(by Carol Milberger)
A child of the Great Depression, my mother abhorred waste. Leftover bits of fruit and vegetables were stored in plastic bags, later to be added to soup or salad. She was a fan of sales, coupons, and specials, strategizing grocery shopping around what was least expensive. Dented cans, hamburger marked with a neon orange “Reduced” sticker, and day-old bread filled her grocery cart. Dad voiced botulism concerns while she boiled mason jars and lids for canning bulk-purchased tomatoes or peaches. My three brothers and I husked bushels of corn every August for her to blanch and freeze.
But few dinners included a sweet ear of corn. Most evenings featured well-done beef, iceberg lettuce, and a green vegetable. Iron-deficient as a child, Mom insisted on liver and onions every Friday, something I couldn’t eat without a thick disguise of ketchup. Equally unappealing was her long-standing infatuation with instant nonfat dry milk. To delay grocery store trips, she stirred powder and water together until large lumps dissolved into a thin, blue-tinted mix. Contrary to her promise, chilling didn’t help. She finally mixed it with fresh whole milk, but not until I decided to grow up, move out, and get a good job so I could eat whipped cream by the spoonful.
Mom was a “eat to live” person. Food never made it to her top five interests. Grocery savings were diverted to Christmas shopping (which began earnestly in August), family camping trips in the VW bus, sewing, antiquing, and garage sales. She excelled at these endeavors, as well as ensuring that her children played outside, made it to swim team practice, and didn’t watch too much TV.
I followed her lead and subsisted on cheap, quick meals through college and graduate school. But my worldview changed while introducing my first infant to solid food. One whiff of jarred beef baby food converted me—I valued nutrition and taste over time and cost. From that point on, preparing healthy meals for my family was a priority.
Mom moved to a large retirement community in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., two decades ago. She remained safe during the pandemic, but the restrictions, isolation, and changes were difficult. I try to visit more frequently and cook during each time.
On my last visit, she seemed frailer, but her quick smile melted my anxiety when we met in the corridor. She warned that she’d grown totally dependent on the walker, but I was shocked to see her tiny frame leaning over its four wheels. She dressed in the same manner as she had when I was younger: comfortable leather sandals, a billowy ankle-length paisley skirt, long vest, and bright blouse. Her hair, now completely silver, remained pulled into a waist-length braid.
On the final morning of my visit, I realized I needed to fly home early because of a forecasted severe storm. I told Mom I had six hours, plenty of time to make us a delicious quiche, using the bits of vegetables that she had saved (unsurprisingly).
Her bright blue eyes met mine. “Oh, don’t bother,” she said. “The refrigerator’s full of food. I’d rather you pick out craft supplies for your grandchildren.”
I felt my shoulders sink down from my ears. I realized I had been worried about getting everything done. Now I could relax, probably for the first time during my visit, and enjoy a second cup of coffee and chat. We’d eat microwaved leftovers and search for craft supplies. We’d walk the hallways once more before I left.
I needed this reminder from Mom. While food is important, so is time spent together, and time for ourselves. Like my quiche full of leftover vegetable bits, there are bits of truth in most every practice. I hope to reintegrate this wisdom—Mom’s gift—and bring more balance into my life. A bit of nutrition for the body, a bit of time for each other, and some energy to take care of ourselves.
Carol Milberger is a retired psychologist who lives in the Texas Hill Country. When not writing or reading, she enjoys triathlon training with an emphasis on morning swims in the beautiful Guadalupe River.
(Great for using leftover vegetables, even the stalks. Always use at least one tomato to add depth to the flavor.)
2 T. olive oil
3 c. chopped vegetables (such as broccoli, asparagus, bell pepper, tomato)
1 c. grated cheddar/mozzarella cheese
1 c. milk
3/4 t. salt
1/4 t. pepper
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Spray 9-in. pie dish with cooking spray.
In a pan over medium heat, sauté all vegetables except tomato in olive oil until fragrant, about 4 minutes.
Add chopped tomato and cook another minute or so.
Evenly spread vegetables in dish. Top evenly with cheese.
Whisk together milk, eggs, salt, pepper, and nutmeg.
Pour custard into dish and bake 40 - 45 minutes, or until center is set.
Broil on low for one minute or so if desired.