and pondering, I realized that, going back generations, there was one thing that unquestionably dominated my family dynamic in a bizarre variety of ways: food.
My mother’s family owned a legendary Jewish dairy restaurant on the Lower East Side of New York City called Ratner’s. Started by my grandfather in the early 1900s, the restaurant had a huge influence on my family’s identity and on so many of our complicated family relationships—I know it had a profound effect on my mother as she was growing up. It shaped her—and later my—understanding of human nature.
In her fifties, my mother went to work at another legendary restaurant, this one in Los Angeles, Ma Maison. That move changed and reshaped her own life to a substantial degree, and it changed the lives of many others, especially those of her husband and her two children. It raised our level of sophistication, it broadened our views, it introduced us to a universe of people who possessed previously unknown skills and talents and even genius. It also, as she grew and evolved, caused a fairly seismic shift in the family dynamic and the roles we all eventually played going forward.
So, at my instigation, my nonagenarian mother and I began to talk about food in a more in-depth way than we had probably ever discussed anything other than our immediate family.
I knew that food and the preparation of food were essential to my mother’s sense of well-being, but I realized that I didn’t know the actual foods that were important to her. I decided that was something important to me. So that’s where we began. I pressed her for specifics. It took some time, due to her aphasia, but over many meals—in and out of her kitchen—and a decent amount of wine, beer, and vodka, she eventually came up with a list.
When the list was complete, I didn’t know quite what to do with it. I wasn’t sure there was anything to do with it. But it was knowledge—some insight into my mom—and I was glad to have it.
And then one evening we started talking about a lot of things: my father, families in general, our family in particular, relationships, love, disappointment, pleasure, getting older, changes.
“Why did you like cooking so much?” I asked her. “ ’Cause it made other people so happy?”
“No,” she said, surprising me. “Well, partly . . . but . . . not really . . . about that.”
“I like making other people happy. But . . . more about . . . me.”
She was silent for a while after that, but I waited. I could tell more was coming.
“I like understanding something . . . so well . . . I can turn it into whatever I want. I like the . . . the . . .”—her eyes started to roll in frustration; she was prepared to quit but then it came to her—“. . . the precision. A kind of . . . therapy. Chopping and cutting . . . hypnotic. No tension in cooking. Just . . .”
She tailed off and I thought she was finished until I prompted her one more time and she said, “It just works. I like doing something that works.” There was another silence and then she said, “It makes me . . . happy. Gives me . . .”
“What does it give you, Mom?”
She shook her head. She’d lost the word. Then she found it: “Definition.”
Definition. Despite her aphasia, my mother had nailed it. If there was anything that provides genuine comfort to people, it is finding and defining their own identity.
We use various labels to define ourselves. I am a Catholic. I am a Texan. I am a scientist. I am a feminist. I am a conservative. I am a rebel.
We find what makes us comfortable and we put ourselves in that box.
I am married. I am independent. I am rich. I am an artist. I am funny.
I am whatever links me to the world to which I want to be attached.
But food? As a way of providing a sense of self?
The conversations began a process of understanding.
I decided that I was going to cook all of my mother’s favorite foods and meals. I’d cook with and learn from her but would also cook with and learn from others, so I could attempt to master the techniques she valued and understood so well and attempt to master the things I valued but of which I had zero understanding.
And once I did, I would make her perfect dinner, not just for her but also for the people she valued and who valued her, the people who’d taught her and shaped her taste and molded her and, by extension, helped mold me.
I was going to learn exactly what made it all work. And what it all meant. Not just the food and drink, but other things as well. I was certain there was a connection between food and relationships and family and personal history. I just needed to find out what it was.
I was going to try to make a whole bunch of people—including myself—happy.
I was determined to find some kind of purpose while deciphering a few of the eternal mysteries that lie within the seemingly simple act of following a recipe and preparing a meal.
In the process, I was hoping to find some definition.
And, if I was lucky, some comfort.
Copyright © 2017 by Peter Gethers. Excerpted from My Mother’s Kitchen: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and the Meaning of Life
Peter Gethers is an author, screenwriter, playwright, book editor, and film and television producer. His books include The Cat Who Went to Paris, the first in a bestselling trilogy about his extraordinary cat, Norton. He is also the cocreator and coproducer of the hit off-Broadway play Old Jews Telling Jokes. He lives in New York City, Sag Harbor, New York, and, whenever possible, Sicily.