My husband is getting ready to attend a play with friends. I am happy to stay home and putter, but he hesitates with keys in hand, looking around the kitchen with a concerned expression. “I may not be home in time for dinner.” One of the many perks of our empty nest is that occasionally I find myself blissfully alone. “I know. I will be fine.” He opens the fridge. “There may be some leftovers.” “I told you, I will figure something out.” He says, “You ate all the Wheat Chex last week.” Now I am annoyed. “Go! I will cook for myself.” He snorts and leaves. I go off and hermit around my workspace until hunger drives me back to the kitchen. I peer in the refrigerator, the freezer, the pantry, the refrigerator again.
My husband is truly gifted at cooking. I am not. This was established early in the relationship. On our first date he made a picnic lunch with teriyaki pheasant. A few dates later I burned a chicken concoction and we went out for pizza. In the first year of our marriage we attempted to trade off, but when my husband started graduate school, he took over. He said he wanted a “creative outlet.” We were both relieved.
It is hard to know what came first – my profound lack of aptitude or my subsequent lack of interest. One usually follows the other. For years I have sat on a stool at the edge of the kitchen island, watching my husband intently, trying to figure out the difference between us. We are both smart. We both love to eat. Perched there, eating scraps of food out of prep bowls, I have discovered clues. My brain thinks in geometric lines, taking apart and putting things back together in a linear process. If the points are not perfect in my quilt blocks, I remake them until they line up. I think: what is the most efficient way to go from point A to point B? What are the steps to achieve a specific result? My husband’s brain thinks like a lava lamp, organic, he perceives a million details at the same time. He chops and stirs and sautes this and roasts that. He senses temperature and color and somehow five dishes appear at the same time. If something doesn’t taste right he adapts the other ingredients to balance. He thinks: what flavors go together? What recipe fits the weather?
Today I decide to make myself nachos. I find chips, pre-shredded cheese and an old piece of steak which I chop up and layer on the top. I turn on the broiler and can hear my husband’s voice in my head telling me not to burn them. In fact, why not use the microwave?
Our children grew up in a home where Dad was master of the kitchen, not just cooking, but preparing gourmet meals that people came to rave about. Dinner at our house was a culinary adventure and we loved entertaining as a family. I tried to feel that my contribution was bringing home the bacon rather than frying it up in a pan, but the referenced woman in the commercial could do both and look sexy. I worried that my lack of domestic proficiency diminished my value as a wife and mother. One Mother’s Day this was reinforced when the boys came home from Primary presenting a project they had made in class. It was constructed of two paper wheels held together by a brad. The top wheel had a window revealing tiny messages and pictures underneath. The title read: “My mother does many things for me!” and when the child turned the wheel, the captions below read “She bakes cookies!” “She makes dinner!” “She washes my clothes!” “ She meets me after school!” To which my little son gleefully confessed, “I told them that my mom doesn’t do any of those things!” My older son shook his head thoughtfully. “No, no she doesn’t.”
I also faced incredulous clucking from other women assuring me of my “luck” in finding a man who would “help out” and cautioning that I had better “hang on to him” as if my inability to time an egg threatened our long term prospects. At first I would defensively explain that it all evened out, that he had a surly disposition and I cleaned the toilet. Eventually I just surrendered and shrugged. I had been judged by the dial-a-good-mother wheel and found wanting.
I don’t burn my nachos but they look boring so I dig through a pile of jars created from my husband’s new hobby, small batch canning. I find something green and chopped and open it. It smells like salsa. I taste it. The hacienda heavens open and choirs of mariachi angels sing. It is delicious. I dump it all over my nachos and devour them.
In his book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, Andrew Solomon shares that most parents love their children at birth, but must learn over time to accept them. He says that “love aspires to acceptance” and that most parenting happens in the grey area between what we try to change in those we love and what we choose to celebrate as it unfolds. I believe this applies to how we view ourselves as well. Learning when to develop and push ourselves and when to simply be ourselves is an ongoing challenge. There are so many bad habits I know I must fix – my selfishness, my dental hygiene, my matchstick temper. In comparison, I can shelve the less urgent deficiencies, ignore the lists of shoulds catalogued by others and even revel in the quirks that make me who I am. My children may appreciate a mother who can make sock monkeys dressed as literary characters just as much as a mother who knows that Honey Nut corn flakes and strawberry yogurt should not be used to bread chicken nuggets. In the words of the very wise Queen Elsa, I am going to let it go.
Later that night, when my husband comes home, he asks what I ate for dinner. I tell him nachos which actually required use of the oven. Then I say, “So that green stuff I found in the pantry? It is amazing. I ate the whole jar.” He lights up. “It is green tomato salsa. The neighbor brought us all these green tomatoes and I made up the recipe in order to use them.” I assure him that it was the best salsa I have ever tasted. And that I never take his gifts for granted. He wonders if he will be able to replicate the recipe again. I say, “I am sure you will come up with something.”