Mom—Eunice Brennan (née Plante)—suffered from mental illness ever since I knew her, but quietly so, until much later in her life, when dementia symptoms raged into the mix. During my childhood in Long Island, New York, Mom was like a gentle ghost moving about the house. Her medication (in her words years later) "knocked me out." She slept a lot, or wandered about lightly touching things (door jams, walls, chairs where she sat) as if to orient herself—not to the room, but to the world. But she functioned. She did what many stay-at-home moms in those days did: She cooked and cleaned and shopped for five kids and Dad (and, often, her mother who lived part-time with us for years). She took care of her domestic responsibilities and then some. She sewed costumes for me for school plays. She made Christmas cookies and birthday cakes. She decorated the house for holidays and made sure all of us kids had the requisite surprises. She quietly attended our performances and games. She was of Catholic French Canadian descent and of New England birth. She taught middle-school French before marrying Dad. She was simple and straightforward. So was her cooking. And so, mine too.
Recently I did an Internet "gig"—an online culinary show where people perform basic tasks (often incompetently, thus making it entertaining) on camera. When I applied, I rated my cooking (on a scale of 1 to 5) as a solid 2.5. This seemed accurate. I never thought of myself as a good cook, nor did I care. We weren’t “foodies” in our house, and that stuck. Example: I currently live in a studio with a two-burner camping stove and dorm-sized fridge for a kitchen.
So I went in with expectations of doing a solidly average performance on any and all tasks. And I did. But much to my surprise, for each one, I was able to pull out certain skills I’d not consciously known I’d had—skills, I realized as the camera rolled, that I’d learned from my mom: scrambling eggs, peeling potatoes, shucking corn, cutting up a pineapple, and finally, opening a whole coconut with a hammer, the last of which was apparently never done by a participant on the show before. I would be given a task—say, peeling a potato—and out came the words—“Oh, I can do this. My mom taught me how to peel potatoes. She’d cut a piece and give it to me to eat. Did you ever eat raw potato? It’s so good!”
While I was peeling or shucking or scrambling, it quietly dawned on me that my mother had taught me kitchen skills, something I’d never appreciated before. It was a happy revelation, as there is a lot of pain and sadness that accompanies memories of a mother who was there but not there for the early part of my life, and there in a destructive, angry, panicked way in my adult life. When she passed away on Christmas Eve two years ago, in at-home hospice care after an incredibly difficult month, I felt a mix of grief and guilt that had been marinating for years—about her losses, about my dad’s losses, and about my losses. I wrote songs to exorcise all that. Sad songs. I didn't think there were happy songs to write about Mom.
But after scrambling those eggs, peeling that potato, shucking that corn, and finally cracking that coconut open to get to the sweet white meat inside, the way Mom had taught me, I saw her again in a fresh way. It was like life had given me my own crack on the head, revealing to me a mother I’d always known was there, but hadn’t seen. She’d been waiting for me inside, of all things, a coconut.
Madeline Brennan is a former high school biology/theatre teacher and director, and a behavior specialist/staff trainer for adults with developmental disabilities and psychiatric disorders. She is now an actor/singer in New York City. Inspired by the hospice experiences she had with her mother and best friend, she recently recorded an album of “lullaby” music called Sleepsong: Music for Comfort and Sleep.
Go to a place where it’s okay if a lot of juice spills (e.g., back porch, or fire escape or sidewalk for city folks)
Put the coconut down.
Grab that hammer, lift high, aim carefully, and bring it down HARD.
Repeat as needed until it cracks open and reveals the sweet, tender, white meat.
Eat from the shell.