(by Cheryl BryantBruce, MD)
My mother was a stunningly beautiful woman, five-feet-nine, with a dazzling personality to match. Heads turned when she walked by, and I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. But our relationship was complex because my mother was a complex woman.
Thelma Eloise was the middle child of the first of two sets of siblings. Perhaps it was that ordinal position in the family that determined who she became. The oldest child was Teenie, a happy-go-lucky soul who was crazy about boys (and since she was voluptuous, she received a lot of attention from them). She loved clothes, and fought with my mother because Teenie was messy. Even then, my mother, who was called Butchie because she was such a tomboy, showed signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The arrival of her brother Sonny meant that he was not only now the baby, but also the only boy. Overnight, Mom became the sandwich child. Like many children in that position, my mother developed a huge personality, but also huge insecurities. I believe she always felt the need to vie for her mother’s attention, and although her parents spoke of her with the greatest adoration, she never overcame that need for validation.
In adulthood, my mother continued to need a lot of attention. She needed things to be her way, and only her way. She needed her house to be perfect, her appearance to be perfect, her children to be perfect, and her husband to be perfect. She needed others to shower accolades on her as to how perfect it all was, but no matter how much we tried, we could never be perfect enough to make her feel secure. She needed others to envy her. She was beautiful. She was talented. She was smart. She was clever. She was tough. She was gentle. She was up. She was down. She was softhearted. She could also be cruel and insensitive. Her neediness and insecurity translated into fights with my father and an emotional rollercoaster for me, as I was the instrument with which she could stab my father and make him bleed. Where Mom was intense and explosive, Dad was unwaveringly easygoing and even-keeled. I think Mom needed drama to make herself feel alive at the times when she sank into depression, when she couldn’t escape her fear of never being good enough, always being in the middle.
I was a happy child, growing up throughout Europe and Southeast Asia, with my longest stays being in the United Kingdom and the Philippines., but I lived under the shadow of my mother’s violent mood swings, and I blamed myself. I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t pretty enough, wasn’t tough enough, wasn’t industrious enough, wasn’t, wasn’t, wasn’t. Yet the relationship was a dichotomy. Mom would tell me that I could do anything to which I aspired, and was a ferocious she-bear if the outside world hurt me in any way, but would scratch me emotionally and watch me bleed to meet her own needs. It wasn’t until years later that my brother and I realized Mom had obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder, undiagnosed and untreated.
I left home young because I had to salvage my own psyche, finally coming to understand my mother, and that understanding unfolded around food. There were the cookies that we shared after midnight all during my high school years. I was a night owl, and would go to the kitchen to study after midnight, often baking cookies while I studied. Whether it was the comforting aroma of those cookies wafting through the house or the clinking and clanking in the kitchen, Mom would be drawn from her bed, joining me at the kitchen table for our girl talks. At these times, she was my best friend, and I felt loved. When she couldn’t hold her eyes open any longer, she would act annoyed and admonish me to go to bed. I never knew how she cherished those moments until I went off to college. For weeks after I left home, she would awaken after midnight and wander to the kitchen, only to find my chair empty. The phone would ring in my dorm, and I would run to answer it. She missed me. I needed for her to miss me.
During the first quarter of my master’s program in child development, I was given the assignment to interview my mother and try to understand any sources of conflict between us from my childhood. I remember asking her, “Mommy, couldn’t you see how depressed I was as a young girl?” She replied that I was always such a happy child, positive and full of life, but she thought I was just moody. I noticed that she was intently chewing on her fingernail. I pressed her, “Couldn’t you see that you were hurting me so badly?” Tears were beginning to sting my eyes. I blinked rapidly, fighting the urge to look away. She stared silently at her fingers for a moment, then looked me straight in the eye with the most forlorn look I had ever seen. “Yes, I saw what I was doing to you,” she said sadly, “but I just couldn’t help myself.” Looking through the giant pools of water welling up in those big brown eyes, I saw a tiny, frightened, insecure child, who just wanted to be loved. In that moment, my healing began.
My mother and I continued to have a love-hate relationship for many years, and one of the picking points became my “weird diet.” I was pescatarian. It wasn’t a trendy decision. I’d had many painful episodes that doctors could not figure out, but I became keenly aware that the pain was tied to the consumption of red meat and did not occur when I ate fruits, vegetables, and fish. Having grown up outside of the United States, I had been exposed to many different cuisines, and prepared a large variety of foods. My mother would proudly proclaim to friends that when she came to my house, she knew she was going to eat something “weird.” Stir-fried bok choy with lemongrass and garlic was one of her favorites.
As age came like a thief to steal away my beautiful mother’s health, her doctors began instructing her to modify her diet, until it looked very much like mine. Mom and I shared tender moments in her last days before a stroke robbed her of her voice. One day, she was curled up in her hospital bed, a wisp of the woman she used to be, when she waved a gaunt finger to beckon me to her side. Momentarily, her lips twisted into a cockeyed smile, and her eyes twinkled ruefully.
“You know, Cheryl,” she said, “it is the chocolate chip cookies and the bok choy that I will miss the most.”
“Me too, Mommy,” I replied, “me too.”
Cheryl BryantBruce, MD, is a physician in Oakland, California, specializing in integrative wellness management and longevity medicine. She was recognized in Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World.” She can be found at CherylBryantBruceMD.com.
Bok Choy Stir Fry
1 blade of lemongrass, cut into 1/2-in. strips
1 - 5 cloves garlic, minced (to taste)
3 oz. Lasco Wild-caught Nova Salmon (or 1/8 - 1/4 t. smoked sea salt for vegan)
2 T. olive oil
8 baby bok choy, cut into 1/2-in. slices
1/4 c. vegetable broth
1/3 t. black pepper
1 t. dill weed
juice of 1 small lemon
optional: 1 T. cornstarch
2 T. olive oil
Starting with a cold pan, carefully stir-fry lemongrass, garlic, and smoked salmon (or smoked sea salt) in olive oil in a large skillet or wok until garlic is fragrant and pearlescent in appearance, and salmon has browned and is slightly crispy.
Add baby bok choy, sautéing until slightly tender.
Add vegetable broth.
Cover pan and steam over high heat for 2 minutes, until tender but still slightly crisp.
Turn off heat and let sit for 2 minutes.
Add black pepper, dill weed, and lemon juice, mixing well.
For a thicker sauce, mix cornstarch and lemon juice into broth before adding to the pan.
Also consider adding ginger, sesame seeds, peanuts, shrimp, or tofu to this basic recipe for a twist.