(by Coraly Broxterman)
My mother never liked cooking. She actually never liked anything considered domestic. She didn’t clean, wash dishes, or do laundry. I don’t think she liked being a mother either. She was a full-time, second-grade teacher and was always great with her classroom kids. With her real-life kids, it was a different story. She would come home and lock herself in her room with her boyfriend for the rest of the evening. I was the youngest of six children, but only one older brother and I were left in the house. We had many options for dinner, of the microwave or canned variety. Chef Boyardee was a staple. Sometimes she gave us cash or food stamps to get whatever we wanted at the convenience store; sometimes we had fast food and restaurant fare.
When my mother did cook, it was almost always an underwhelming experience at best. I have memories of her dry scrambled eggs that almost always had bits of eggshell, hot dogs, and a lot of pepper. My brother and I would cut a slit in the accompanying microwave waffle and hide as much of the egg as we could so we wouldn’t have to eat it. We also had soup with boiled chicken, onion, and bits of gizzard; always under-salted and over-peppered. Perhaps it was because she had me at 42 and was out of touch with what kids enjoyed eating, but her cooking almost always felt a bit torturous. It went down slowly and uncomfortably—kind of like my childhood.
I have one memory as a baby, laying on my mother’s stomach, smelling her skin and hearing her heartbeat. After that, the memories are bleaker. She did not take interest in my activities at school. My older brother struggled a little bit, so the focus was on him. She said she didn’t have to worry about me because I got good grades. I went to a performing arts school, and she never once came to a single performance. Not one.
Why was a teacher, who connected well with her students, so cold, distant, and uninvolved with her own children? I often wonder about this. The short answer is: Maybe she was just exhausted by the time she got home. At least that is what I tell myself to feel better. Why does a woman who seems so unsuited to mothering children have six of them? She’s Catholic, had one abortion, and told us she regretted it. The six of us were spread out over the course of many years/men. My brother and I are the closest in age, and we share the same father. She told us she wanted us. But we left Puerto Rico for the United States when I was four, and our father never once came to see us when we were kids. The next time I saw him was at my brother Frankie’s funeral in Detroit when I was 11, then again when he was diagnosed with cancer; he came to Chicago so I could help him since I’m a nurse.
My mother had a troubled childhood in Puerto Rico. The family was very poor, and she often had to choose between riding the bus or being able to have a pop for lunch. I barely knew my grandmother because she was sickly when I was a child, and I was a little scared of her. My mother said she’d done some strange things, like pretend to be dead to see how my mom would react. She was not warm with my mother and favored her son.
For the most part, my brother and I were latchkey kids, and eventually I got old enough to start cooking for both of us. Two of my sisters (twins) are amazing cooks who learned how to cook from their mothers-in-law, showing their love through food. And the mother of one of our neighbors was a big inspiration. I will never forget the first time I had macaroni and cheese out of the box; I thought it was the most amazing thing I had ever eaten, and that she was the best cook I’d ever met, so I emulated her. I started cooking meals from a box. I became a Rice-a-Roni connoisseur. Soon I was feeding my brother and our friends—simple meals but always with love. I used to make my mom microwave oatmeal, half a grapefruit, and grapefruit juice. I would bring it to her in bed. She ate that but didn’t really eat anything else I cooked; she was always squeamish about trying my cooking.
I switched my focus to baking. I wasn’t allowed to bake because according to my mother, it would trigger her asthma, so I had to do it in secret. One night when I was about 12 years old, I waited for my mom to fall asleep, and set about baking my first batch of chocolate chip cookies. I borrowed the baking sheet from my neighbor and hid the ingredients in my room until I was ready. Using the recipe from the bag of chocolate chips, I worked quietly in the dark kitchen. The aroma that came with these cookies was like nothing I had ever experienced. The warm cookies filled me with a happiness that I wasn’t used to experiencing as a kid. They were all the things I ever wanted from my childhood and from my mom. Unfortunately, not much changed in my relationship with my mother as the years passed, but I changed. I hit the books hard in high school and started college at 17. I was laser focused to get out ASAP. Eventually I got a dual bachelor’s degree in nursing and creative writing. Romance-wise, my early 20s were a mess, but I have been happily married for 13 years and have two beautiful children. I knew that if I wanted a family, I had to make my own. My husband actually showed me what it was like to be raised with love. My mother-in-law is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met—supportive, involved, and genuinely good through and through. She doesn’t know it, but I would say she is my mentor.
My mother has shown some interest in my boys but doesn’t agree with my parenting style—specifically that I do not hit my children. One thing that has been a constant is: Whenever I open up to her, I later regret it. As a mom, I’ve tried my best to be attuned to my children’s needs; to be present and active in fostering a loving and respectful relationship with them. A lot of my love I show through food and make them a part of the process. We especially love baking cookies together.
My mom and dad should never had been parents, but the cycle ends with me.
Combine flour, baking soda and salt a bowl.
Beat butter, sugar, and vanilla extract until creamy.
Add eggs, one at a time.
Gradually beat in flour mixture.
Stir in morsels and nuts.
Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.
Bake 9 - 11 minutes, then cool for two minutes.