Like Mother, Like Daughter. Or Not.

I’m cooking the ground beef, pressing it flat, turning it over, and stirring until it darkens. The meat is an ingredient in a recipe for Italian-style Sloppy Joes that I clipped from the newspaper. 

As I watch the meat brown, I think of my mother, who with her famous Chili Mac, performed a similar coloration during my childhood. As she enters my brain, I imagine her smiling at the sight of her daughter cooking. This is an unfamiliar activity for me. Simple table-top grilling, microwaving, ordering- or carrying-out was my usual pattern.

But something changed after my husband died. Without the care and worry that absorbed me, I now have extra hours in the day. And since my menu is no longer focused on vegetarian dishes he preferred, I have a taste for home-cooked meals with meat or chicken. 

I’m not a creative cook who tosses in a pinch of this or handful of that, but instead a recipe follower who uses sauce-stained finger tips to trace each ingredient and step. I haven’t opted for fancy cookware, save for the cast iron pot a daughter insisted I add. But for tonight’s dish, I’m using my weathered frying pan. 

My mother, back in her kitchen in the three-room apartment we lived in above our store, used an electric frying pan for her cuisine -- as aged and well-worn as my current cordless. I can still see her, attired in a Swirl apron, wearing the wedge slippers she changed into from her preferred high heels.

As I thought about Mom and the commonality of our cooking, another notion plopped in my head: we both bear the title, Widow. In her case, she was very young, just 45 years old when she got the label, while I am nearly three decades older.

My father died in 1958, at 48 years old. A three-pack-a-day unfiltered Camel smoker, overweight, and with diabetes, his demise from a heart attack was not a shock; instead a fear that darkened my childhood.

My husband died November 2, 2012, at age 77 from throat cancer. “Was he a smoker?” doctors asked. I knew Tommy was a heavy smoker before we met, perhaps similar to Dad’s overindulgence. But I understood he had quit cold turkey at about 50. 

As I continued the recipe, stirring the browned meat into the already softened onions, then adding red wine, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, oregano, red pepper flakes, and salt, I remembered Mom’s words after she became a widow: “I never want to be a burden to my kids.” 

This pledge pushed her to try and learn how to drive. She enlisted her brother, my Uncle Hy, to pick her up on Saturdays for lessons on quiet streets. But after just a few outings, she returned to the apartment she and I shared, tears in her blue eyes. “I give up,” I remember her saying as she sunk into the couch.

Poor mom believed it was too late for her to take the wheel, so she accepted the proposal of a man 20 years her senior who could put her in the passenger seat. (This turned out to be a lousy marriage, requiring her to clip coupons. Her husband declined with Alzheimer’s, but outlived my mom -- who died at 67 -- for many years.) 

This is where Mother and I part ways. I was fortunate to enjoy a happy second marriage, free of contention or serious belt tightening. Tommy was only three years my senior, and I was the one who insisted he learn how to drive. While he also suffered from a deteriorating brain disease, he left this earth with me still strolling on it.

Secondly, unlike my mother, I’d never consider myself a burden to my kids. A sometimes embarrassment, a frequent meddler, an expert at passive-aggressive behavior, but a burden? Never.

Not only can I operate a vehicle (even manual if need be), but I manage my own business, can program a DVR, set up Apple devices, and build a blog like the one you’re viewing. 

While Mom would likely be proud of these accomplishments, in my heart of hearts I know it’s the recent cooking that brings a smile to her ethereal face. In our years together, I never asked her to teach me how to cook, or do the handicrafts she was skilled at, like knitting, needlepoint, and crocheting. I wonder now, was that hurtful to her?

Odd that cooking has become a new hobby, drawing my mother back into my consciousness. Perhaps her spirit sees a window of opportunity? She’s successfully led me to the stove, could a ball of yarn be next?