When I was a little girl, my mother would put a teaspoon of sugar, maybe two, in my glass of orange juice. I loved the taste of the sugar slurry at the bottom of the glass. I’d get as much of it as I could, having drained the juice.
I never got much of the sugar in the glass, but I’d drink all she gave me, and as I drank the juice I enjoyed the promise of unalloyed sweetness. I think that’s what she intended.
We never drank frozen orange juice or juice from a carton. My mother used a clear glass juicer, which collected the juice, pulp, and seeds. Then she strained the juice for me so that I never had to contend with floating seeds. Only later when I squeezed my own juice — or hers — did I use a teaspoon to fish the seeds from the juice.
And I never sweetened my own juice until recently when, in a restaurant, I put two packets of sugar into a tall glass of orange juice and stirred. I watched the juice swirl and thought about the double treat: the cool juice to which I’d added ice cubes, the sweetness that awaited me at the end, an attempt to recapture a childhood pleasure.
The juice was fine, but I found no sugar at the bottom of the glass. I tried again and discovered what must have been my mother’s secret: she simply hadn’t stirred. That made sense — it wasn’t the sweetness of the orange juice that got me to drink, it was the promise of what I’d have when I finished. I’d never noticed what she’d done.
What else hadn’t I noticed?
I hadn’t noticed that neither of my parents made demands on me. Certainly they never described anything they’d done for me in terms of “sacrifice.” Then one night in my mid-20s, I was a dinner guest, and my young friend’s parents were going on — and on — about all they did for her, how grateful she should be for all the sacrifices they made for her. They said all this while I sat there. I never caught my friend’s eye, and I don’t know whether she was as embarrassed as I was uncomfortable.
Although they came close to it, her parents stopped short of accusing her of being ungrateful. I wondered what they were like, what they said to her when nobody else was there to listen? Was it possible that they were showing off for me — or thought they were — by delineating the many ways they saw themselves to be excellent parents? The next day I phoned my parents to thank them for, well, being themselves.
Of course they had hopes for me, maybe even expectations. I knew about some, and tried to meet them. Others were invisible to me.
For example, some decades later I was going through my mother’s closet after she died. In the center of the top shelf directly opposite the closet door, I found a cardboard box with a gold foil lid. Curious about what it might hold, I lifted the lid. Whatever it was had been well-wrapped in tissue paper. A crib blanket, knit in pale green lightweight wool. The wool was so fine that I knew it would have taken hours and hours for my mother to make that blanket.
In all the times we’d sat together while she knitted scarves, slippers, sweaters, she’d never worked on the baby blanket. (We’d planned to spend my winter break working together on knitting projects.) She’d kept her hopes a secret, but left the box where I’d be sure to find it. My mother had made sure that if I were to have a baby, the blanket she’d made would keep the child warm.
When my mother was 65, she could out-walk me. But then, little by little, emphysema smothered her.
Some years earlier I’d bought her an electric juicer, not one of those machines that turn rutabagas into something to drink, but a no-frills rotating juicer. All she had to do was cut the orange in half, hold it on the rotating reamer, fish out the seeds, and pour the juice. Even that eventually became too much for her.
Helpless to do anything to halt the progress of the disease, I watched her lose access to much of what had been her world. The vigorous woman who used to walk a mile across town to work and then back again could barely make a trip across the street. Later, she couldn’t walk even that far; she was housebound, and it was an effort to walk up the single flight of steps. Even eating a meal — let alone cooking one — became too much for her, and she grew thin.
I’d like to say I took a leave from my job and moved down to take care of my mother, but I didn’t. Instead, I shopped and cooked during the week, and on weekends I hopped on the bus, carrying whatever treats I thought she might enjoy. (She hired a woman who lived nearby to help her at dinnertime during the week when I wasn’t there.) I made the preparation-intensive slow foods that I’d grown up eating — and that she’d taught me how to cook as I worked at her side chopping onions, inserting slivers of garlic into the roast, searing meat. I cooked brust (beef brisket pot roast), calves tongues, chicken roasted in a pot.
One night I told my mother that I wanted to make her recipe for Hungarian dumplings. She gave me detailed instructions, but my attempt yielded tough, leaden, grotesque versions of what she used to make. Based on how bad they were, we both knew I wouldn’t be perfecting them any time soon; we didn’t know that it was the last dinner I’d cook for her.
In the preceding months, I’d watched her appetite diminish, no matter what foods I brought to tempt her. She sipped the orange juice I gave her, but she had little desire to drink it. I don’t know why I never thought of using her trick. I could have added a bit of sugar to her glass. I wish I’d been able to give her the assurance that she’d find something sweet and perfect at the very end. • 19 May 2010