Two Arguments With My Mother
They, my parents, are living in the Memorial district in Houston. Memorial because Texans name streets after big memorable things. The names of which they misremember, if they ever knew them at all, and then they (the Texans) mispronounce what remains.
So my parents live on what I would call (and I’m sure you would too) “Isolde.”
But in Houston Texas in 1975, it is “I-Sold.” Sold it was, to my parents, who already had a dog named Tristan. Perfect.
In Houston, once upon a time, lived the Hogg family. With children “Ima” and “Eura.” Yes, they did.
The family Hogg had the grace to open their grounds to the masses, of which my mother and I were part that afternoon in the early 1980’s.
We are driving to the Hogg house because my California reared mother wishes to present to her visiting son the genteel legacy of this un-genteel state, Texas, of which she mostly disapproves of and tries to forget she is living in.
“It’s not so bad this time of year and I do love the big sky and the dramatic changes in weather…”
We will tour the Hogg house, have lunch, and then…
“I’m seeing a therapist,” she had announced prior to my arrival, perhaps as a way to say this visit would not end as others had.
My mother wants me to know she is trying to be happy. There is a time in one’s life, or in the life of a certain kind of person which I have also become, when happiness is something for which you must try.
I find the off-ramp, the chute to the Hogg House. We take the tour and then it’s time for lunch. We talk.
The years in Texas have not gone well and, my mother claims, they, my father and she, have no money. “If your father loses his job or dies we don’t have insurance and I have no credit rating. Because I chose to be a housewife. Which I know you kids think is pathetic and why doesn’t mother get a job, and....”
“Mother, what do you mean loan, job? Dad has a good job, that’s why you moved here?”
I am being logical, which is not the same as listening. I am far more focused on my own self-dramatizing 25th year than the lives of my parents. My show must go on.
“You better work your money problems out, because I am an artist, I’ll never make much money, and I am not going to support you, just because you and dad can’t work this out.”
In this strange land, oversteer toward conflict, and crash into the resolution. Lost? Drive faster.
As I drive, I attempt course correction:
“I think it’s wonderful you’re talking through some of this with someone.”
Not really specifying what “some of this” is, but meaning “all of the preceding 20 years,” and “someone” being anyone but me.
“Vivian (the therapist) wants to meet you. (pause) I can’t imagine why”
Well, that will be nice, I think, and then I’ll just sit in the waiting room anticipating how nicely things will be turning around thanks to therapy.
We enter Vivian’s office, and I make mature-son noncommittal niceties. Therapist Vivian asks quite a lot of questions and leans in and nods her head, and my mother leans back and does not nod but sort of grin-maces as if she is both pleased and pissed that her not very positive portraits of me are indeed coming to life, that I am exhibiting to Vivian the therapist, qua mother advocate, what an ungrateful son sits before her. I, that son, recognize, too late, that this is not “meet the therapist” but therapy itself, mother/son therapy for which I was not prepped and maybe I should not have answered that last question quite so forcefully, the question questioning why I might resent dropping out of school, which I really felt I had to do since my parents were being so weird about money, and yes, well, I do think my mother was unduly harsh with my sister and yes I have some residual, but only residual, anger about that and…
Does the toreador notice when the bull is no longer watching but charging?
Following this day’s discharge, my mother does not speak to me with anything resembling maternal warmth for three years.
If only we had focused on food and not finance. With food we could always find common ground. Ima Hogg. Eura Hogg. We-a Hogg. The McMahons march in, mouths open. Better to stuff food in before the words come out.
Face it, flavors are easier to control than people’s feelings, and when they go crazy, you just throw it out. Sell dates. Best consumed by…
Perhaps my mother cooked then, as I cook now, to transform frustration, disappointment and gnawing insufficiency into something that tastes tasty, goes down easily. Something we can honestly share without permanent harm. Cooking being a kind of fluid faith, a dialogue and not dogma; you follow the recipe but with allowances for variation, mutation, shifts of temporal taste and co-requisites (what wine, what company, what other things occupying the mind while opening the mouth? And vice versa) Cooking gives us the transmigration of the raw to the cooked, heat as alchemy, making the indigestible, the unpalatable, the too hard and/or too soft into something with just the right resistance. We can always bite back.
My mother often bit back.
My mother liked food with a narrative. During my California adolescence, she drove all the way to Pasadena to meet the cans and boxes and bags those Trader Joe newsletters provided with a punchline, a lineage. She kept alive a friend’s sourdough starter because it had a friendship behind it, producing pancakes that with every year became thinner, more delicious, more difficult to conform to the ideal of the Bisquick years.
Drive on to the last year of my mother’s life. That exit. She no longer cooks. Yet her kitchen and pantry overflow with food products. And she wants to go shopping. With her son. To Fresh & Easy. And I, her son, middle-aged now, her age when we had that Hogg House hellfire, still focused on getting this over with, centered on the logic, on trying to suppress my mother’s hoarding of food, not seeing that she is starving of both food and attention.
We are carting down aisle 3 flanked by the chips of all nations. My mother transfers yet another bag (the 4th) to our cart, and I am determined this shall not pass.
We are tugging on opposite ends of a bag of chipotle flavored baked (not fried) chips,
she indignant, I righteous:
“Jeffrey, just let me have two bags, for heaven’s sake”
“You have 10 bags at home and I have thrown out 10 others, and…”
(I am following the rhetorical rule of three and my mother the English major knows it)
“But I don’t have this flavor!”
“You don’t need every flavor”
“I want to try something new. Don’t you ever want to try something new?”
“You’ll never even open it, it will be there when you die…”
We are not at home. We are in public. Shoppers have ceased shopping and stand staring at us. We are interfering in their experience if not of freshness then certainly of easiness, setting off not-so-subliminal alarms:
“Security. Aisle 3. Abusive Adult Son.”
On the drive home from our shopping, my mother remarks on “how nice “ our time at Fresh & Easy turned out. I suggest it was not so easy. For me.
“Oh, honey, I’m used to our little conflicts. We always get over them. And then we have a nice meal.”
What remains, from meals never digested: From my mother’s cupboards, which I am cleaning out while she is recovering from a stroke she will not recover from:
Calcium dietary supps 500 mg, complex multivitamin, Lysine, Metamucil, Whole source mature adult, super-B complex, echinacea, caltrate, cranberry extract, aspirin for plants, 2 boxes of Airshield for trips she never took, citrical calcium citrate, soy isoflavone, herbal supplement, One Daily Womens Formula, senior pomegranate 250 mg, MSN glucosomine complex. All way past their sell date.
Never opened: 12 boxes of Triscuits, 3 bags of mate, tropical trail mix, spices, nuts, multipacks of beer she doesn’t drink, every flavor of Campbell’s soup, 11 cans of sardines, 6 cans of oysters, 10 cans of clams, 12 tins of tuna. Soup mixes, salsas, canned peppers, canned pate, canned beans, canned mustard greens, asian pasta. A fantasy of food she is not actually eating but storing for a future that has no future. Everything based in oil, meat, cheese. Salt saturating all.
Tins of cashews, almonds, peanuts. Her first hoarding perhaps those small packages of macadamias my father saved for her from first-class business flights in the 1960’s and 70’s. Now these tins are lost among 15 jars of jellies and preserves. 8 boxes of rice. 10 boxes cous-cous and Tabouleh. Boxes and boxes of pasta shells with white cheddar, clam sauces, creamy alfredo.
And then the Freezer, casket-sized and so crammed that to open is to risk a foot smashed by an unidentifiable object frozen circa 1990.
500 pounds of food rebounding to the grateful volunteer from the local food bank.
And here are those chips, in all of those flavors, still shy of the “sell-by” date. Waiting for her. And none of it do I really wish to eat. Alone.
I’m a Hogg.