When I was a little girl, it was Mom’s plumpness that comforted me. I could hug her until I moved cross-country in my late twenties and never reach around all that love. The smell of her cooking marvelous comfort food in the kitchen would entice me to come to her and hug and hug and hug her.
Sometimes she was cooking varskečiai, Lithuanian ravioli swimming in a warm sea of sour cream cooked with butter; sometimes magical Indonesian food with all the toppings of bananas and coconut and raisins and chutney placed ‘round the Lazy Susan; sometimes meatloaf or my favorite, chicken divan, or the hot dog and beans casserole laced with bacon. Always a salad or cole slaw, both dressed with my father’s favorite vinegar and oil and a dash of sugar. Always a vegetable. Always a starch. Always milk. The little girl Carol could never understand her big brother Al’s preference for water.
And she taught me to bake. Love infused into vanilla and butter and sugar and flour. Mixing the dough. Rolling the dough. Sneaking pieces of the batter under Mom’s watchful eyes. Checking the cookies to make sure they didn’t burn – or did, to please my next brother. The little girl Carol could never understand her big brother Bob’s preference for brown-edged sugar cookies.
And weekend mornings delighted my childhood. She taught me the specialties of pancakes and of eggs and of French toast and of thin Lithuanian pancakes rolled up with jam and sprinkled with powdered sugar. I never stopped cooking breakfast from when I first left home. I could never understand my men’s not loving breakfast as much as I. How could one not love a mother’s comfort first thing in the morning?
As she taught me to cook basics like breakfast and to bake cakes and cookies, she shared with me the simplicity of preparing food for the cooking. On hot and muggy Virginia evenings, we would sit on the front stoop of our Walnut Street house and crack string beans together. Mother and daughter would pull them out of the one bowl, split off the viney ends, crack the remainders in halves or thirds, and toss them into the other bowl until the one was empty and the other full. As we would relish the coolness beginning to creep into the early evening of sunset, Mom would tell me stories of how she did the same with Nana on the front stoop of their Flatbush home on Lenox Street. I imagine Nana’s mother did the same with her before the 16-year-old daughter emigrated to the New World. Generations of love passed along in those simple green beans.
And then there was the holiday special of Lithuanian ausukis. The fine-tuned recipe passed from grandmother to mother to daughter of pastry with only-just-so-much flour added to the plump ball of dough in the center of our red pull-out kitchen counter shelf. So many egg yolks – Mom teaching me the careful art of separating the yellow from the white inside fragile shells – and then the rich cream, and “pinch” salt (Mom always laughing through the story the story of her Indonesian maid who burst into tears after a day of shopping for and never finding this “specialty seasoning”). Then adding the flour bit by bit by bit, always rolling out the dough until it was just as right as Mom. Just as soft, just as huggable.
And Thanksgiving! What a treat! So many tantalizing dishes, such a magical gourmet mother cooking all day in the kitchen. The orange mashed sweet potatoes placed with care back into the hollowed-out fruit with a top like a slightly askew, jaunty cap. The gravy for the bird, always from scratch. The creamed pearl onions, which always looked far lovelier than they tasted. And the ground stuffing. My two brothers closest in age to me, Tommy and Richard, and I loved placing the giblets, bit by bit, into the grinder which Mom had carefully screwed just so onto the counter edge to hold it tight. Its gray metal always confused me. How could something so simply functional be so beautiful? How could a simple spiral metal churn all the meat into tiny pieces on the other end? It was Mom’s magic.
And most amazing of all was Kuče. Our Lithuanian Christmas Eve was a production that would make a world-class chef flush with nerves. The varskečiai; the heavy kugel, which we kids always joked could mop up oil stains on a driveway; the delectable oyster stew; the fresh fish main dish; and of course all the sides of salad and crudities and bread and specialty vegetables and plates of ausukis. I never knew how the table could hold so much. For more than a day straight, Mom cooked and cooked and cooked. I emulate her hospitality. At my Kuce each year and at my wedding rehearsal dinner, I still have served my parents’ B&B as an American cousin to Lithuanian vitutus, the nectar of the pagan gods from our deep ancestry only so recently converted to Christianity, the mead-like liqueur which our parents shared with us on this very special, spiritual family night.
Now that I’m grown, it’s been Mom’s hands with their paper-thin wrinkles that have comforted me. Her plumpness faded, her hands had grown thin and graceful. Her hands upon my back as she hugged me with all the love in her now tiny frame in her great joy at my marriage. Her hands lying softly upon her blanket in the nursing home as she dozed out of consciousness, Mom then awaking with joy at seeing me there and begin her mantra of “I love you. You’re so beautiful. I love you. I love you. You’re wonderful.” The skin of her last days almost translucent, like rice paper – something she never cooked with, something she now was surrounded with on her final, most amazing journey.
Travel safely, dear Mom. Let the angels be your guide. I love you. I miss you.