(by Claire Acerno)
My mother died from Covid in 2020 at the age of 98, after having Alzheimer’s for many
years. Although I was distraught from the circumstances in which she parted this life, I
was also relieved. She’d been suffering in that hellhole called a nursing home for way
Mom grew up poor and hungry during the Great Depression, one of eight children of parents who had emigrated to New York from Italy. She talked about going begging for apples and nuts on Thanksgiving Day to strangers or neighbors, door to door like trick-or-treating, and getting oranges for Christmas. Although she loved to eat, really lived to eat, we were not bonded at the kitchen hearth. One day when I was five years old and watching a Hostess Twinkie commercial, I wished out loud that I had the sort of TV mom who baked sweets, only to get pounded by my eight-year-old brother, who became Mom’s only male stalwart after my dad left.
My mother was a dynamo, with a nickname that suited her, although it didn’t represent why we chose it. She was “Grandma Gogo” because she believed all of life’s ailments could be solved by a good bowel movement. She had the best smile and the best laugh; she could dance across the kitchen floor like it was a damn ballroom. She had five kids who got away with murder—she couldn’t tell any of us what to do ever. But she got up every day to take the train from Queens into “the city” to her shitty job as a secretary where she brought home a meager paycheck to feed and house us.
She was so ravenous when she got home from work that she went for speed. She’d turn the oven to broil and stick in a pan of chicken with carrots and potatoes, but it always turned out perfect—crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. My brother and I always fought over the white meat. She could make iceberg lettuce and out-of-season tomatoes taste good. I know she rubbed the salad bowl with garlic and cut her olive oil with Crisco to save money, but I’ve never been able to replicate it. There was always a can of grease on the stove that she’d save to make French fries, although they took forever in her burnt black frying pan, one layer at a time. “A lotta work,” she’d say. After dinner, she’d do the dishes, clean every counter, and Ajax the sink, then she loved to “get in her wheels” and take us visiting relatives and friends who lived in nice houses and had “normal” families.
A childhood of hunger meant that food was everything to my mom—her joy and satiety, escape from a sad life. For me, it was rebellion. I was an extremely picky eater and always needed more than she could “cook up.” Sometimes she would ask me, “What kind of pasta would you like for supper?” I’d say spaghetti but she would inevitably say, “I like macaroni so much better, don’t you?” I refused her pork chops, hamburgers, leather-like steak, and frozen vegetables. I did drink the blood left over in the meat pan after a roast. I can still remember the taste of iron and salt. Mostly I lived on cereal and bananas. Mom would say, “You’re gonna turn into a Rice Crispy.” Sometimes she would splurge and buy me baby food in a jar—I liked the chicken and rice. If we ate at a cousin’s or friends, I just didn’t eat or would spit my food in a napkin and be excused from the table. As a teenager, I graduated to blueberry yogurt and Cheetos, and pizza if I had the money. I remember always being hungry but never knowing what to eat. I drank black tea with lots of sugar, started smoking cigarettes at 13, and sucked my thumb until I was 16—all things that quelled my appetite.
Sundays at my dad’s apartment were big eating days. Everything at my dad’s place was the polar opposite of my home with Mom. My stepmom Sharlene would make me whatever I wanted to eat. With the money he saved by not ever giving my mom child support, my dad bought only the best cuts of meat, and my stepmom didn’t care if I ate the little circle out of the center of the lambchop. She also set a pretty table and taught me about eating etiquette. She liked to include me in the kitchen; we made cookies and stuffed shells, things that gave us time together. She was very present and kind, a great maternal figure to me, but because my siblings felt a need to protect my mother, I couldn’t love my stepmom out in the open. It had to be covert, even to myself sometimes.
Needless to say, food has always been an issue in my life. I was anorexic as a young woman, I had an addiction to candy in my 40s, and I can still put down a bag of Cheetos in one sitting. I go in and out of eating sugar like a maniac. Now I know what it felt like for my mother. When I eat sugar, I’m in the zone. I can see her fervently devouring her dinner, animated, eyes sparkling, lips greasy, elbows up. Sugar feels like love in my mouth, like God is in my mouth, and I can’t get enough.
I loved my mother deeply. She was a beautiful, broken woman, funny, warm, spontaneous, and one of a kind. She loved us the only way she knew how, the best way she knew how. Love is all there ever was; love is all there ever is left on the plate.
Good Morning, You Look Just Like my Daughter Claire
sitting in my old twin bed
writing with a half-inked pen
mom’s asleep in the next room dreaming
in her off time head
an entrance to herself
she still can cook an egg
while singing “are you sleeping?
dormez-vous?” in her jou-jou French
I bathe her now gently
every inch shines familiar
her round face glowing denial
the old tub ricky rack clothes hanger
panties stockings drip drop strung
towel her worn skin dappled
hands that used to pat, paw, hold me
the same body that waltzed
the small rectangle kitchen
same legs that danced “mon ami”
her most elegant husband
“when you kiss me, heaven” (sighs)
dear God, I pray
her next life, may she
be born into a petite famille
guided with praise
cherished, beyond her lovely skin
marry a real man
who ja da dores
her only, up and down
not to have any children
Chicken with Potatoes and Carrots
(This is a more delicious, modern, sheet-pan version of a dish from my childhood.)
(adapted from Le Crème de la Crumb)
1 c. balsamic vinegar
1/3 c. honey
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts, pounded to even thickness
2 lb. baby red and/or gold potatoes, halved or quartered
1 lb. carrots, peeled and cut into 2-in. pieces
3 T. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 t. garlic powder
1/2 t. dried basil
1/2 t. dried thyme
2 T. grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 400 F.
In a medium saucepan, bring balsamic vinegar and honey to a boil.
Cook about 5 minutes, until reduced by half.
Arrange chicken, potatoes, and carrots separately on a sheet pan lined with aluminum foil.
Drizzle olive oil over sheet pan, rubbing it into the chicken with your fingertips.
Season with salt and pepper to taste, garlic powder, basil, and thyme.
Spoon half of the balsamic sauce over chicken.
Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over potatoes.
Bake 20 - 25 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through and carrots and potatoes are tender.
Drizzle with remaining balsamic sauce (it should be slightly thickened after cooling).