December 8, 2019

In the Soup

My parents visited a year ago while I recuperated from lung cancer surgery and they developed a division of labor.

My father would do odd jobs around the house. My mother would feed me.

This was a good plan in theory, but in reality, it had loopholes. My father’s tasks were well-defined: fix a fence, change a light bulb.

But my mother struggled. What is it exactly her middle-aged daughter with upper-middle-class tastes liked to eat? The fact is that both of us had long since stopped cooking most of our meals, taking our nourishment from restaurants and take-out. Nevertheless, there persisted in her the belief that when a "child" is sick, only homemade foods will do. Familiar, nourishing, Jewish foods.

It had been decades since we’d all lived together. Immediately, she returned to the rigid cooking rhythm I recognized from my youth — Monday and Thursday she served fish, followed by sour cream and fruit; Tuesday and Wednesday, meat. If it seemed awkward to me, like stepping into a sepia photo, to her and dad it was preordained, as natural as lighting candles on Friday.

But it wasn’t to work.

Within hours of the folks’ arrival, my friends indicated that they knew me better than she did. Day after day, well-wishers came by the house loaded with platters and casseroles. My mother stood miserably at the door as the parade came by, stunned by the variety and creativity of the offerings. Little did she know that in sunny California, health and healing was based on soup: chicken soup, of course, but also barley, lentil, squash, tomato-vegetable and bean.

Overwhelmed by an overstuffed refrigerator, my mother surrendered, serving from the bounty that was given us.

I ate the donations my friends delivered, and she did, too. She returned home to Florida, plainly stewed.

Fast-forward. I healed from the surgery. But the long-distance phone calls were confusing. I was undergoing high-level biotech cancer treatments that seemed to transform their daughter into a one-woman human genome project. In frustration at the scientific complexity, mom and dad threw up their hands. OK, no parents should have to know from signal interference and cell aptosis. But the real question was: What was I eating?

Mom and dad arrived again to see for themselves.

This time, mom had a plan. While dad got right to work on his home repairs, mom settled into the kitchen: Operation Soup.

Out of my kitchen came scalding vats of chicken noodle soup with matzah balls, vegetable soup, bean and barley. With mom busy night and day, the word went out to friend and neighbor: hold the pottage.

The trouble was cancer treatment had ripped into my taste buds. I did my best to fake it. But I couldn’t abide the smell of vegetables, let alone chicken. What’s a mother to do?

One day we visited Elayne, whose home was perfumed with the ancient sugar-meat smell of tzimmes. Of the great dietary mysteries, somehow I could tolerate a brisket-potatoes-carrots melange, but not my poor mother’s barley soup.

"You eat tzimmes?" my mother stammered. "I’ll make you tzimmes!"

"Mom! Please don’t!"

But there she was, leaning her exhausted body over the sink, steadying herself while she cut yams and carrots into a boiling brew.

It broke my heart to see her work so hard, but she was unstoppable.

Then, a day later, the doorbell rang. It was my friend, chef Andy, with daughter, Sally, and dog, Abe. Andy carried a huge aluminum pan of an award-winning tzimmes of his own. His tzimmes is loaded with the flanken that for months I could not go near. By a fluke, this flanken I could stand.

Last week, my parents visited again. My father hung pictures and bathroom hooks. n

Mom served cheese blintzes straight from a New York deli. Delicious! See, you can’t keep a good woman down.