(by Michelle Cacho-Negrete)
My mother was a woman who never hugged or kissed my brother and me and never said, “I love you.” The words and physical manifestations seemed absent from her vocabulary. Perhaps her parents, who fled Czarist Russia to avoid the pograms against Jews and whom I never met due to their early deaths, never exhibited affection. Perhaps her husband, also an immigrant, and long vanished, didn’t exhibit affection either. It seems likely she was never told I love you. My mother’s love could only be surmised. We surmised it.
My mother loved food, but hated cooking and was terrible at it. There were only two things she prepared well: scrambled eggs and banana bread. By the end of the week, however, her $40 weekly paycheck for her back-breaking work as a file clerk ran out. Even bananas and eggs were unaffordable. Reduced to onion sandwiches, my mother toasted slices of stale pumpernickel, rubbed garlic on the toast, spread mayo, placed slices of onion on top of an iceberg lettuce leaf, and presented them to us with a flourish, and a little piece of chocolate to make the best of it. It was our most festive meal, delivered on the only three matching plates, white china with a gold rim, purchased for five cents each from a thrift shop on Second Avenue in the East Village of New York City before it was fashionable. We ate on the fire escape in warm weather, or on a table covered with my grandmother’s carefully embroidered precious tablecloth in winter. There was an air of exclusivity about this meal, as though it was our first choice. I loved those sandwiches that, despite our surroundings, draped us in a luxurious laziness we pretended was real because of my mother’s efforts.
I was diagnosed with mononucleosis when I was 13 years old. The illness left me exhausted, frequently nauseated, and without an appetite. I woke up each morning between sheets bleached thin as handkerchiefs, exhausted enough to go back to sleep within a half hour. Sleepless nights of worry left my mother stooped with weariness. She prepared a small milkshake for me to have for breakfast each morning, purchasing ice cream, which was usually reserved for desserts, in response to my having already lost too much weight. My brother, also a beneficiary due to my mother’s scrupulous need to be fair, begged me to remain sick for a long time. My mother begged me to think about what I would eat while she was at work, but the only thing I felt capable of keeping down were her scrambled eggs. She smiled tiredly at me and made an instant decision without ever thinking about what it might mean for her personally. She ran down to the Italian grocer at five each morning as he was opening his store and purchased a fresh mini-baguette. She buttered it, made her perfect eggs, put them in the bread, and wrapped it all in aluminum foil. Each day at lunch I would heat it in the oven at 300 degrees, and have the only lunch I wanted to eat.
My first encounter with hearty, pungent meals was when I was getting married for the first time. All the women in Carlos’s family were exceptional cooks. My mother and brother were invited for a meal, which was warm and affectionate, filled with jokes about the newlyweds-to-be. After dinner, coffee and tea were poured, and my mother’s banana breads, her contribution to the meal, were cut and distributed. Everyone was filled with compliments for this perfect dessert. “You are a wonderful cook,” said Carlos's Aunt Julia.
My mother, brother, fiancé, and I all smiled. “She is indeed quite a cook,” said my brother.
It became a family joke. Whenever she prepared banana bread, we told her, “You’re a wonderful cook!” and all of us, even my mother, laughed.
Michelle Cacho-Negrete is a retired social worker in Portland, Maine, and the author of Stealing: Life in America. Her writing has been included in six anthologies. Four of her essays have been among the most notable of the year; two have been Best of the Net; one won the Hope Award; and another was runner-up in the Brooklyn Literary Arts contest.
Perfect Scrambled Eggs
2 T. heavy cream or evaporated milk
pinch each of salt, pepper, and dill (fresh, if possible)
2 T. salted butter
Whisk together eggs, cream or evaporated milk, salt, pepper, and dill.
Over medium-low heat, melt butter in a cast iron 7-in. pan, add egg mixture, and cook, lifting the sides until the eggs have started to scramble loosely.
Cover pan, lower heat, and cook to the preferred consistency.