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Doing Her Best

(by Candy O'Connor)

I live in New York City, which, for a while, was the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. With our busy lives, my husband and I eat out a lot, but now we alternate cooking every day and will continue to do so until this crisis is over. In an effort to vary our cuisine, I’ve been remembering my mother’s cooking and the frugal choices she made during my childhood in Hollywood, California. Her frugality remains part of my permanent makeup—to this day I can’t stand waste.

When I think about Mama, I see snapshots in my mind, as if looking through an old-style picture album. A petite redhead, she always looked worried. She had a pervading sadness about her (and frequently a cigarette in her mouth).

My parents were not young when they decided to have children—first my brother, then me three years later—but my mother was widowed before she was 50. The hospital bills after my father lost his long battle with cancer, combined with household expenses for a single mother of two, plunged us into homelessness for a time. The “couch surfing” we did to survive put us in some less than safe environments for children, and unfortunately we paid the price. I know the guilt stayed with her. We eventually landed in a small one-bedroom apartment run by the kindly wife of a rabbi. She offered Mama cheap rent for being the on-site super (collecting rent, calling a plumber).

I know she was lonely, and although she did date a bit, they never amounted to more than what is referred to today as hook-ups. And then there were what I thought of as my mama’s “funny times,” when she would stagger and slur her words. Looking back now, I know she found some comfort in alcohol, for which I don’t blame her.

Before marriage, Mama was a seamstress and dressmaker, but by the time my father died, she had the beginnings of rheumatoid arthritis in her hands, which made performing her trade challenging at best and nearly impossible on the worst days. So we lived on survivor’s Social Security and any work she could pick up like babysitting and housecleaning. She rarely laughed, and when she did, it was usually at something on TV. We watched a lot of TV, even during dinner, eating on snack tables. But my mama was always a good listener, followed by warm, comforting hugs. She had a beautiful voice, and I loved singing along with her, which is probably why I became a professional singer.

My earliest memories of her cooking are of cans and jars and frozen food. My brother and I helped her open the cans and jars and heat up the food. Her idea of fresh veggies was an iceberg lettuce salad with cucumber and sliced tomato. She did have her specialties, like “Chinese rice,” made with scrambled eggs, green onions, bacon, and soy sauce. (I tried it on my husband one day, and he really liked it.)

For our first Thanksgiving after my father died, Mama somehow managed to afford a turkey. Even though it was just the three of us, she wanted us to have some kind of normalcy, an escape from the grief. Unfortunately, we all had the flu, but she was determined to cook anyway. My brother and I lay in bed, only a few feet from the kitchenette, watching our sick mother cook. When it was time to pull the turkey out of the oven, her hand slipped, and the turkey and stuffing fell to the floor. She shouted “Sh*t, sh*t, sh*t” at the top of her lungs. It scared me—I’d never heard her swear before. After she calmed down, she cleaned up the mess, rinsed the turkey, and we choked it down, along with some formerly frozen green beans while watching The Wizard of Oz.

When she made stew or chicken soup (which she called Jewish penicillin, even though we were Methodists), she’d make a big batch to last for days. She never transferred the soup or stew from the original cooking pot; she just waited for it to cool and placed the pot in the fridge, to be brought out the next day and the days that followed, reheated again and again until it was done.

A couple of years later, she got into health food. No white bread or white rice. Fresh vegetables when she could afford them. Margarine instead of butter because people thought it was healthier. I think her cooking got better as a result, but it didn’t matter—my mother made it, so it was good. Although she could not always make a comfortable life for us, I loved her very much and took care of her unt