She left behind lists—short lists—in her amiable, loopy cursive. Like my mother, the lists have no concern for propriety: they’re on the backs of envelopes meant for remittance, on paper torn from an illustrated journal, in the corners of phone bills. Sometimes, the lists are homogenous in type: Eggs, celery, rice vinegar. Others express a variety of goods to be sourced from several places: Dog food, wine, yellow onions, thumbtacks. The lists are mysterious, alluring in their femininity: Aloe, lavender, rosemary, honey, seaweed, avocado, cucumbers, almond oil. Often, there is an affirmation scrawled nearby, like, God only expects we do not forget the blessings we receive.
Some lists are recipes—or half-recipes. A recipe is a list of ingredients needed, and the instructions for how to assemble them. Mom’s “recipes” are like this:
garlic 1 clove
vinegar 3 T
olive oil 1/4 C
What is that, a salad? What do I do to the garlic? Is this the entirety of the recipe, or do you put it in a sandwich?
It’s like the time I was 12 and my cousin, who was being raised by my grandparents, was flaunting a box of maxi-pads.
“What are those?” I asked.
She was a year and a half younger, and she knitted her eyebrows like, Duh.
A bewildered Vaudevillian banter ensued about what a period is.
“Your period of what?” I demanded.
“You know, your period. Duh.”
I turned to face my silent mother and grandmother, my hands open and pleading, “Period of what?”
I don’t know why she never explained it to me, leaving the job instead to my dad’s then girlfriend, an orthopedic surgeon who specialized in football injuries. She worked on the sidelines at Chargers games. I could tell, as she fumbled with a purple package of Always Teen, that she despised this talk as much as I did. I even considered hurling myself over the coffee table and dislodging my patella so we could both relax.
Not that my mother never talked to me about becoming a woman. The summer between sixth and seventh grades, we were shopping at Clothestime, along with every other female in my class, and their mothers, and their older sisters who were already in high school. I’d estimate approximately 30% of South Orange County’s female population, ages 11-16, were in that store at the precise moment that my mother, upon flinging back the dressing room curtain, exclaimed with unrestrained glee, “You’re getting boobies!”
Other than that, our relationship resembled that of irritated roommates:
“Stay out of my makeup.”
“I will, if you stop bringing that drunk boyfriend over to hog the TV all night.”
During the summers, I’d stay home all day watching soaps and reading her New Woman magazines, trying to figure out if my face was oval or round; if my eyes were almond-shaped or wide-set. It was the sort of feminist publication that the late ’80s could handle; less prurient than Cosmo and more glamorous than Ms.
“Did you know Arnold Schwarzenegger won’t let Maria Shriver wear pants?” I informed her once.
“Bastard male,” she replied.
“Tell me about it.”
I knew how to make adults laugh, by putting on this maturity act. But why she didn’t take more of an active role in actually maturing me, I can’t guess. Was she fooled somehow into thinking I had it all figured out?
Surely not. One time, I was sitting cross-legged in just my oversized pajama shirt, playing Uno with my little brother and his friend on the floor, when my mom came in and said, “Ahem, you’re hanging out.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. This could have been before or after the boobies incident at Clothestime—all I know is I still didn’t have a training bra, nor any idea that anything noteworthy was happening in that region. She gestured to her chest at the same moment I noticed my brother’s friend look quickly away. Although the breeze must have been flowing the exact same way, the exact same temperature as it had all morning, it was only at that precise moment that I felt it on my bare, exposed tween chest. I clutched at my gaping shirt collar, shrieking, as Adam and Eve no doubt did to each other upon discovering their nakedness for the first time: Shut up, no I’m not, you are!
I think it was shyness that discouraged her from having “the talk” with me; or any “talk.” And it helped that I was a prude and a theater dork, lecturing my friends about sharing their genitals with others, and the dangers of marijuana and alcohol on a developing brain. It must have cheered her to know she didn’t have to supervise me; at the same time it must have depressed her considerably to know that half the reason I was such a good kid was because I didn’t want to be like her.
When I was 24, she turned to me after watching Oprah and said she heard a phrase on the episode that struck her. “’Sympathetic Disdain’,” she repeated, “And I realized that’s how I felt about my own mother.” Quietly, in a small voice, she asked if that was how I felt about her.
Of course not, I told her. I gave her some syrupy speech about giving me emotional license, and the support to discover things for myself and blah blah blah. Would you have said, Why yes, Mother, ‘sympathetic disdain’ exactly nails it. Also, I’m worried you’re going to drink yourself to death or lose the house. Glad we had this chat.
Besides, the truth is complicated. Would I like to have had a more Oprah-approved mother? Of course. I could be more confident. I could be more secure in myself. I could criticize myself and others less. But my mother, God help me, made me the woman I am, in part by being detestable enough to send me running in the opposite direction; also by leaving, so that I could feel what had been lost in the world, and so that I could recognize those things shyly hanging around inside of me. This is what I got from her: I make up songs while washing the dog, I entertain a dozen different nervous tics, I can hurl epic insults at other drivers on the road, and I believe that the lowliest, worst human beings need to be loved. Also, to this day, I still feel sick about showing any cleavage.
When I miss her most is when I am cooking something new. I used to be so nervous about it; my first boyfriend’s mother scoffed at me for not knowing how to boil water. True! So whenever I cooked anything, I’d call my mom, pen and paper ready, but she’d just say Throw a bunch of stuff together and cook it; if it needs something else, add it. That was her explanation for everything, from albondigas soup to meatloaf. I could probe all I wanted: Did I need to boil the noodles completely first, or would they continue to soften in the oven? How big a can of peeled tomatoes? How much, exactly, is a dash? Mom was vague as an air spirit. She couldn’t be bothered with rules. It was as if she began casting them off when she and my dad separated, when I was 9, and she left them behind her as she grew older, a trail for me to sniff out on my own.
There are times I wish she’d have guided me, given me restrictions: don’t do this, do that. But by figuring it out for myself, I developed something that not a lot of people I know have: Instincts. With love, credit cards, jobs, and choices, I’ve learned the hard way, by feeling it out and falling a bunch of times. But isn’t that the best, really? For one thing, you don’t ever forget the lesson. Maybe I’ll take some of those lists she left behind, the ones that suggest an unfinished recipe. I’ll throw the items together and cook them, tasting as I go.
If it needs something, I’ll add it.