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Mother's Day on Lockdown

(by Désirée Willmes)

“Whatever challenges and hardships you may face in life, make sure you always have good food on the table.” Those were my mom´s words before I moved away from home to explore the world.

She knew what she was talking about.

My mother (Victoria, but called Nena in her family) was born in Spain during World War II. The country had just ended its civil war, which was a kind of dress rehearsal for the world war. In 1940, the year she was born, Spain was on the brink of famine.

But whenever Mom talks about her childhood, she tells happy stories—stories about growing up in the countryside in Galicia, right next door to Portugal. The area was a smugglers´ paradise when she grew up—mostly tobacco, coffee, and penicillin brought over from Portugal. It was also the land of tungsten mines, a precious metal used for manufacturing fighting vehicles and anti-tank warheads for Germany. Allies knew that the tungsten maintaining the Nazi war industry was almost exclusively sourced from Spain, which led to a concentration of spies operating in that region.

Mom often tells the story about her parents sheltering a German woman in their house for a week. The spy had a little white dog, which, like my mom, happened to be into food. My grandmother apparently was very annoyed that she had to fry two eggs for the mascot on a daily basis and serve it on her best porcelain during their stay. Mom, very little at the time, only remembers being amused about the fried eggs for the mysterious lady´s perrito blanco.

Even though she grew up in slightly dangerous territory, she was a happy child, surrounded by chickens and rabbits, with fruit and vegetables grown on a bit of farmland behind the house. She lived an adventurous life, climbing trees (occasionally falling out of the tree). When she was ten, she accidentally got drunk eating cherries out of a jar, not knowing they were soaking in schnapps.

Whenever Mom (the only girl of five children) was upset with her siblings or her parents, she would wrap her belongings (which consisted of a piece of fruit, a piece of cheese, a slice of homemade bread, and her rag doll) in her mother´s silk scarf, and off she would go—as far as the family´s garden, hiding in the rabbits´ shed. Her brother Pepe, whose life had been saved by smuggled penicillin, knew how to lure her back home by shouting, “I’m glad Nena has vanished. Now I can have an extra piece of tortilla.”

Food has always been and will always remain her passion. Not a day goes by that she doesn´t talk about food. Before the lockdown for the pandemic, she would go to the local market on a daily basis, spending hours meeting random people and exchanging recipes with them. Even in difficult economic times, when I had to wear the same old coat that I had already outgrown, we never were short of food. I used to sit in the kitchen to do my homework, with the intoxicating smells of her cooking. Whenever I had the chance, I’d snatch some of the soft but crispy hot potatoes she was preparing for a tortilla de patatas, a Spanish potato omelette. She always says that tortilla is the best comfort food, and she is right.

I grew up in Germany. Every summer we would vacation in Galicia, buying food and drinks as gifts for family and friends. We had a routine: When we approached a checkpoint at the border, Mom would call out, “Frontera a la vista,” which was code for my brother and me to pretend to be asleep—atop boxes of chorizo, potatoes, cheese, beans, brandy, and wine. When the border