Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Apples and Thyme: What My Mother Taught Me


I am the youngest of seven children. We were a big, noisy family. My mother's kitchen was her escape from all of that. We were not often invited in.

My mother had MS. It wasn't diagnosed until I was twenty-five, but by the time I was about eleven, it was obvious that whatever was wrong, it was not going away.

One of the effects of MS is overwhelming exhaustion. There were days that Mum was just too tired to cope. Much as she hated to give in, on those days she was going to need help.

So one Saturday afternoon, I was invited in to her kitchen to be shown how to make spaghetti sauce.

To start, you dice up an onion and a couple of ribs of celery. Soften them in some oil and butter.

Then add a pound of ground beef. Brown it and add a can of tomatoes and a small can of tomato paste, mixed with some water. Salt and pepper and a pinch of sugar.

Let it simmer until the whole house smells gorgeous.

This was the base recipe. It could be served like that over cooked noodles for a spaghetti dinner.

A cup of rice stirred in and allowed to cook turned it into Spanish Rice.

Or you could add a can of kidney beans, some chili powder, cayenne pepper and paprika for Chili con Carne.

For a big crowd, you could add a couple of cans of baked beans and serve it on hamburger buns for Sloppy Joes (my father's favourite).

Once I was armed with this recipe and its variations, I could take over dinner on days when Mum just couldn't do it. She could have a nap and I would putter in the kitchen, adding a little of this or a little of that, just to see what would happen. On those days, the kitchen became my haven.

When I woke her up to say that dinner was nearly ready, invariably, her response would be, "Why did you let me sleep so long?"

She kept her kitchen to herself until nearly the end of her life. Even when Alan and I moved in to look after her, she insisted that doing the dishes was her job. And she preferred to do them alone.


I learned so much from my mother. Courage and grace. How to make the most of what you have.

The lessons learned in her kitchen were probably not what most daughters learned in their mother's kitchens. But you take what you find. And from that, you try to make something wonderful.

This post is for the series: Apples and Thyme - a celebration of mothers and grandmothers and time spent with them in the kitchen.

18 comments:

african vanielje said...

What a lovely tribute to a brave woman. That's the best way to learn to cook. The basis of a recipe with endless variations. It's the type of cooking which is really sustaining and not beyond any of us. Thank you for entering it for Apples & Thyme.

The Passionate Palate said...

"Courage, grace...and make the most of what you have." My God. If we could all have that the world would be a better place.
What a beautiful honor you paid to your mom.
Thank you for participating.
Jeni

Barb McMahon said...

Thanks you two! It's been a pleasure to be part of "Apples and Thyme". What a great idea!

Penny @ Lavender Hill Studio said...

I am having a hard time typing with the tears running down my face. What a lovely tribute to your Mom. My Mom passed away 2 years ago and I miss her more than anything. Everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING I know, I learned from my Mom.
Penny

Barb McMahon said...

Thanks Penny. Moms are special. I appreciate every opportunity to share the memories.

Laurie Constantino said...

The story is moving, as is the photograph with which you open your piece. This is a very well-realized portrait of a strong woman. Would that we all had your mother's strength.

Ann said...

How beautiful Your two photos are so lovely... what a wonderful face your mother had. And that second photo of her washing dishes... oh my.

I think the lesson you learned in your mother's kitchen was the one most important lesson all of us participating in this event learned also: cooking for people is an expression of love.

sognatrice said...

Tears here as well. Lovely words (and photos) that resonate with me as my Apples & Thyme post also talks about intangible lessons in the kitchen.

Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts.

Ruth Daniels said...

My mother, too had MS and so I truly empathize with your journey with her through it.

The memories I have of my mother often end up in the kitchen, before and after her diagnosis.

I guess it really does define bitter-sweet.

Thanks for sharing.

Mrs. W said...

Now this one really did make me cry. What courage your mother obviously had, there cleaning dishes carefully... stunning tribute.

Barb McMahon said...

Thank you, all of you!

I cried a lot writing this one. It helps to know the tears weren't in vain.

Heloise Bottomley said...

How beautifully you have caught those moments in time. Why don't you send a piece of writing for PIF I don't know of anything more hand crafted than the art of words.

Simona said...

Courage and grace: it is a lesson for everybody, a precious one. One can read your tears mixed in with your words.

Susan said...

An extraordinary post. I'm so sorry for your mother's illness and passing. "But you take what you find." I'm so glad you did. I took something away with me just now after I read this. Thank you.

Julie said...

"But you take what you find. And from that, you try to make something wonderful."

Yeah, your mom was brave and strong, but there's a lot of strength and bravery in that statement of yours, too.

Thanks for the spaghetti sauce recipe. I love my mom and her cooking, but she's never quite figured out spaghetti sauce.

Barb McMahon said...

Thanks so much for your comments.

I think Mum would be amazed at the number of people reading her story.

And, Julie, glad I could help with the recipe. It's a favourite of mine!

Anonymous said...

As a farm boy of about 8, I had to take over from time to time for my mother who was ill - I cleaned and did cooking - great education and has given me talents and appreciation for things as a grown man, that many men don't have. Your story resonates.

Are we optimists or pessimists? Here's a positive story for the coming year. Our grand-daughter, Sara, is 19 and totally quadriplegic and ventilator-dependent since an auto accident when she was 3. She runs her wheel-chair with her chin and does all her communicating and school-work with a mouth-stick on a computer with an interactive screen - finishing her two-year degree at local community college, Phi Kappa Phi, and plans to go to law school. As a get-acquainted exercise in one of her recent classes the teacher asked the students to write a paragraph: if there was one thing in your life that happened that you would change, what would it be? Sara's response: I would not want to change anything because my life experiences have made me the person I am now and I would not want to change that.

What a lesson she is. No whining in our family.

Doug Evans

Barb McMahon said...

Wow. Sara's so wise!

Thanks for the inspiration, Doug!