Generosity and Guilt
(by Cathy Stalder)
As the youngest of six children, I was the last one still living at home, and my mother had trouble adapting the quantities for our meals. Eating could be quite a challenge but gave me a hearty appetite, which I still have today (except now it’s become more complicated to burn it all off). She likes to tease me with her very British sense of humor, after serving me another plateful of dessert, "You’ll be sitting on it next week."
Mum grew up in a very strict, God-fearing Baptist family where wasting food was considered a sin. "Eat up," she was told, "some children have nothing to eat." Her meals were very generous but always sparked with a little guilt.
My memories of growing up with my mother are always associated with comfort eating, which forever remained her remedy to loneliness and longing for the years gone by. When my father left home, she could spend entire afternoons contemplating the past, staring endlessly into emptiness while drinking yet another cup of tea and nibbling on licorice.
Due to my father’s work in a multinational corporation, my family spent ten years in Mexico and eight in Argentina before I was born in Lausanne, the French-speaking part of Switzerland. My mother tells me stories about what she calls the BC years, "Before Cathy," in a way that makes me feel those were the happy times in some long lost promised land about which she remains nostalgic.
When I was three years old , we moved to Brazil for five years. The English I spoke with my mum and the French I spoke with my Swiss-German dad were already mixed up with the Spanish that my Mexican-born siblings learned, and when we arrived in São Paulo, I stopped speaking altogether. After three months of listening, I finally spoke again, and it all came out in Portuguese. Our melting pot family was a joyful and lively chaos, but also sad and anxiety-ridden due to my parents’ increasingly unhappy marriage.
With all the expériences abroad, our palates naturally became accustomed to a wide variety of wonderful flavors and spices. Our weekly menus could range from chiles to roestis, and from asados to shepherd’s pies. Brazilian papayas and passion fruit were a real relish, but somehow my mother’s favorite fruit always remained the good old apples from her native English west country.
When I was eleven, my parents got divorced. We all knew it was coming, and it was almost a relief, to stop all the arguing. My siblings all left home a short while later, so suddenly it was just me and Mum. Dad married again and was now based permanently in Switzerland. Mum took me to England for a fresh new start, involving many positive changes, which unfortunately did not include any attempt to find love again, some toxic voice within her telling her it would be a sin, possibly some unhealthy legacy from her Baptist upbringing. My impatient and clumsy teenaged attempts at shaking her out of this melancholy only met with another British specialty of hers, a retreat into cynicism. Her coping strategy was comfort eating, her remedy to loneliness and longing for the years gone by. She could spend entire afternoons contemplating the past, staring endlessly into emptiness while drinking yet another cup of tea and nibbling licorice.
I grew tired of trying to parent my own mother and moved on to build my own life, with its share of challenges and ups and downs. I’m still learning to distance myself from Mum’s negative feelings and to be grateful for all the treasures she passed on to me : her taste for traveling, her curiosity about other cultures, her love of the arts, and of course her talent for cooking.