More times than I can count, or for that matter conceive of, my mother nearly killed me. But this isn’t a tale of Munchhausen by Proxy, my supposed protector and presumed nurturer feeding me poison, only to save me at the last minute while basking in the glory of being my savior. Rather, my mother was the one ingesting the poison, greedily, and almost daily. She carries no guilt about this as far as I can tell.
My allergies were spotted from the moment I was born, when I came out looking a little blue around the edges, until I bloomed red with eczema. A fleet of tests concluded that anything from the sea—fish, shellfish, seaweed, seawater—would send up the most alarm bells. Unfortunately, creatures from the deep were pretty much all my mother ever wanted to eat.
I never had children, too traumatized being a daughter ever to take on a role that seems to be all sacrifice with an underpinning of unrelenting fear. Besides, I get impatient having to tie my own shoes; the perpetually trailing laces of a child would drive me insane. (There is velcro, but during my prime child-bearing years, it wasn’t quite the rage as it is now.)
But I used to believe that if my kid was made sick by my favorite food, I might give up said food. No such luck. Picture me then, a frail little girl, the wheeze already in my lungs along with that tell-tale tightness, escaping from the smell of frying fish by sitting on our front steps, which, this being Canada, were usually frozen or at least wet, while my mother happily fried up her kippers. It is a sad picture, and I often felt sorry for myself, wondering why.
I have theories, and the one that I think is the soundest, as opposed to “mother was just impossible,” is rooted in her experience in World War II. Born in 1928, she was 12 when the war broke. Her family lived in the East End of London near the docks, which was probably the most bombed spot of the war until Dresden. A Jewish father and an Irish mother, both with bone-deep memories of pogroms and famine. The psychological storm that the daily bombing raids and ever-shrinking rations must have created in my grandparents no doubt colored my mother’s burgeoning awareness of the world around her. In fact, the stresses of the war proved too much for my grandfather, who had a complete nervous breakdown and died before the war’s end in an insane asylum. (A term not now used, I know, but it’s what my mother called it. Christ, in her day, there was a place in London called the Hospital for the Incurables. Bad day when you were checked in there.)
But if you asked my mother about the war, she would clap her hands together, look wistful, talk only of Yanks and fun, of dancing and chocolate. She, a writer her whole professional life, in her youth wrote out a future life, one free of the grim realities of wartime deprivations, of ailing parents, of poverty, of friends, and neighbors killed in the raids.
Great. We should all be able to write our lives. But the mind doesn’t allow for complete reinvention. The scars that we have fester no matter how buried. One of the portals through which her past made itself felt was through her relationship with food.
Years ago, soon after I had left home, she came over for lunch. I had some just roasted beets and a loaf of bread, so I offered her a beet sandwich. Rather good, I thought: beets, red onions, lashings of butter, and Indian chili pickle on warm toast. She looked faint, pushed the plate away, and went to lie down on my couch. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I remembered that during the last winter of the war, her father dead, the family near starvation, it was boiled beet sandwiches that had kept them going.
This episode got me thinking about why I had often found her dealings with food an unsettling experience—even unpacking the groceries. (I once saw her with her coat still on, purse in one hand and a chicken in the other, which she had taken out of the wrapping, wandering around the kitchen as if she had no clue what to do with it.)
She cooked with a vague violence, and forget going out to dinner. No matter the wonders placed before her, she’d push the food around, itemizing her perception of the actual cost. (“Three cents worth of peas, ten of potatoes.”) Any delight I might have been feeling with my own dinner was instantly blanched. Even at home, when we sat down to dinner, she was uncomfortable, addressing her food self-consciously, and with no small measure of resentment. The best way to describe it was: She was at war. I believe she wanted to be a sensualist, wanted to savor the food, but was held by an iron grip of guilt and the private scold in her head.
Except when it came to fish. Adding to the mysteries of my mother, for whatever reason, when she cooked and ate fish, she was relaxed, most joyful. I have many memories and notions of her. She was funny, light-headed, illogical, possessive, curious, judgmental, bitchy, impossible, forgiving, thoroughly affectionate, tactile, messy, ambitious, beautiful, jealous, and forever convinced that her childhood script of future fame was just about to be realized. But it’s the image of her standing over newspaper, soaking up the oil of freshly fried fish and then pulling off a bite, that is the perfect snapshot of a woman finding momentary peace.
What was it about fish? Was it that she grew up by a river? Or that even in the leanest years, there was always enough money for a run down to the fish and chip shop? Or was there some property in fish, something that would kill me, but in her ignited the pleasure center of her brain?
So yes, as a child, it seemed damn unfair that I had to trundle off to sit on cold stairs, but now it seems such a small price.
Last month after a bout of bronchitis and a hospital stay, she went into hospice care. I don’t care what your relationship with your parent is; there is nothing more wrenching. My once formidable mother now a mere bird, with hardly any appetite. After settling her in her room, arranging family photos around her, I asked if she needed anything. She grabbed my hand, her grip claw-like, and whispered something.
“I want a kipper, Love.”
An hour later, I was standing at the fish counter at the supermarket, the young kid who was assisting me looking at me as if I was nuts.
“A kipper? What is that?”
I started to cry. “I have no idea.”
Bex Brian was, until recently, a columnist at Salon. She is now working on a novel entitled The Memoir of an Impossible Mother.