Turned Tables

(by Elizabeth Aaron)


“Hi, Mom. Guess who?”


That’s how I greeted my mom on our phone calls as we sheltered in place during the

Covid-19 pandemic. Living on opposite coasts, we promised to talk every day for as

long as it was unsafe to be around other people.


My mom is in her 90s and lives alone, and as a survivor of childhood polio, navigating

the world was becoming more challenging. The isolation of sheltering in place and

stresses imposed by yet another dangerous virus didn’t help. Our phone calls were a

lifeline.


We’d never expected to be making daily calls for a year and a half. It was the longest

we’d been apart without a visit.


Finally, last summer when we were both vaccinated and travel was safer, I headed from

my home in California to hers on Cape Cod to stay a few months.


She seemed more tender after so much time alone. And thinner. She now kept her cane

with her at all times. The house hadn’t changed—still tidy with everything in its place.

My mom likes keeping things the same so she knows what to count on.


We laughed when I opened her pantry and saw no shortage of chocolates, cookies, and

chips, plus a big stash of her favorite coffee ice cream in the freezer. Mom had her

priorities straight—comfort food was at the top of the list.


We’re a lot alike. If you ask her thoughts on food and eating, she’ll tell you she wouldn’t

eat if she didn’t have to, and that’s true for me, too. One difference: even looking at

mushy vegetables turns her stomach, and somehow I learned to love vegetables, no

matter how they're prepared.


Once we were invited to dinner at the home of some friends of friends. On each plate

was a heap of long, thick, over-steamed stalks of asparagus. My mom and I gave each

other a knowing look. This was her worst nightmare. “Sneak them onto my plate,” I

whispered. She shook her head. “I don’t want to be rude,” she said. She managed to

get down every bite. Only my siblings and I understood what a triumph it was for her.


When I saw her shelf full of junk food, I was so torn. Sweets are the one kind of food

she looks forward to, and I wanted her to enjoy them, yet I knew the inflammation they

can cause may have been adding to her pain. Polio has a way of creating more pain in

older age.


My mom told me new stories about her polio. When she was growing up in

Massachusetts and Connecticut during the Great Depression, she had polio symptoms,

but the disease was never caught. Like at age six, she constantly had fevers, though

the doctors found no clear cause. In fifth grade, her teacher asked if she’d seen a doctor

about her back. My mom was baffled because she thought her back was fine; she had

no idea she had pronounced scoliosis. From ages ten to 12, she took two buses by

herself every Saturday to a facility for handicapped children to get physical therapy for

her scoliosis. It wasn’t until she was in her 30s that a doctor said her now severe

scoliosis was from polio. Although she was aware that her body was a bit crooked and worked differently than most people's, she had kept up the physical therapy exercises she had learned so young. As a result, life was mostly normal for her—marriage, kids, work as an artist and homemaker.


She had been anemic as a child, too. For treatment, she was forced every day to eat

raw liver—a food she has never stopped detesting. This daily losing battle, in addition to

being raised on food for survival—not taste—during the Depression, affected her joy of

eating.


Hearing her stories motivated me to help her even more, and during my visit, I made

most of our meals. She had created a meal plan for herself to know what to eat for

dinner each night, and I stuck to her plan: Monday nights she had chicken, Tuesdays

fish, Wednesdays pasta, Thursdays eggs, Fridays leftovers, Saturdays hot dogs and

beans, and Sundays pizza. Often I’d add veggies or a salad on the side, which is more

than she’d tend to do for herself. She didn’t want me to go to more trouble than heating

a frozen dinner, but when I did, she appreciated it.


Her meal plan made grocery shopping easier because the list was always clear.

Together, masked and with sanitized hands, we’d go to the market. After grabbing her a

cart to lean on so she could make her way more easily through the store, I’d pick up

fruits and vegetables, and she’d take charge of the frozen foods aisle. Once in a while,

something new might call to her, usually a traditional Jewish dish from her childhood like

borscht or potato latkes or rugelach.


While I was trying to encourage her to eat more veggies, she was trying to encourage

me to eat more sweets and relax my food regimen. Living in California, where produce is

so fresh and abundant, I had cut sweets out of my diet. My mom wasn’t having it. She

feels no one should deprive themselves. Besides, in her opinion, she reminded me,

chocolate is a vegetable.


By the end of my visit, we had both loosened up on our food restrictions. Now that I’m

back in California, on our phone chats, we share what we’ve eaten to make each other

proud. We laugh at how the tables have turned and we’ve become even a bit more like

each other.

---

Elizabeth Aaron is an actor and writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. She can be found at elizabethaaronactor.com.

Potato Kugel


5 medium potatoes

1 small onion

1 large egg, beaten

2 T. flour

salt, to taste

1 T. vegetable oil


Preheat oven to 325 F.

Grate potatoes and onions together.

Add egg, flour, and salt to taste.

Place in a greased baking dish, and bake for 2 - 2 1/2 hours.