January 24, 2010
By Donna Pierce
Dad and I celebrated my mother’s birthday this past Saturday with her favorite deviled eggs, broiled chicken, asparagus, and the feather-light, southern yeast rolls my grandmother baked during Mama’s childhood to mark every special occasion. Mom was not with us physically. (She made her transition in 2003.)
But following the long weekend basking in the luxury of putting together meals for my dad, I can tell you with assurance that my mother’s memory lives on in the kitchen she cooked in for more than 40 years.
Stirring, whisking, kneading and rolling, I worked in silence, remembering one moment how delighted Mom had been with the olive oil mister purchased at the Greenbrier, the weekend we spent there together with me attending a workshop and her taking classes from some of her cookbook heroes.
When I spread the towel, she once explained as belonging to her great- grandmother over shaped roll dough, waiting for the second rise, I remembered how my mother always added a childhood food memory from “down the Bay” in Mobile as she gently unfolded the linen.
Tossing leaf lettuce and Romaine in her giant wooden salad bowl, setting the table with my choice from a dozen dish settings she enjoyed adding to her cabinet after each vacation, I enjoyed spending the weekend working in her kitchen shadow.
The kitchen’s sudden coming to life on her birthday weekend brought back more memories to my dad as well.
“Your mother threatened to leave me the year I threw that surprise birthday party,” he said with a sad smile while he sat at the breakfast bar watching me bend asparagus stalks until they snapped naturally.
Then we both laughed at the memory of how furious my stylish mom had been the day after the party held back in the early 1960s.
On her birthday that year, with four young children, a major snow storm and frozen water pipes, Mom had uncharacteristically decided to surrender to the elements, forgoing makeup and leaving breakfast and lunch dishes piled in the sink until the plumber could keep his appointment the following day.
That January evening, the 60‘s “fashionista” wore baggy pants and a faded sweatshirt when the doorbell rang and a dozen couples shouted “Happy Birthday” per Dad’s surprise party instructions.
The aftermath left quite an impression on Mom and Dad’s four children.
After their “discussion” it took nearly a decade for either of them to speak about it again and longer for Mom to use this party as a learning experience for her children and grandchildren.
But she did.
“That was the birthday I learned not to take myself so seriously,” Mom had said. “Learning this made all the difference. It took me a long time to learn to be grateful for problems and mistakes,” she told them, adding, “That was the weekend I learned to say to myself and really mean it…relax…it’s only a birthday party.”
“Since then I’ve learned that mistakes are usually the best teachers about how to get things right the next time,” she had said.
This weekend, cooking in my mother’s kitchen… the scene of so many of my recipes disasters reminded me that her wisdom by example may have been her most profound legacy left to her family.
And that’s what I want to share with you to remember when things don’t go as planned.
Seek progress, not perfection. We can embrace bad times and mistakes for the lessons they offer as gratefully as we cheer good results.
My fallen cakes, overdone roasts, underdone chicken, runny quiches and the long list of kitchen disasters helped me become a pretty good cook.
“Don’t take yourself so seriously,” my mother used to remind me when I fretted over a culinary mistake.
In other words…Relax, it’s only a recipe.