A few weeks after I officially graduated from college, I had major surgery to remove a grapefruit-sized cyst on my ovary (and, it turned out, repair other damage from the severe endometriosis I didn’t know I had).
I had completed my coursework a semester early and was back living with my parents because my first “real” job didn’t pay much. This arrangement, while maybe not what I had hoped for, turned out to be providential because I was able to recover at home with plenty of TLC from my mom.
One of my fondest memories from this period in my life is sitting on a comfy chair in the family room, eating my mom’s Italian meatballs while an NBA playoff game aired on the TV in the background. (I had zero interest in professional basketball; I suppose I remember that detail because this scene is captured so beautifully in my mind.)
My mom is famous for her homemade pasta sauce. Over the years she taught many, if not all, her seven children how to make it, and she served it countless times when company came over after church on Sunday.
And the only thing that is better than her sauce is her sauce with meatballs.
I can almost taste them now, exactly as they were when I was eating them so long ago. I was somewhat frail and quite underweight back then, and the meatballs—infused with the perfect blend of fennel seed, garlic salt and breadcrumbs—were just what the doctor ordered to help me recover after my surgery.
It makes me hungry and cheers my heart just to think about them—especially this week.
It doesn’t happen in the life of every mother, but sometimes, after many years of raising children and running a household, the caretaker becomes the one receiving the care.
This has happened in my family over the last year, which is making this Mother’s Day particularly poignant.
There are many thoughts I could have about my mom and what’s going on during this season of her life. Right now, though, I’m trying to focus less on processing and more on being present. And for me, being present—for my parents and my own family—seems to have a lot to do with food.
My mom taught me how to make her meatballs when I was much younger, and this little culinary project still evokes feelings of love and home. Just a few weeks ago, in fact—when the stresses of life were swirling at an ever-quickening pace—the smell of pasta sauce with meatballs filled our house with warmth and comfort.
But it’s not just the meatballs that remind me of my mom.
Late last year, I felt the urgent need to learn how to make her Italian biscotti—another favorite staple from my childhood that I had always considered too difficult to try myself.
I tracked down her original recipe (she didn’t have it anymore but my sister did), bought the all-important anise flavoring and set up a little baking station in my parents’ kitchen. Step by step, my mom helped me through the recipe.
She mixed the dry and wet ingredients in the big green Tupperware bowl. She instructed me how to turn it out on the counter and knead it the rest of the way. She showed me how to fashion the dough into loaves, using her hand to make a series of indentations along the top of each one.
I had never done anything like this before, and it was kind of a sticky mess for a time. But although my first batches of biscotti weren’t perfect, they were good enough. And even better was the experience.
While we learn many things from our parents when we’re young, I don’t know how often an 84-year-old mother gets to teach her 46-year-old daughter how to do a new task from start to finish. It wasn’t just about making an heirloom recipe, either—at least not for me.
In teaching me to make biscotti, my mom was empowering me to try other things I’ve never done before. Successfully handling a big bowl of sticky biscotti dough gave me the confidence I needed to make homemade bread for the first time ever—something I had always wanted to do but had been afraid to try.
That led to the realization that yes, I actually do have what it takes to teach my 15-year-old daughter how to drive. And yes, I actually can sit by myself in a hospital waiting room while my husband has a scary sounding procedure on his heart.
I don’t know how to explain it any better than this. Somehow, it all began with the biscotti.
My mom doesn’t do much of what she used to do. But in her own quiet way, she’s helping me to be brave.
And what daughter doesn’t need her mother to do that?