I cooked dinner for my parents on a recent trip home. They are older now and don’t get out much– and have stopped cooking for themselves after many years of preparing the most delicious Italian food imaginable.
Cooking for them is both rewarding and daunting. When I visit, it’s an occasion. It’s listed on their calendar weeks in advance and confirmed daily when I call. They are glad to see me and like when I can take care of them. But let’s face it, of the three Cinquino’s in the room, I’m the least accomplished cook, by about 50 ovenlight years.
I serve them dinner, a Pork Tenderloin with baked carrots and baked potatoes and salad. Nothing elaborate, but as I put the prepared roast before them I convince myself it came out pretty well. I wait for their restaurant review– and as they speak, I learn a little about them and lot about myself.
My dad is gushing– he is complimenting me again and again- four, five, six times. His voice assures me how good the meal is. How grateful he is that I am there to cook it. How surprised he is that I am such a good chef. I eat up his approval even faster than I gulp down my portion of the meal.
My mom eats more slowly and takes her time commenting on the food. I wait anxiously as she cuts her food into small pieces. She seems to have come to a conclusion after several methodical bites. Then I hear what I take as her verdict. “I miss my own cooking,” is all she says.
I am crushed like a can of Contadina. Crushed as only a mom’s critique can crush one. I feel myself getting a little mad at her for being so impolite. I then turn ever more judgmental, sure that her negative attitude is keeping her from being happier and content with her life. I think the thoughts that I think she should be thinking instead. This progression is rapid. In less than 10 seconds, I go from happy to serve them to upset to totally dismissive of what she has to say and blaming her for how I feel. Of course I don’t say a word, just steam a little.
Then, I take a deep breathe. What did she really say? And what didn’t she say? And what did I hear?
What she said was that she missed her own cooking– and yet what I heard was that my cooking wasn’t good enough. She didn’t say that I wasn’t good enough, but that’s what I heard.
I grab the knife and cut me up another slab of pig, and something dawns on me. Why am I reacting like this? Why am I demonizing her response? She was just remembering a time gone by– and all those magnificent recipes and meals she had created over the years. She realizes there will never be anything like her own home cooking– and that is gone forever.
I sit and look at her across the table. It’s now clear to me that it’s not her, but me. I’m the one being ungrateful, not her.
She is being honest, vulnerable and straight with me. I was fuming over a perceived slight. I had made it all about me. I had wanted to snap at her and tell her that I’m done trying to please her. I felt I had to “share my truth” with her and tell her how badly I feel when she says that– how she made me feel so inadequate. But the truth is, “my truth” is just a myth. A reaction based on my own programming. Nothing true about it, really. Other than it’s true that I made myself feel unloved and put that on her.
As I chew, I start to feel a different truth. A truth that I am loved and do love. And when I look at my mom, I see her– and everything between us, quite differently. I see that she is pleased with me for trying. I also see, on an unrelated note, that ultimately there was no substitute for the kind of meal only she could create. No substitute for that time in her life. In our family’s life.
A time when cooking meant the family was gathered. When dishes were links to the grand past of our immigrant heroes who came to America and founded this branch of our family vine. A time when cooking was both a responsibility (for my mom) and a joy (for my dad). A time when vegetables were grown in the backyard, peeled on the back step and cooked before they knew what hit them. A time when her kids needed her to cook dinner, not the other way around.
She misses that.
As this awareness hits me, my steam evaporates. I’m once again glad to be there, part of their lives in any way I can. It is not about me or my cooking, it is about us as a family.
“I do, too, mom. I do, too.”