SueG Weeknight Meals — The Ugly

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SueG’s (in)famous pea soup with paint

Make pea soup. Add paint to it as needed to adjust the color.

Now, this is family folklore but there are three living people (including me) who can attest that it happened. My sister Shannon was the eyewitness to my mother adding paint (I believe it was green paint and we don’t know if it was acrylic or oil-based, could have been either as our mother was a painter) to soup in order to improve its color. (SueG apparently thought the soup had turned out too pale.) This episode is primary evidence for my theory that all mothers go crazy at some point in their mothering years. Not all mothers use food as a weapon as ours did, but all have some form of insanity perpetrated upon their families.

This phenomenon can take more benign (or at least more conventional) forms – my mother-in-law said she kept such a clean house while her three boys were young that she made life difficult for everyone. Or it can be self-destructive (over eating or drinking, affairs, flying the coop – all things SueG prophesied in our neighbors). My own insanity takes the form of obsessive online shopping, which gives me that chemical boost and lets me escape the drudgery of family life temporarily. (The thought of a nice box waiting on my doorstep gives me peace when I am tired or bored, though the reality of it induces much more stress than serenity.)

My mother was a great one for testing people’s stupidity, and she had a mean playful streak. She loved to do something impulsive and see what would happen as a result. (as in “If I climb the tree in that stranger’s front yard while they are eating dinner, what will they do?” “If I shimmy up the mast of a sailboat parked at the dock, will I be able to get down from there?” “If I pull out this neighborhood kid’s slightly loose tooth, will he be smart enough not to let me wiggle his tooth next time?” “What will happen if we put these dogs together?”) And in the case of this dinner, “If I add paint to my soup, will anyone be dumb enough to eat it?”

In fact, we were not dumb enough to eat it. Shannon tipped off my father and me, silently, and we steered clear (this may have turned into a pizza night). For her part, SueG was certainly not going to eat paint-laced soup. Even at her wildest and most unglued, she was deeply practical and specialized in knowing exactly what she could and couldn’t get away with (which of course changes with the times. She would never have attempted to pull out a child’s tooth in her grandchildren’s era, that could have landed her in jail. All the same, Shannon and I separately warned our kids never to let Mima wiggle a loose tooth).

I think maternal insanity — whether benign, malignant or something in between — is one’s way of staking out something for oneself, when all available resources have been used up already. From the distance of time and, without my mother here to vet my theories about her, I feel I understand her impulses so much better now (I didn’t understand them at all then and didn’t try). The fact is, serving a family dinner seven nights a week (as most mothers did then) is hard work. It can be boring, it usually is. It can be soul-deadening. This is true no matter what kind of dinner is served or how much money can be brought to bear. Most families don’t give the cook a standing ovation every night just for having achieved the herculean task of assembling a meal and getting it on the table.

Inspired, ironically enough, by SueG’s dazzling cooking ability when she was trying (more on that later), I love to cook. I don’t cook dinner nearly seven nights in a row (that really would send me around the bend). Most nights I make speedy standbys, many based on convenient foods. But a few times a week I like to make a more ambitious meal, by which I mean one with nice ingredients that my husband and I would like to eat.

My sons generally complain bitterly about these “nice” meals and usually don’t eat them. It’s just not worth the effort, even if I enjoy making and eating these meals. These experiences almost always leave me asking why I would even attempt to make something good for my family. They underline everything dysfunctional about our family. They make me wonder why I ever had a family in the first place. They tap into a well of existential despair. Yes, the humble weeknight meal can do that.

I think that’s what was going on with SueG’s weeknight meals. It just wasn’t worth it. And she needed an outlet to express her frustration and boredom – even anger –at being saddled with such a thankless task, at being a mother. It just wasn’t worth it to try to do more. To my embarrassment and shame I remember complaining regularly about her meals – I was the most vocal of the three of us, probably the only one to voice dissent. There is only so much negative feedback one can take and continue on.

And she did not continue on. SueG quit cooking daily dinners when my sister and I were in high school. We subsisted on cereal and, as mentioned, at the end of the week when my father returned to the Cape from his job in New Hampshire, the occasional take-out pizza. I’m not sure what my mother herself ate for dinner during that period. She would retire to her room with an air of general disgust, crossword puzzle in hand, to lie in bed with her coat on (she was cold 12 months a year in those days) and watch the latest in an endless stream of M*A*S*H reruns. We made extremely rare pilgrimages to McDonald’s, where she would give my sister and me each $1 to spend on dinner (insufficient to purchase a meal even then, even there). I liked the French fries so would go without a drink in order to have a small order with my cheeseburger. Pressed, she would buy my sister a shake or dessert in addition to the meager hamburger because she wanted her to eat more.

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