The other day I was reading a book with my fifth-grade students. In the story, Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan, one of main characters, Esperanza’s mother, was very ill. As she is lying in her possible death bed, listless and despondent, she asks for her mother. Her mother is alive but far away. I asked the class, “Think about a time when you were sick or not feeling well. Who did you want to take care of you?” My mom, my dad, my parents were the responses from many. It is the response for me as well. Growing up, whenever I wasn’t feeling well, my mother was there to take care of me. Whether it was a cold, a skinned knee, the chicken pox or even heartbreak, my mother was one who took care of me. It was my mother who made me feel better. It was my mother who loved and comforted me.
I remember the times I stayed home from school because I didn’t feel well. My mother always had the same routine. The same routine I would follow years later with my own children. She would make sure I took a shower, put on comfy clothes and set me up on the couch with a blanket, tissues and the tv. She would nag me rest and drink fluids, lots of them. She would go to the store and buy ginger ale. This was a special treat because she refused to buy any form of soft drink normally. Then my mother would make my favorite, go-to meal when I was under the weather, soft-boiled eggs.
There were a lot of favorite dishes that my mother would cook for me. Soft-boiled eggs and toast were one of them. It was simple and she cooked it perfect every time. I never realized until I was older how difficult soft-cooked eggs really were to cook until I tried to make them myself. Even today as an adult, when I am feeling under the weather, I find a soft-cooked egg and toast warmly satisfying. Fortunately, I married a man who can really cook a good soft-boiled egg so this tradition can continue.
Another favorite meal my mother cooked for me was hot dogs and potatoes. Every year on our birthdays, my mother would ask my siblings and I what we wanted her to cook us for dinner. I would always choose hot dogs and potatoes. This was a special treat, especially for me as a picky eater. Similar to soft-cooked eggs, hot dogs and potatoes was not a complicated dish. The ingredients were simple and yet again she cooked it to perfection.
As a young child I didn’t realize the work that went into preparing such a meal. She would peel almost a whole bag of potatoes. Each potato was cut into thin slices, each the exact same width. In a pan of Crisco, my mother would fry the potatoes to a golden brown. They were crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside just like french-fries. My mother didn’t use a deep fryer however, she cooked the potatoes over the oil and watch them each with loving devotion. I remember when she would take the potatoes out of the oil and she would place them on the counter to cool on a brown paper bag. The smell was delicious, and I could not wait to eat them.
I cook a version of this dish today for my own children. I do not nearly do it justice by my mother’s standards. I do not cut each potato with precision. I do not stand over a hot pan filled with oil for what seems like an eternity. I cut the potatoes into slices and I bake them. They are similar to the potatoes I remember my mother cooking, yet they are not as good. I do not have the patience in the kitchen that my mother did. She loved to cook and loved preparing meals for her family. The kitchen was her studio and the oven and stove her canvas.
My mother grew up above her parents’ Italian restaurant. The restaurant where her mother, my grandmother Anna Milani DeSantis, was the cook. As the story goes, my grandfather, Vincenzo, wanted to open a bar. However, the city would not issue him a liquor license unless he agreed to sell food as well. He asked my grandmother to cook a few of her Italian dishes and the rest is history. My grandmother was an excellent cook and her food soon became more popular than the bar. Eventually DeSantis’ Restaurant was created, and they went on to serve thousands of home-cooked Italian meals for decades.
When my mother grew up, the kitchen of her home was the restaurant’s kitchen. Her mother cooked for her, their family and the people in their town as well as visitors from all over the world. My grandmother taught my mother how to cook all of her favorite dishes. Although my mother would sometimes complain about the restaurant and how her mother was a working mom and didn’t always have time for her, cooking was in her blood and she stayed connected to her mother by carrying on those food traditions. Traditions like eating prosciutto on Italian bread and marinated roasted red peppers with hard boiled eggs for Easter brunch.
My mother stayed connected to her mother and their family through food traditions. By cooking a certain meal or including a particular food you were showing those around you that you loved them. As is true in most Italian families, food is a very important part of family gatherings. It’s not just important, it’s vital and everything is centered around the food. My family will often joke that we aren’t finished with one meal before we start talking about what our next meal will be. Recently my niece said to a guest that was joining our family for dinner, “Our family has an unhealthy relationship with food.” She meant is in a positive way. Basically, we all really like good food. Good food should be enjoyed, and the company of a loving family cherished. These are the lessons my grandmother taught my mother and lesson my mother taught me. These lessons have become even more important to me since my mother’s passing ten years ago.
I’ve talked to many people whose mother has passed away. They say that you never get over the loss of your mother. I agree. Although I do not grieve for her with the intensity I once did, there is not a day, a week or a year that goes by in my life that I do not miss her. The ebb and flow of my grief for the loss of my mother will be a part of me for the rest of my life. I miss her unconditional and unwavering love and support for me and everything I do in my life. There will be no one in my life who will love me quite like my mother did, of that I am positive.
My mother passed away just around the time that I had become a mother myself and my children were young. My boys were ages three and six years old when my mother died. I had just begun to understand what it was like to love a childlike she loved me. I watched her love my children with that same intensity and with her whole heart.
My mother was a part of our daily lives when my family was young. She lived just across town and would visit my house every day, sometimes several times a day. When I went back to work after each of my children were born, she would come over during the day to help and support my husband as he cares for our children. At the time, he worked the 4-midnight shift. Instead of sending our boys to daycare, we decided he would take care of them during the day and I would take the evening shift. The was our arrangement and it suited us. We couldn’t have done it as well as we did without the unconditional love and support of my mother.
Sadly, my husband’s mother would never live to see our children. She passed away four months after we were married. She was young at the time, only forty-eight years old. On her death bed she told me she was so sad that she would never live to see the children she knew we were going to have, her grandchildren. She was so happy that Jason had me and my family. She was at peace knowing that he had my family to love and support him. She also knew and had asked Jason to love and care for his 10-year-old sister that she was distraught about leaving behind. At the time, I was newly married and overwhelmed. I have come to treasure Bette’s words to both Jason and me. To have had the opportunity to be with her and receive her love during her last moments on Earth was a gift.
My mother passed away suddenly and alone in her apartment. There were no last words or meaningful words of wisdom. I did not get to see her take her last breath or hold her hand in those last moments. What I had with my mother was a lifetime of memories and experiences that shaped who I am. In my search for me, I must revisit my relationship with her and make those important connections between us. The lessons she taught me didn’t end when she died, they live on. She taught me how to love my children and someday my grandchildren. She taught me how to love my family. Her lessons live on through me and my children. They live in through my husband and what she taught him. They live on through my siblings and their families. My mother may not be alive in the physical sense, but she is alive in me and in my life. I just need to remind myself that she is never very far away.
The thought of my mother not being far away gives me comfort, just like soft-boiled eggs did when I was sick. Lately I have been feeling sad. There are times in our life when work, stress and family responsibilities can be overwhelming. It is in these down times when my heart aches for my mother. How I long to call her on the phone or to have her make me one of my favorite comfort meals. I can make those meals, but they don’t taste the same. There is a missing ingredient that always made it taste so special, a mother’s love.
On Tuesday, my older son turns seventeen. How my mother would be proud of the young man he has become. How she delighted in being his grandmother. How she loved him since the day he was born and even before he was born. I asked him the other day what he wanted me to cook him for birthday dinner. “Goulash,” he replied. Another favorite dish my mother used to cook for me. And so, life goes on and family traditions continue. I will not forget to put some extra love in the goulash this year from his nana.
Christmas Morning 2005 (Max helping Nana open her present. I picked this photo because I love that Max’s hand is holding her hand)