A Valentine for Valentina

There’s a dull humming in my ears as the first anniversary of mom’s death approaches.  I’m restless with the sensation that there’s something I should be doing: something meaningful in her honor, something to fill the loss that, thankfully, only surfaces on occasion these days.   I’m troubled because I only recently realized I never wrote her obituary.  My sister and I were in such a state of shock after her death; it felt as if the bottom of our world dissolved beneath us, fully untethering us from reality.  But I’m a writer for God’s sake, and she never had an obituary.  I’m also feeling down because, as Valentine’s Day approaches, I can no longer remember her Russian word for the heart of things.  Little bits are falling away.
My mother was a certifiable vega-holic: if it grew in the ground, mom ate it, proclaiming it ‘the best.’  Her love of vegetables stemmed partly from growing up in the rural Ukraine during World War II; hunger begets necessity, and a relationship to food sources that one can cultivate and sustain is born.  But I think she also plainly enjoyed the taste of fresh food.  A meal was not a meal unless a salad accompanied it.  Mom made excellent salads, crunchy and fresh: the tender yellow hearts of romaine lettuce, hand washed just prior to serving and shredded by hand; wedges of sweet ripe tomatoes; thin strips of onion; and always a variety of briny Greek olives. She dressed her salads with a bit of oil and red wine vinegar, simple and delicious.  She was fond of pickled vegetables too, bringing back tall plastic take-out tubs of tomatoes and kirby cucumbers from her trips to Brighton Beach.
Because of her – the code of genetics – I also developed an undeniable predilection for vegetables.   See that picture of the girl at her sixth birthday party?  She’s wearing a white dress, seated with her friends at a table laden with sweets, and smiling and waving at the camera while holding a piece of raw cauliflower in her idle hand.  Cauliflower remains one of my favorite vegetables.  I sprinkle it with salt and munch happily away, and I strongly prefer eating it raw to eating it cooked.  The best part is its heart: the stalk.  Trim all the limbs, cutting just slightly off-center to keep the stalk in tact.  Peel the fibrous outer layer of the stalk away and one finds a little treasure, less than an inch thick and perhaps a few inches tall.  The heart.  Mom taught me to find the hearts of things: cauliflower and its cousin, the cabbage; lettuce; celery.  Though she enjoyed the heart as much as I did, she never failed to give it to me, her silver-white hair sprayed into a stiff peak over her bug-like eyeglasses, urging, “Eat, eat.”  She smiled broadly at the pleasure it gave me.
The code passed to my children, self-fashioned raw foodies whose diet would solely and happily consist of vegetables and fruits if it weren’t for chicken nuggets.  Family mealtimes with them are such a fine dance.  I delight when my daughter, who is almost four and a full-fledged pixie, leans across the table with a piece of food in her hand and offers me a taste – the sparkle in her luminous golden-green eyes, the delicate sprinkling of fine freckles across her nose, her warmth and sincerity as she asks, “Mommy, would you wike to twy some?  It’s weally good!”  Rory is the more adventurous of my two children.  Kai, age six and firmly on the path to professorship, has been learning how to politely refuse.  “No, thank you,” he says, bobbing his head like a spritely owl. Sometimes I marvel at his contentedness with a steady diet of fruit slices and peanut butter and nutella sandwiches.  My palate begs for variety.  I’ll try anything once, preferably more than once and with extra hot sauce.  How can he be mine?  My worries abate at the table when, out of nowhere, he perks up and asks, “Can I please have a pickle?”
It’s the meals I remember most vividly about my mother.  When I visited her as an adult, the first meal of each visit was dependably the same: a large pizza pie from the shop on Third Avenue, a salad, and cold Budweiser beer.  Nazdarovya, we exclaimed, popping open the cold iconic cans and guzzling in appreciation.  We sat around her coffee table, pushing aside the fresh flowers to make room for the pizza box.   She leaned forward, dressing the salad, then spooned it onto her plate and mine and, later, my husband’s.  We devoured the sizzling slices of pizza, employing the beer to cool the mozzarella as it scalded us.  We ate and drank more than we probably should have, and it felt good to see my mother laughing, to experience the radiant, twinkling warmth of her sincere joy.  I ate a lot of that pizza while mom lived out her last days in the Bellevue ICU, but its palliative effects were somewhat compromised. 
The heart is a burdensome thing: how strong it is and how simultaneously fragile, how its emotions swell and then wane, how it rests at one’s center but can just as easily be worn on one’s sleeve.  Hearts break, but how to assess anguish that can’t be seen?
Mom’s tastes were so simple.  She boiled a chicken and stretched it out to last the week.  Sometimes she ate boiled potatoes as well.  And a salad, always a salad.  She ate cottage cheese with fruit each morning for breakfast, savoring a cup of coffee – very hot, the way she liked it.  From her journals, I know that she didn’t enjoy cooking as much as I do, yet she tried her best to cook for Angela and me.   I suspect that she would have eaten out more often if she’d had any discretionary income.  She did her best and she shared the little she had with anyone she could.  Among the contents of her belongings when the hospital admitted her: half of a saved sandwich and a small bag of birdseed, proving that she gave of her heart to even the smallest of friends.


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