My Mom Eats Fish From Her Purse

(by Jackie Sallade)


My mom was a Jewish diva, a piano prodigy born in Russia during the Revolution. Her father had died of tuberculosis in the war. When she was three or four, she and her mother, her grandparents, and three uncles had to leave the country quickly. They left wealth behind, stuffed jewels and papers into my mother’s little panties, and drove their big Mercedes sedan all the way to Berlin.

There, the uncles set up business as diamond brokers. My mother, her young mother, and her grandparents had a maid and a cook, and my mother grew up believing that she was too special to cook or clean. She studied piano at the conservatory from a young age and did well in school. Fast forward to Nazi times. By then, the grandparents had passed. The new stepfather left, and the uncles had emigrated to New York. Again, my mother and her mother left wealth behind and fled to relatives, first in Belgium and then France, staying ahead of the Nazis. She still didn’t cook. Her aunts’ maids and hired help did it. In 1942, my mother and grandmother boarded a boat in Nice to New York. Onboard, my mother met a beau who later became her husband and my dad. In the United States, they had a small apartment and no servants. Their meals came from delis. But as a newly married woman, my mother figured out how to prepare some things, like a roast and fish sticks. When I was three, we moved to Philadelphia, and my grandmother would come to visit and cook awful things like tough-as-leather liver, making sure I ate every disgusting bite, one piece in honor of every relative we had. I finally showed Grandma just what I thought of the liver by giving her a piece, chewed and spit out in a napkin, as if it were a gift. Unfortunately, she died a week later, so I never had a chance to apologize. In time, my mother developed a routine of serving steak, peas, and a baked potato every night for dinner. When she went to New York to help one of her ailing uncles, my dad and my very young self were left to fend for ourselves for several weeks. Every day after school, I followed her custom and made steak (seven minutes on Broil for each side), canned peas, and a baked potato. I filled the responsible role of cook with pride.

My mother retained the feeling of being a diva and saw herself as a displaced aristocrat. Still, she humbly taught piano at home and, less humbly, played recitals and served on local symphony boards. Cooking was not important to her. We ate out a lot. Mom always took home packets of ketchup, even meat from buffets, wrapped in napkins and stuffed into her purse. Perhaps it was leftover parsimony after living through war. By the time I was through elementary school, our nightly meal switched to chicken topped with ketchup, cauliflower (frozen), and a baked potato. No one seemed to notice or care when I quit drinking milk and substituted diet soda. I’ve always thought that was an example of a type of neglect I experienced. Sadly, when I needed cookies for my Brownie troop, my mother gave me store-bought, not homemade. (So humiliating.) But the lack of attention in one area was counterbalanced by the music around me from my mother’s chamber group rehearsing, the piano students playing, and the concerts we attended. I love classical music, although I don’t have talent as a musician. As an adult, I never bothered much with cooking. My son ate so much pizza and take-out that he learned to cook well at an early age as self-defense, and my husband got used to sandwiches. Eventually, my father died, and my mother was an old lady. On the verge of dementia, she stuffed her purse with food in restaurants. In the back of my car, I could smell the fish she was eating from her purse, but when I asked her to stop so the car didn’t get dirty, she defiantly said, “I’m not!” In advanced age, she couldn’t swallow enough to eat much solid food. My husband and I brought her to our house, hired an aide, and fed her milkshakes. She still played piano. I took her to a pub, where she entertained between the regular band’s sets. She became warmer as a mother but still thought of herself as an “aristocrat.” When she stopped playing, she died soon after.


I remember my mother fondly. She wasn’t a very motherly person (my father parented me more) but she was unique and interesting.

So, now we’re old too. We eat out a lot.

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Jackie Sallade is a retired psychologist, aspiring actor, and writer living in Naples, Florida, and Central Pennsylvania. She can be found on YouTube, Backstage, Actors Access, Facebook, and TikTok.