When I was a child, Mom would march to my room, hands on her hips, and blare in her Asian staccato, “Come. I will show you how to cook.” It was the voice one would use to announce, “You’ve been conspiring against the Communist government. Now you will die.” I’d retreat deep into my blanket and Mom would swivel around with a huff. “You’ll be sorry when you can’t cook.” Mom’s a regular commandant in the kitchen. It puts fear in the bravest soldier.
I grew up and couldn’t cook. If I ever had a chance to snag a husband via culinary skills, I blew it. For the last two years, I’ve determined to learn from a gentler friend, Joy of Cooking. Now there’s a silent truce between Mom and I. We don’t interfere with one other’s cooking.
Thursday, the dam burst. “Why don’t we cook together Sunday for Memorial Day?” she asked. I almost swallowed my tongue. I could picture me cringing under the clack of orders, unable to procure a solid thought while the recipes burn. I like to be queen of the kitchen, captain of my destiny while uninhibitedly trying to fashion a masterpiece. I wouldn’t want clowns somersaulting across the stage while I perform piano or a kid playing kazoo while I’m talking, either. Simplicity is my M.O., but no one else in my family has gotten those genes.
“How about I do all the cooking,” I offered kindly, touching her arm.
She yanked away. “No.”
I issued complaints, but Mom turned on her senior deafness act. “I’ll make a few dishes, and you’ll make a few. That’s how it’s going to be.”
My conscience chided. The poor thing was willing to expend the little sexagenarian energy she had to cook for friends. How could I balk? It wouldn’t be so bad, my inner voice lied. It might possibly, conceivably, in some universe other than the Milky Way work. I envisioned a stellar menu and opened my mouth.
“We will have hamburgers, barbequed ribs, Italian sausage, cole slaw, grilled vegetables, and dessert,” she announced, then added, “Oh, and drive me to the city Saturday. I need some fun.”
“How will we get everything ready?” I asked, confused. New York was 60 miles away, an exhausting trip. “And we have to clean the house.”
“Easy,” she snapped. “I’ll make the burgers and grilled vegetables. You make the rest.” I closed my eyes, trying to forget I was working the next day.
“We’ll have to clean the porch, too,” she added. “I want the dinner outside.” Her house has a wraparound porch the length of the Jets’ football field. Last summer it took two hours to clean a third, and, tired, we’d vowed to finish another day. The facade of the Victorian has remained one third clean ever since.
“Cleaning the porch will take hours. Do you realize that?”
“No it won’t. We’ll start tomorrow night after you’re done with work.”
In the morning, I made a list. She’d do the grocery shopping. My fingers trembled with fear of the approaching storm. She squinted at the list. “What do you need yellow mustard for? I have Dijon.”
“I can’t make Uncle Ray’s Famous Mustard Barbeque Sauce without it.” She ranted about the effects of the recession on her personal bank account. “I have to have yellow mustard,” I insisted. My ribs were one of my best recipes, and no one would fool with my masterpiece.
She glared at the list. “Why do you need tart apples? We have apples.”
“They’re not tart,” I stated the obvious.
“Why can’t you make pear cake with canned pears?”
Because I wouldn’t make chocolate cake with motor oil, either. “I need the pears.”
More explaining and digging in of heels. By now I could’ve food shopped and stopped at Starbuck’s, Wendy’s, and Friendly’s on the way. She searched the pantry for items I might substitute, but I held my ground. Soon she was out the door, guns withdrawn, and the house fell into a tomblike silence which was quite miraculous.
Friday, I showed up after work, ready to clean the porch.
“I’m tired,” she whined, curled in front of the T.V. “I hired a housecleaner. The landscaper’s wife.”
I recalled she likes the porch done a specific way. “The one who only speaks Mexican?”
“That’s the one.”
Saturday rolled around. We went to the city. It was a good idea; we had some fun. We came home and the porch was more beautiful than we’d imagined. Everything was going well, except that the trip had us plum tired.
“Take a nap,” Mom suggested, lying on the couch. But naps were for sissies. Naps were for old people. I was young, vigorous, and indomitable. She slept for an hour while I typed at my laptop. By 5 p.m., it was time to start cooking, and there’d still be enough time for a book in the bathtub.
Mom took over the kitchen. “I’ll be done in a minute,” she said. It was an hour before she was done. One stall in the process was needing a friend’s recipe, sent to my email address, because Mom isn’t technological. The printer wasn’t working for the first time ever and everything had to be written by hand.
Now I felt the exhaustion. My muscles flabbed, my shoulders sagged, and my brain flickered like electricity on a windy night. I tried to remember what I was cooking. Two desserts. I’d planned to bake them at the same time.
Two cakes at two different temperatures. I should’ve thought to check. By eleven o’clock, the second cake came out of the oven and I fell into bed.
On Sunday, we attended church, then started the finishing touches before the guests would come. Dad invited a family to come early, so they got to watch me sweep and mop the kitchen floor. When the guests arrived, there was more food than a king could wish.
I’m thankful our guests like to stay a long time. It was 11:30 p.m. when the last filed out the door after sharing the movie, “The Book Thief.” A day to remember, lots of good conversation, shared YouTube videos, overindulgence, and one great memory.
“Want to go out?” Mom asked Monday morning. It was Memorial Day, no responsibilities. I had an answer prepared. I’m tired. I’m writing all day ‘til my fingers fall off. But I have to admit, the weekend with my mother in the whirlwind was fun. And, despite everything, memorable.
“I’ll get dressed,” I smiled. “Where are we going?”