My mother is a terrible cook. Until I went away to college, I thought that broccoli and Brussels sprouts were always served pale green and mushy. I thought lamb chops and steak were supposed to be gray inside. I thought fish came in little frozen breaded sticks that you stuck in the oven. I remember watching my mother slave away over a hot stove, spending hours to produce what my friends referred to as "Mrs. Braver's hot water chicken soup." While others were debating the merits of cilantro and cumin, we were lucky if Mom remembered to add salt and pepper to the pot. In all fairness, she does make great chopped chicken liver and potato pancakes (some sort of Jewish genes automatically kicking in, I think). But her roast chicken was always dried out and her pot roast stringy.
If you're wondering why I'm heaping all this abuse on my mother on Mother's Day weekend of all times, it's to keep you from screaming in disbelief when I tell you how spectacular she is in all other ways. No kidding, save for her culinary skills, or lack thereof, the woman is just about flawless. She was known as "the prettiest mother" in our neighborhood, also the nicest. In grade school, she was the Room Mother and the Brownie Troop Leader. I remember the pains she took at each Brownie meeting, coaxing an incredibly shy girl out of the bathroom where she fled at the start of each session.
But there's another story I didn't learn until a few years ago. That's when I got a call from a woman who had once been the quietest, smartest, skinniest little girl in my elementary school. She was the daughter of two concentration camp escapees, and though I didn't think very much about it at the time, I now realize that she was always hiding in the shadows, speaking only when called on. She was married with children now, had seen me on CBS News and said she wanted to tell me something about my mother. "She invited me to be in the Brownie troop," she said. "She called my mother to ask. My parents wouldn't let me join, they were afraid of everything." But, she went on to tell me, the very fact that my mother had invited her to be part of the group was something she repeated to herself over and over through many lonely and sleepless little girl nights.
My mother never told anyone about this, of course. It's not her way to brag about herself. It's not that she's stoic, she's just modest. And don't think of her as a comfortable housewife. When I was 12 she went to work, worried about coming college tuition for my sisters and me. When I was 16 and she 3, my father died and she had to support three teen-aged daughters on her secretary's salary and a small stipend from my father's job.
She never complained about anything. She rarely raised her voice. She shared her car and her clothes with us. She always asked where we were going and what we were doing, but somehow never pried. "Your mother is so wonderful," my friends would say. Who cared if she couldn't cook?
When I graduated from college and wanted to use my savings from my waitress job to bum around Europe for a year, she did not tell me that I needed to get a job and worry about my future. She sent me off with her blessings, saying "I wish I could have done it myself."
Mommie, as I still call her, worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons at the Justice Department and, years later, when I covered the place, the mere mention of my name led to the inevitable question, "Are you Jeanette's daughter?". "Yes," I would say, ready to bask in the compliments about how "everyone loves your mother," and also extremely willing to take advantage of the doors that opened so easily for me once the relationship had been established.
At 77, she has had two cataract operations and now sees better than anyone else in the family. She walks a bit slower than she used to, but she has enough energy to volunteer at an elementary school every week and raise money for charity. She still brushes my hair out of my eyes. Her hands feel as smooth and cool as they did when I was eight. I hear my friends talk about their mother's latest complaint or tantrum or snit fit. I smile at them in sympathy and private relief. My husband describes her as "everything a mother should be and nothing a mother-in-law is supposed to be." Her grandchildren, including my daughter, trust her with all their special secrets.
And speaking of my daughter, the biggest challenge of course is being as good a mother as the one I have. I am afraid it was an impossible feat to accomplish. But let's save that for next year. I have to go now, because I did inherit one thing from my mother. And that's why I need to get busy and order lunch for our Mother's Day party.
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