I liked to watch my mother in her kitchen. I preferred most to watch her silver hair, standing defiantly in place, unmoving against the wafts of steam rising from the pots boiling in front of her. I liked the way the steam fogged up her glasses and made them slip down her nose. She pushed them up again and again with the perseverance of a marine, then wiped away the steam from her lenses with the back of her hand. I can’t remember what we talked about – I’m sure it had something with her ceaseless nagging me to do better and change the things I thought I was already doing fine: asking why I’d gotten an A minus instead of an A, telling me my boyfriend was a stupid hoodlum, beseeching me to grow my hair long and stop coloring it red, prodding me to lose twenty pounds and wear more lace. She ended each conversation, sighing, “Oyayoi… Shto ti zdeliesh?” What are you doing?
She had a solid collection of recipes that she prepared for us girls, although my sister and I rarely ate together or did anything together for that matter. Borscht placed foremost on my mother’s list, followed by various soups and stocks, boiled chicken, fried pork chops, endless salads, and an unsavory liver gelatin concoction that my mother found irresistible and I could barely stomach without gagging. She eschewed complex recipes, which required too much of the energy she didn’t have after long days at work, and she preferred her foods plain and unadorned: unsalted butter spread on a slice of pumpernickel, a tangy pickled fish, half a salted tomato. She used to say that the things she had were ‘the best,’ though often they were so far from it that one felt cruelly disrespectful to contradict her.
I don’t think my mother ever had the luxury of free time or being able to purchase the special things she deeply coveted. She used the same bottles of cinnamon and salt until they were empty and dry. She scrimped and saved every penny to enrich my life, and with great success; I went off for college and rarely looked back, convinced that I could have the life I wanted. But my success was fruitless for her, and I was never able to send her the trinkets, gifts, and money to pay back the privileges and wealth that she gave me. My own spice drawers clank in a cacophony of good fortune. I never lack for spices as basic as cinnamon and salt.
On one of my last visits to mom – already several years ago – our old Manhattan apartment seemed to have folded itself inwards in dimension. The furniture seemed too old, the kitchen much smaller than I remembered. Even my mom had shrunk down to a 4’5” babushka. Yellow glaze warped the walls, and the windows, blackened by years of New York soot, obfuscated the view outside. A waxy film coated her pots, their bottoms cracked and chipped. And yet mom soldiered on.
She’d done all the cooking before I arrived, so she only had to heat our meals and could sit with me, talking. During one of those meals, she announced her plans to return home to the Ukraine. Something in the way my mother looked as she told me of her plans to leave New York, the particular way her eyes glistened, made me wish I could cook up a different ending for her life. I wished I could cook her a perfect potato soup, thick and chunky, rich with cream and seasoned with just the right amount of dill to ease her restless spirit. I wished I could cook up some long lost great uncle Pyotor to save her from living out her retirement in a place that was so much less than she deserved; who, after over half a century of a WWII-induced separation, finally managed to locate his only living niece and, in his last dying breath, bequeath to her his minor empire along the Crimea, a place that my mother often daydreamed about. I wished I could have stayed in the kitchen a little longer before it became another place in my mind, its memories tainted with cinnamon and stiff with salt.