Mushroom Soup: Loss, Harry, Gratitude

Way back in the middle 1970s, I cooked in a restaurant. I was a pretty good cook, having had the dubious distinction of being the only one who could be in the kitchen when  Dad was doing his cyclone-like chef act. Dad had learned to cook by “stealing with his eyes”, as he said, watching the experts and doing what they did, as he worked in restaurants around the world in his diasporic flight from Hitler. 

When I was born, he and Mom had a little restaurant in Carmel, and my sister and I spent our early years in the sink. This job, however, was a “movement job” at La Pena de Berkeley, a wonderful restaurant and community center supporting the Latin American solidarity movement. It is still there. It was there I really learned to cook. I was in my early 20’s and had a friend named Erica, who was tall and blond and looked like a model. I never imagined having a friend who looked like that. Erica was an amazing cook and taught me to make soup. Every day I made a 10-gallon pot of the soup du jour. I got pretty good at the soup thing, in fact, once one of my great idols at the time, Puerto Rican singer Roy Brown, praised our food from the stage.

My mom always loved my mushroom soup. Erica taught me how to make cream soups, and I loved the smell of the “roux,” the heady blend of butter and flour slowly roasting in the pot. Mom always started talking about Mother’s Day about three or four weeks ahead of time so we would not forget, so she could tell us what she wanted, and we had plenty of time to make or get whatever that was. She often asked for mushroom soup for her Mother’s Day dinner. It took about half the day to make, and I was so glad there was something worthwhile that I had to offer. 

I am not a mother, and my mother and grandmother are long gone. So Mother’s Day is a non-event for my husband and me. Except for the fact that roses are double in price for a week or two. So it is unfettered and free for reflection.

Every day I made a 10-gallon pot of the soup du jour. I got pretty good at the soup thing, in fact, once one of my great idols at the time, Puerto Rican singer Roy Brown, praised our food from the stage.

Loss

When my mother died, I simply felt empty. When people expressed heartfelt condolences, I felt embarrassed and guilty. I was not sad at all, only relieved. I had felt so hated for so long, it was like having a vice removed from my throat. My loss came so very long ago. I suffered a protracted grief over the loss of my first real love relationship with a man. Only much later did I realize that the seemingly bottomless intractable grief was really about Mom. By the time my mother actually died, I had mourned for over a decade and had no tears left.

My mother had a trauma-ridden life. First, an upbringing of upper-class northern German coldness and nannies, then the Nazi Holocaust, then finding her way in a new and alien culture, and a long and challenging marriage to a difficult man. By the time my mom was the age I was when I was slinging hash and drinking at La Pena, my mom had three little kids and lived in a bleak apartment in New York while my dad went to school and worked and was barely around.  That Manhattan building was like a refugee camp, almost everyone who lived there had numbers on their arms.

It is always hard to navigate the balance between sympathy and compassion for the pretty disabled other, with the bitterness and grief about one’s own deprivation, trauma and neglect. For many of us, the struggle is unbearable, even impossible, for a long time. It points to the great challenge of relationship in general. How in the world do we make space for the pain and subjectivity of two people who are both in agonizing needs, and they are different, and maybe gratifying one costs the other? I don’t use the word “incompatible.” Our work is to find our empathic way.

My mom had three little kids and lived in a bleak apartment in New York while my dad went to school and worked and was barely around.  That Manhattan building was like a refugee camp, almost everyone who lived there had numbers on their arms.

Harry

I just learned moments ago that our beloved Harry Belafonte passed last night at 96. So sad. Mom loved Harry, and he is one of the great bequests that I cherish from her. Our bleak little apartment was brightened by him, as one of her three record albums was his. I remember waltzing Matilda with my sisters around the linoleum floors, laughing. Those memories are sweet. And when a few years ago, on a trip to Cuba I learned how bananas grow, I could not help remembering Harry singing “Dayo!” the banana boat song. Thanks Mom! My grief about Harry is unadulterated, perhaps it contains some compassion for you.

I am not one for regrets. In fact, I only have one. I failed to make my peace with my mother before she passed. Meaning I failed to reach a point where I no longer felt bitterness and recrimination and a simmer about her negligence or seeming self-centeredness. I never achieved equanimity before it was too late. She died precipitously. We did not see it coming. She seemed so healthy. At 75, she was going to aerobics, riding her bicycle around town, and seemed a picture of health. It was only when she kept dropping things that she got a check-up, and through a routine chest x-ray, it was discovered she was over-run by metastasized cancer: breast cancer, brain cancer, lung cancer. It was seemingly everywhere, and she had seemed just fine. It had always been our Dad who had all the serious medical issues. Five weeks later, she was gone. My sister wisely hypothesized that maybe she simply got too tired of taking care of Dad. 

Gratitude

 I am certainly not one for advice. I hate getting it unless I ask for it. And I strive not to give it unless I am asked. But there are a couple of things I do freely offer unbidden that you can take or leave. When faced with questions about how to proceed with a parent or any significant other who has hurt us, the question to ask is this: How will I feel about myself after they are gone if I do “X”? How will I feel about myself when they are gone if I do “Y?” And there is the answer. The one I have to live with is me. Who do I want to live with? Who do I want to be? I am sorry I was still angry when she died, that I could not or would not see her off with an open heart. My Mother’s Day is perhaps my day of atonement. Forgiveness is so important to me. I was a decade or two late in learning how.

Thanks Mom, for the soundtrack of Harry and Pete Seeger, for teaching me to sew. For the tiny sewing machine you gave me for my 16th birthday, the little Elna Lotus. I still have it. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to please you at least once a year with that soup.

I sometimes envy the Buddhists or others who have a way of thinking about where people go after they leave their corporeal existence on this earth. I think about my Dad sometimes and wonder where he is, much less often about my mom. Except maybe on Mother’s Day. This year, however, it comforts me to think that maybe she and Harry are in the same realm somewhere. That she can sing with him about Matilda taking his money and running off to Venezuela and laughing together. 

Happy Mother’s Day one and all, mothers, grandmothers, sons and daughters, orphans, and everything in between. Have a gentle day. I think I am going to go and look for some mushrooms.

Todays song:

My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.

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