As I await the birth of my first grandchild, I can’t help but admire his mother-to-be. My youngest child, a mere baby of 27, is term. She has gamely carried on with a full load of working fulltime, co-parenting a stepchild, exercising, cooking, cleaning, and carefully preparing a nursery with paint, wallpaper, a crib fit for a tiny royal family member, and décor and organization suggestions from Pinterest. She’s maintained her beautiful self, though I can see the strain she undergoes in the circles under her eyes. When we go shopping, she needs to sit and rest a bit, and when she sits, she really SITS, and when she rests, she really RESTS. As I edge up here to my 60s, we are currently at energy parity. Her feet hurt too.
Of course, this takes me back to when I was waiting for my first child. I was a young mother-to-be of 22, which was pretty young, even in those days. I’d gone to school full-time and worked 30 hours a week until I was gently instructed to knock all that off by my doctor. He was young and excited by his new profession, and supported my desire to keep going for as long as I could. My blood pressure was always perfect, my health was fine, but there were limits to my energy and it was time to rest. I had finished the term at school in June. I let go of my job (nannying three kids, who I loved dearly). Even with my own on the way, that was hard. And I came home.
Home, at the time, was the ground floor of a duplex in Northeast Portland. This was a corner of Haight Street, between Williams and Mississippi. The neighborhood is completely gentrified, now, and the old place has a nice fenced yard and urban chickens, but at the time it was rough. Nowadays, Mississippi is a cool shopping and restaurant neighborhood, very hip and experiential, with a salt store and a ‘Por Que No’ and the like. Back then, it was a mess. We lived next door and across the street from drug dealers (lots of consumer choices, I guess), and up the street from a motorcycle club’s (Gypsy Jokers, to be specific) residence house. But we were also surrounded by families who had been in the neighborhood since the forties; established homeowners who carefully tended their yards and said patient, encouraging things to my ever-swelling bulk.
It was a desperately hot spring and summer that year, and we had no AC, so I kept myself cool by sitting on the sofa with large glasses of orange pop. I have never liked or drank pop at any other time in my life, but it was a necessity during those weeks for some reason. I also read. I only wanted to read scary books. I borrowed a lot of Stephen King and Peter Straub from my parents’ bookshelves, settled in with frosty glasses of sugar, and scared the crap out of myself, all day long. My due date was July 14th, and I waited for it like it was magic. Despite a complete lack of contractions, I remained sure that my child would appear on that date. It was due, after all. On the day itself, my then-husband came home with 24 white roses, and one small pink rosebud in the middle, because he knew how badly I wanted a girl. Those roses kept me company for the next two weeks as I continued to read, drink pop, and wait.
There is an old saying that pregnancy is eight months and one year long. It’s true. There is no waiting like the waiting to give birth. I remember thinking that I was the only woman in the world whose pregnancy wouldn’t ever come to an end. I would be pregnant for the rest of my life, forever. I was simply never going to have my baby. And I look at my beautiful daughter, and I know she feels the same way. He’s in there still, just hanging out. He’s been inspected, photographed, measured and scanned to a degree I find remarkable. He’s healthy and he’s ready, except he’s not ready, or labor would start. And so she waits, and works, and rests when she can, and dreams of the day when he appears. I can’t wait, but I have to. I am so ready to welcome the little boy she’s so lovingly prepared for, the grandson my daughter has miraculously grown from scratch, the sweet, familiar stranger, the strong little passenger who will finally reach the destination of his birth.
Aren’t these beautiful? And how could you choose one pie from so many? Would you just stand there, dithering and exclaiming and asking questions of the young person behind the pie safe? Would you even say, “It’s a shame to cut one, they are so pretty!”
On Mother’s Day, I posted something about mothers on Facebook; my own, and me as a mom:
This is a day of sweetness and happiness as a mom, as I look at the three women I’ve raised and, yes, I appear to have done all right. Because it’s a hard job, no one wants to hear or know that, we want some vision of aprons and home canning and endless cheer and devotion. Are there mothers like that? There must be, but I wasn’t one of them and neither was my own mom.
I don’t know if it was in response to that post or what, but my friend Julie penned a mind-boggling tribute to her mother. Julie’s mother is just that kind of mother. The kind of mother I thought only existed in novels. Quiet, kind, tireless and strong, living happily on well-tended acreage, sewing and scrubbing and gardening and canning and persevering selflessly and…baking.
How much of our idea of traditional motherhood is tied up in baking? And though it is bandied about that I have been a decent mother, the truth is, I really can’t be. Why? Because I am not a baker. I don’t like to bake.
I’m a master at rummaging through the fridge and cupboard (and I’d like to point out just how insufferably Midwestern those terms, “rummage,” “fridge” and “cupboard,” sound to my own ears) to find the makings of a meal. All I need is three ingredients and a vegetable. I do some kind of laid-back alchemy. It fills a plate and a stomach in a pleasing way. This method of cooking could stand as a metaphor for my entire life, actually. I look at what’s available to me and assemble a palatable and acceptable offering. That’s actually depressing, so let’s go back to baking, which I don’t do. There is no level of improvisation in baking. It’s a temperamental undertaking. It requires a functioning mixer, and there’s measuring and all of that math-related stuff.
Nope. Not for me.
You may ask, well, what about birthdays for your three daughters, Karen, didn’t you bake for them? What kind of a mother doesn’t bake birthday cakes? Well, the kind of mother I am, I guess. The kind of mother who takes her birthday child to Baskin & Robbins and has her pick out an ice cream cake, or takes her to the bakery counter at Fred Meyer and lets her select a bakery cake, any cake she likes except for that weird one they made for a while that looked like a giant hamburger. I did draw the line there. When we were all younger and the family was much broker, I took the child with the imminent birthday to the cake mix aisle and let her select what she wanted, and I baked it in an aluminum sheet pan and put candles on it and Boom, cake.
These were all time-honored methods of obtaining a cake, and none of them involved recipes, thank you very much. So, yes, I was that kind of mother. I didn’t bake pies, either. Even though I LOVE PIE. I love pie so much more than I have ever loved cake, which exists, for me, mostly as a vehicle to bear cream cheese frosting to my mouth (cinnamon rolls have the same function). And cookies? You can buy cookies at the store. Why would you mess up your entire kitchen baking them?
I can’t blame my lack of baking on my own upbringing, as we are all so wont to do. My mother didn’t make pies, but she did bake. Cookies, she baked one cookie, the Tollhouse from the back of the chocolate chip bag. It was the One True Cookie, and no others existed. My grandmother made all sorts of cookies, including little powdered-sugar dusted walnut cookies, lemon cookies, ginger cookies and (I will spell this wrong) pfeffercocken.That was far too strong a flavor sensation for me as a child–a dangerous cookie.
I remember only two cakes from Grandma; a raisin cake with raisin sauce that she had to give up baking because no one sold canned raisins anymore, and a delightfully tart lemon bread that was actually a cake. She made rhubarb pies often, and apple pies occasionally. I loved the rhubarb and hated the apple, because she wasn’t careful about removing the seed casings. It was like encountering a fingernail while you were chewing–I flashed right back to this when I watched “Sweeney Todd.” It’s never good when food connects in any way to “Sweeney Todd.”
Perhaps my lack of baking stems from the fact that for the majority of my youth and most of my teens, I didn’t like sweets. My high school boyfriend/first husband introduced me to blueberry pie when I was fourteen, and it was all over. I escaped donuts, cakes and cookies, but I was ensnared by pie. But I never learned to bake the damn things, or anything else.
So, this adds to my imposter feelings when people praise my mothering. I’m being judged by final products and given credit I don’t deserve. When people look at my beautiful, intelligent, poised girls, they tend to burble about what a great mother I must be. These people never saw me lose my temper and loose the hounds of hell (or rather my sharp tongue) on my daughters when I’d had enough. The fact that they turned out at all is not due to my skill or natural talent. I wasn’t planning on motherhood or even drawn to it, but I had my first girl and she was completely amazing. So then there were three completely amazing daughters, and there you have it. A mother was born.
I raised my daughters on a steady diet of three-ingredient meals and motherly mistakes. I gave them more love than they needed and less attention than they wanted. Somehow, that struck a balance and they turned out. Oddly enough, one of my daughters is a baker. Despite the cake-mix cakes, the Fred Meyer cookies and the cornbread from a Jiffy box, this daughter taught herself to bake, and bake well. She makes pies as beautiful as those in the photo above, in crust she makes from cold water, white flour and butter. That’s it. She takes ordinary ingredients and produces the most extraordinary baked goods.
All I can say is, she didn’t get it from me.