(by Amy Volker)
My Mother. Mom. Mommy. Her name is Karen, but don’t hold that against her. She was born in 1947 to Bob and Virginia. An older sister, a duck for a pet, and alcoholic parents shaped her childhood. She married at 22 to get out of the house, had two ginger-haired daughters, and was divorced by 25. Her life from that point on was defined by three more marriages; two step-kids who were tweens when she came in their lives; working non-stop to get her master’s degree and Ph.D.; becoming a teacher, principal, and superintendent; mother, grandmother, aunt, and friend. Then a great tragedy changed the trajectory of her life and the chemistry of her brain. She may be still physically alive, but her brain is gone. That’s what I miss most, our talks. About anything and everything. I just miss her voice.
How to describe her voice? Comforting. That’s the easy word. When we talked, she would present both sides to any problem I had, never sugar-coating the issue. But she also never let me off the hook. I’m not a talker. Still not. As the youngest, I realized early on that if I stayed quiet, I got away with a lot of things, like staying up late watching television while my parents corralled my siblings to bed. I lived in my head, in my imagination, and was fine if I was sent to my room when my mom was mad at me. I must have been around five when she realized that she couldn’t punish me that way. So while sending my sister to her room was a fate worse than death, she would make me sit in the kitchen with her while she made dinner or worked and actually talk with her. Actually, she did most of the talking, and (I hate to admit it but) it was rather comforting, sitting in a big chair, listening to her talking about her day, or about how to make whatever she was cooking—anything that popped into her head.
When I was still too young to go to school, my mom ran a daycare center out of our house for friends and family. Totally illegal now, but we had fun. There was an old VW van in our backyard; my dad took the engine out, and we would pretend to drive to Hawaii. (I was four—what did I know?) When it was too cold or too hot to eat outside, we would have picnics in the family room for lunch—finger foods on a blanket.
One job my Mom had when I was small was as the corporate chef at the Grundfos Pump Company in our hometown of Fresno, California. I think my stepdad had the connection, but it was an odd fit since she couldn’t cook very well at the time—nothing fancy enough to impress the muckety-mucks from out of town. But my five-foot-two mom became the point person for all the important dinners and meetings held at the company—in charge of the menu, the settings, the whole event. And she loved it. She needed to impress the clients, so my siblings and I were her guinea pigs. Since this was before the Internet, she bought cookbooks, focusing on French and Italian cuisines. Looking back now, I think Julia Child was her spirit animal. I was raised on savory, hearty, decadent dishes. I was probably the only five-year-old devouring veal parmigiana, lasagna, and coq au vin. My mom was probably only 30 when she worked this job. That seems so young to me now. But it was when she started to take control of her future.
When I was about ten, Mom became a sixth-grade teacher at a school about 45 minutes away from our home in Fresno. It was farm country, but she dressed like it was an office—professional suits and dresses. She wanted to show her students that no matter where you lived, you could dress to impress. I would visit sometimes, and it was easy to tell that the kids respected her because she respected them. Respect was her motto: I will respect you if you respect me. When I was in high school, she became the principal of an elementary school and added hats to her dress uniform. She was never seen without a hat. She loved them. But she had the head for them. The kids and parents loved them. She looked like Audrey Hepburn.
My favorite memories are of the two of us sitting in the family room on Sunday afternoons watching classic films on television, doing our homework together. She introduced me to Audrey Hepburn and Katherine Hepburn, to Cary Grant comedies and to musicals. She became obsessed with Barbra Streisand, and she had a crush on Danny Kaye, although she would deny it. But she would rarely sit through an entire movie; she always had things to do and would get up halfway through. (I did not get that gene. I can waste an entire day watching movies on TCM. But I guess that is her fault.)
I was an adult living in Los Angeles when my mom called one Saturday just to ask how I was. That was the night I was going with some friends to see U2 perform at the Pasadena Rose Bowl. The conversation started with that and then continued. She asked again what I was doing that night. I told her again. A little more small talk. Then she asked a third time. That was when I got scared. “You just asked me that, Mom, like three times,” I said. “Oh, yes,” she replied. “Sorry. Just tired.” I asked her to talk to her doctor, and she promised she would, but either she didn’t tell her doctor everything or he didn’t ask the right questions. There was no diagnosis after that call.
Two years later, my stepdad Jim, the love of her life, had an abdominal aortic aneurysm, and died in the emergency room. Most every death is tragic, but the abrupt nature of some are much harder to recover from, and this one seemed to trigger something in my mom that changed everything. Within two years, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She was 67.
My biggest regret is that I did not ask more about my mother’s life, about how she stayed strong. I would love to ask why she chose to do the things she did, where she found the courage and strength. What was her motivation? Was it the fact that her parents didn’t encourage her when she was growing up? That she felt stifled at home? That she wanted more for my sister and me? That she wanted to show us that we didn’t need anyone to follow our dreams? To be independent women at a time when it wasn’t actively encouraged? I will never know, and that breaks my heart.
I did get to repay her for passing along the love of classic films by introducing her to independent films. When I worked for different film festivals in the Los Angeles area, she and my stepdad would come and visit. One was the premiere of Monster’s Ball with Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton. I think I am still scarred by watching that sex scene sitting next to my parents. But every year after that, they would call and ask me what movies to watch that might be nominated for an award, especially the smaller films that would get lost. And when the Oscar nominations were announced, they would print out the list and try to see as many as possible that were screened in Fresno.. I was the head theatre manager for the galas and red carpets at the festivals, and it made my mom proud watching me in charge of it all. But she never knew any of the celebrities. She treated everyone the same—no badge or ticket, you couldn’t enter. And the way she said it, no one ever argued with her. One time Jon Favreau was walking the red carpet talking to the press, and Vince Vaughn wanted to meet him in the lobby, but because Vince didn’t have a ticket or a badge, my mom wouldn’t let him in. He was cool with it, but his publicist was all “Don’t you know who this is?” And my mom, of course, did not.
I learned everything from my mom. She taught me to be independent, to read, to appreciate art and film, and to love unconditionally. She took control of her future and learned how to cook the most challenging recipes in the world. I can’t thank her enough for showing me that anything is possible if you just believe in yourself. She believed she could cook, so she did. I wish that I could cook like her. I do have her recipe box, so maybe now is a good time to start practicing.
2 lb. ground chuck
2 sweet Italian sausages
1 medium onion, chopped
3 15-oz. cans tomato sauce
1 8-oz. can tomato puree
garlic powder, to taste
salt and pepper, to taste
1 lb. lasagna noodles
15 oz. ricotta
1 lb. mozzarella, shredded
12 oz. provolone, sliced
1 1/2 c. Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
In large saucepan, sauté ground chuck, sausage, and onion until browned.
Add tomato sauce, tomato puree, garlic powder, salt and pepper.
Simmer 1 hour, adding water if too thick.
In boiling water, cook noodles according to package directions and drain.
Rinse under cold water.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a 9 x 13 pan, layer meat sauce, ricotta, noodles, mozzarella, provolone, and Parmigiano Reggiano.
Repeat layers until pan is full, ending with mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano.
Bake for 1 hour.
Serves 8 – 10.