Symbolism and nostalgia on Mother's Day

Remembrances of a Southern mother

Mother's Day is coming up and no other holiday so thoroughly captures the primary emotional state of the nation these days. I'm talking about nostalgia – that sentimental longing for the idealized past. In a ruined economy, we grow especially nostalgic for the comfort – actual or not – symbolized by a mother.

But the dearth of sentimentality about the mother, like most nostalgia, feels surreally one-dimensional to me. It at once places the mother on a pedestal and trivializes her actual reality. At least this seems true to me of many Southern mothers.

My mother, who died a few years ago, was born in Silver, S.C., a crossroads south of Sumter in the middle of nowhere. Her father was German and her mother was very Southern. They moved to a big house in downtown Charlotte after the Depression ruined my grandfather's prosperous business as a cotton broker. He opened a furniture store where my mother, the youngest of a gaggle of daughters, kept him company.

My father, a Yankee, met my mother soon after World War II. He used to frequently talk about visits to my grandmother's home. She would load the long table with countless dishes, including two or three meats. My father used to say that when he married my mother, he expected her to come with her own mother's talent and love of cooking. Actually, as he put it, it turned out that my mother "couldn't boil water."

There are, in the literature of the South, endless accounts of mothers passing the art of cooking on to their daughters. Usually, this is described as a bonding ritual. The daughter hangs out in the kitchen and becomes mama's helpmate. In my mother's generation of Southern women – before the advent of TV dinners and their spin-offs – this was widely taken for granted, and it's perpetually romanticized.

But my mother, I came to understand, embodied what must have been a widespread, if usually unconscious, conflict. I'm talking about the years before the "feminist revolution," a time when women's own interests were considered secondary to the culture's prescribed domestic roles.

I have a school project that mama assembled when she was about 15. The assignment apparently was to construct a notebook about the occupation she'd like to pursue.

She wanted to be an artist. In her writing in the notebook, she agonizes over the impracticality of her decision but says a particular painting at Charlotte's Mint Museum spoke to her, providing no doubt that art was her destiny. But in the many pictures clipped from magazines in the notebook, there is a stark mixture of Norman Rockwell-esque paintings of domestic bliss – several illustrate dinner – and edgier work. A clipping of an essay by William Somerset Maugham celebrates youth's attraction to the strange.

Her first passion was art, not becoming a housewife. So I'm not surprised my mother had no idea how to cook when she married my father. She did learn, however, and became an adept Southern cook, guided by the memory of her mother's cooking if not by actual experience in the kitchen. She also followed quite a few recipes from The Joy of Cooking. I know this happened to a great extent under pressure from my father. Although her food was usually straightforwardly delicious – fried chicken flavored with bacon fat, fresh squash casserole, green beans cooked with potatoes, etc. – I don't think she really enjoyed cooking. She used to say, as a joke, "Why cook it? You'll just eat it."

My mother, who was often depressed and had an obsessive streak, was most famous for her cooking "jags," as my father called them. When I was a young child, she caught the congealed salad bug. Every shade of Jell-O afloat with every imaginable ingredient made it to the table.

Her most satisfying jag was pound cake. For years, she made a pound cake once or twice a week. Most of these were plain or lemon-flavored. Oatmeal cookies were another jag. They would appear by the dozens for days at a time.

Of course, part of this I think had to do with my mother's own perpetual hunger. Being thin was the primary aesthetic value of her generation. When my father was on the road with his job, as he was most weekdays, she never sat down and ate a meal. She only picked at the food she cooked us. My father was naturally thin and could eat anything without gaining weight, but mama gained weight easily. Like many women of her time, she took diet pills now and then. I remember that during one cycle of these, she appeared in a bouncy wig, a miniskirt and Nancy Sinatra-style boots. She looked great, but I remember thinking even then how unhappy her relationship to her body was. In later years, she had many cosmetic surgeries.

There was one way in which my mother's orientation to home dining differed radically from most Southern moms. She and my father practically never ate with us, except at restaurants or on special occasions. She served my brothers and I dinner around 6 p.m. and she and my father, rattling cocktails, would sit down to eat a few hours later. Growing up, I found it positively creepy that my friends' parents ate with them. I think this was another place my mother intentionally departed from tradition. She didn't feel like she had to subsume her entire existence in family. Of course, this is the same woman who refused to join the neighborhood garden club until, she told me, "we can air-condition the yard."

Mama demanded appreciation for her cooking efforts. We were required to say, "I enjoyed it," before we left the table. Once, when she felt underappreciated, she hired a caterer called Kitty's Kitchen to deliver our meals. These arrived in canteens – Indian-style – and were horrible. After a couple of weeks, she agreed to resume cooking. All she had to do for years afterward was say "Kitty's Kitchen" to make us appreciative.

Mama loved to eat out. In fact, when I was a child, she often took me with her to a restaurant for lunch on the maid's day. This was usually a Chinese restaurant called the Ming Tree in Charlotte, near the Mint Museum and the public library, both of which we visited. These days together cultivated my love of food and books and comprise some of my best memories of my mother, who was an obsessive reader, to say the least.

Both my parents urged me to eat adventurously and I almost always went for the most exotic, expensive dish on any menu. There wasn't much exotic in Atlanta when we moved here when I was about 13. We occasionally went to a long-gone hotel restaurant on Peachtree Street that specialized in French food. I always ordered anything flambé on the menu.

Like so many Southerners, some of my best memories involve meals. On weekends when we used to visit my uncle's place on the Catawba River, mama would get up early to fry chicken and make deviled eggs and potato salad. Those were times we did eat together on the picnic bench near the dock, between swimming, fishing and boating. It was idyllic.

My memories of my mother and food are pleasant for the most part, but they also point to the stereotyping and outright oppression with which women of her time lived. Mama rebelled in some ways – more than most – but complied in others. She quit doing art for decades, but resumed it months before the stroke that would render her speechless and unable to walk or read for the next 15 years. I wish her life had been happier.

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