Notes on My Mother

wilhelmine_children.jpgFor the past few birthdays, Christmases, and really any occasion requiring a gift, my Mother has been wrapping up her own belongings and passing them off on her children.  It began the year that she divided old photos from her father’s side of the family among my brother, sister and me: huge stacks of ancient, scalloped-edged, sepia prints.  For Christmas my boyfriend got an indoor grill from his mother; I got a box of anonymous, sour-looking Germans from mine. 

Gift giving has never been particularly ceremonious in the French family household.  My father routinely forbids us to buy him anything, ever, preferring to get something for himself.  (Last Christmas my sister wrapped his present for him, attaching a card that read “To Dad: Only you know what you really want.  Love, Dad.”) And yet this new trend of giving away my parents’ belongings is beyond eccentric; it’s morbid, even by my mother’s standards.  The portrait of James Joyce and the highball glasses now residing in my kitchen aren’t examples of re-gifting.  “I’m getting rid of my stuff,” my mother explains, pronouncing “stuff” as if collectible paintings and vintage crystal was a dubious-smelling carton of milk, “before I die.”     

My mother, it should be noted, is enviably healthy, with stronger, better-looking legs than mine, the result of tenacious genes and a lifelong commitment to wine and exercise.  I do not believe that my mother is slowly giving away her things because the end is truly near.  No, she is doing so because my parents downsized to a smaller house and there isn’t enough room for everything. That this is the more truthful, and let’s face it, appropriate thing to tell her child on their twenty-sixth birthday while handing them her early diaries and nine cookbooks published before 1976, would never occur to her.  Or maybe it would, but she has reputation to uphold.     

sunset_cookbook.jpgAdmittedly, I am a sucker for the ephemera of my mother’s life, having spent considerable time wondering what she was like before I knew her; killing time, I suppose, before I get a life of my own.   A 1962 printing of The Sunset Cookbook has become a particular favorite, not least of which because it is the first cookbook that my mother ever owned.  It is my preferred thing to paw through when I’m supposed to be writing; there is a touching earnestness to the out-dated recipes, reminding me that whatever I’m working on will most likely look equally, embarrassingly, earnest forty-eight years down the road.  (Pessimistic maybe, but liberating too.)  Searching for stained pages like an archeologist, I ponder the significance of a thumbprint over Veal Steak a la Norge. Did she make this heinous sounding dish, or was she merely holding the page down to get a better look at the Veal Scaloppini below?     

fish_lemons.jpgThere are a few recipes that I am certain she made, recipes that are asterisked and amended: less sugar here, an extra egg there.  Baked Alaska, which she inevitably cites as a signature dish and has never once made in my lifetime; Greek Meatballs, and Kourabiedes are annotated, dog-eared and smudged.  But what interests me most are the recipes that she intended to make - the question mark recipes – scrawled onto loose slips of paper and tucked into a page.  Chuck with Mushroom Stuffing?  Golden Toasted Rice?  I know that I buy cookbooks, and flag recipes, that represent a fantasy version of myself, an effortlessly chic type who bothers to toasts nuts when a recipe asks her to and shaves Jerusalem artichokes on the fly. That my mother tagged Bohemian Almond Triangles, page 144, astounds me.  I can’t think of anything more bohemian than a twenty-something artist and her writer husband living in Echo Park, but I am reminded that she didn’t consider herself an artist then. 

2005-valentine.jpgShe was a sales girl at a downtown department store with a set of watercolors, who made Macaroni Oyster Loaf, of all the god-awful things, and bided her time.  The perfect piecrust, crispy roast chicken and jars of pepperonata all came later.  I like to think that she got a hang of these things around the same time she started sending out unsettling cartoons for Valentine’s Day, or using a black sharpie to draw creepy faces on rocks.  In other words, around the same time she got the hang of being herself.   

A few weeks ago I made my first Sunset Cookbook recipe, Noodles Romanoff, which my mother had starred on page 100.  Like a lot of recipes in the book, it entails baking sour cream and using a heavy hand with the Worcestershire.  I’d like to say it was terrific, or even terrible, but it just…was.  It is the kind of thing you’d make again because it’s easy, it isn’t a disaster, and who knows, it might be better the second time around.  I’ll spare you the recipe, and instead include my mother’s salmon salad.  I’ve learned to keep a bowl of it in the fridge at all times, because unlike Mung Bean Dal or Wakame Braised Potatoes, I actually want to eat it.  I am beginning to experiment with my own additions – green onion is good – but it’s hard to improve on a classic.  Maybe I’ll ad lib later, but until then I’ll be borrowing, practicing my roast chicken, and marveling at a postcard my mother wrote to a friend, and which I happened to come across while rummaging for the stash of sharpies in her studio.  She’d started off well, congratulating the woman on her new baby, and asking after her general health, but there was a bit of room left at the bottom of the card, and I suppose she just couldn’t help herself.  “We are aging rapidly,” it said, “and the dog died.” 

Salmon Salad

Canned Wild Sockeye Salmon (It MUST be red sockeye salmon, do not use pink salmon.)
Dried Dill

Drain the canned salmon and put into a bowl.  Pick out the grey skin, but leave the bones – they’re good for you and you won’t even notice them.  Once you’re left with just red salmon and bones, mush in the mayonnaise with the back of a fork – start with ¼ cup per can.  Sprinkle in lots and lots of dried dill.  Mound onto crackers and serve.


Agatha French is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.