My mother used to make brown lentil soup with mustard greens in it. She would cook it on the back of the stove and, depending on the mood she was in, called it either “Soup for the Soul,” or, “Soup We Have to Eat Because We Don’t Have Enough Money to Buy Hamburger.”
Whatever she called it I couldn’t stand the taste of it. At least I think it was the taste of the soup that I couldn’t stand. It’s also possible that I couldn’t stand the taste of the bitterness that went into it.
I never made a lot of the food my mother made. I was too afraid of her to get close enough to learn and stayed out of her way. In fact, when I was growing up I not only stayed out of her way in the kitchen but also in life in general. She was always packing that little cardboard suitcase she kept at the back of the closet and telling me how much I would like it wherever it was she was sending me—to help out a new mother with twins. She said, “it’ll be like a summer vacation.” Other times it was to give a widow a hand with laundry and “It’ll be like staying at the beach,” or whatever other euphemisms she would use to convince me that it was okay to be continually packing my suitcase. She didn’t use euphemisms the first time she packed it and dropped me and my sister off at the orphanage though. She just said goodbye.
“Orphanages aren’t such bad places, are they, Melanie?” she would later ask.
It was at that orphanage, while my father was at war and she was trying to hold down a job and take care of two toddlers on her own, that the nuns would fix rutabaga pie or steamed okra, and to this day I still turn up my nose at both. Funny how otherwise perfectly fine food cooked by otherwise perfectly fine Hungarian nuns can taste like loneliness and fear and how your mother’s brown lentil soup can taste like bitterness and despair.
A lifetime later I’d find that very same cardboard suitcase at the back of my mother’s closet and use it to pack some of her clothes for her trip to the nursing home. I remember opening it and expecting the accordion cardboard me to pop out like those old Jack-in-the-Box toys we used to have. But nothing popped out, nothing but memories and the smell of sadness.
Over the decade that it would take my mother to die I would watch her struggle as the quicksand of Alzheimer’s sucked her further and further into its maw. Her suffering touched me and I would come to understand her in a way that I hadn’t before.
I would see that as I was growing up, much as she may have wanted to, she couldn’t keep her own bitter depression from flavoring her soups. I would see that when she sent me away to this family or to that widow, she wasn’t so much sending me away as she was sending herself away through me—away from her pain. Finally, I would see that even the orphanage was a place that she herself would have wanted to go—a place where the good sisters would have loved her and taken care of her and where there would always have been a big pot of fragrant soup on the back of the stove, ready for her to eat whenever she wanted.
I cried for my mother. Not for her Alzheimer’s disease, or even for her death, but for the life she never knew—the one with security and peace of mind in it and without dementia hanging over it. I cried for her desperate attempts to make things work and I cried for me, for not having understood her struggles and fears until it was too late to tell her or to get to know her.
In the end, I cried because I wished I had stood next to her in that kitchen all those years ago…and learned how to make her brown lentil soup.
Author: Carmelene Siani
Editor: Travis May
Images: Movie Still from Mommie Dearest