A dear acquaintance emailed me this snapshot, which brought to my mind a story about Mother’s Day that’s waited to be told. The image reminded me of a home-made pastry that used to fill me with longing when I was a child. On birthdays, my schoolmates would bring these little peach-shaped cakes as a special treat for the class. I would follow the tray with my eyes while it was passed around the classroom. My mouth would water and, when it was finally my turn, I would carefully lift a peach and place it on a napkin in front of me. The sugar crystals would stick onto my fingers and I would lick them first, before I picked up the little cake once again to carefully examine it. The color captivated me. My mother never used food coloring and I couldn’t even imagine how it worked. How was it possible for someone to make a little cake that looked like a peach? In my mind, one must be able to work magic in order to conjure a flawless fruit, perfectly ripe but free of the slightest sign of decay. When I would finally put the little cake in my mouth, the sponge would be soft and sweet. The two halves of the fruit were attached with some jam, which tasted even sweeter. When I was done eating the treat, I would smack my lips in honor of the class-mate who had a birthday. I was elated whenever someone would bring a tray with these home-made delights to share with the class. It was even better than having a birthday myself.
My mother didn’t understand my craving for the peach-like cakes. How could I want to eat something that looked so fake and tasted overly sweet? If I wanted a peach, she would gladly take me to the market to buy me a real one instead of letting me eat something that was made of unwholesome ingredients. For her, I was like the princess in the Hans Christian Andersen tale who declined the rose and turned a deaf ear to the nightingale because they were both real. That princess was foolish enough to care only for artificial things. Back in my childhood, the little cakes that I craved symbolized for my Mom superficiality, ignorance and weakness of character. She didn’t appreciate my stubbornness when I continued insisting that I preferred them to anything else.
Needless to say, my mother didn’t even think of baking little peach-like cakes. Unlike my grandmother, she was not someone who wanted to spend much time in the kitchen. Her attitude to cooking was a stand against a role forced upon her just because she was a woman. (You can read more about this here.) Instead of stirring pots and mixing flour, my mother read Volker Braun and Christa Wolf, East German dissident writers who criticized the communist regime and the treatment of women. Whenever her brother’s wife came for a visit from West Germany (more about this here), she brought Braun’s and Wolf’s books to read and discuss with my mother. For my Mom, making artificial peaches out of overly sweet dough and fake food coloring was an unwanted distraction from being concerned about more significant things in life. In general, she would not create replicas of things that were part of life under communism, for that life sickened her in its falsehood and deceit. Feeling put down because she was a woman and left behind while her brother had fled to the West, my mother took a stand whenever she could, even if it was about seemingly insignificant things. Therefore, her “no” to the little peach-like cakes was resolute and firm.
On my own birthday, I would plead with my mother in vain to allow me to bring a treat for my classmates. It was of no use telling her that she didn’t need to bake anything at home and I would be perfectly satisfied with store-bought cookies. But it didn’t make any sense to my Mom that I wanted my birthday to be acknowledged at school. She wanted her daughter to learn to read and do math instead of passing around mass-produced treats made out of fake vanilla and butter at a socialist factory. Besides, schooling and celebrating one’s birthday were two separate matters. My birthday was a private affair. In socialist Bulgaria, schooling as part of the state-run education system was heavily tainted by communist propaganda and ideology. With a brother who was an enemy of the communist state and a father who had a Ph.D. in Philosophy from prewar Germany, my mother had good reasons for wanting to shelter her private life from the public eye as much as possible. (You can read more about my uncle here and about my grandfather here). At nine or even eleven, I could hardly understand this. As far as I was concerned, I hoped that bringing a treat for my classmates would make them like me better. I didn’t have many friends at school and I often felt avoided and left out.
For as far back as I can remember my relationship with my mother consisted of endless disagreements. I wanted and craved for things that she didn’t care much about. She offered arguments to me as to why it was wrong to want and like these things. She would often support her point with literary examples, like the one about the foolish princess who didn’t appreciate the rose and nightingale because they were real. Even though her arguments were better than mine and more convincing (especially to her), I still desired the same things, no matter how strongly she disapproved of them. Our disagreements left me feeling crushed. I felt like I was thrown to the bottom of a dark pit without any hope of getting out.
The day I left for graduate school in the States, my Mom must have been heart-broken. She refused to come with me to the airport. Before I got onto the airport bus, she said to me, “When you are gone, who will put her arms around me and tell me that she loves me?”
Being far away didn’t make things any easier between us. I struggled with my feelings of guilt because I didn’t like and enjoy the things she wanted me to like and enjoy. She felt guilty for not having allowed me to have the things that I had badly wanted as a child. She was sad for missing her chance of indulging me when I had been still at home. Whenever she visited me, I wanted to prepare food for her. She interpreted the joy I experienced while cooking for others, including her, as an accusation against her because she had not cooked enough for me when I was a child. Whenever we would sit down at the table and I would serve her a dish that I had carefully prepared, she would say, “Cooking is a waste of time.” I felt she was putting me down much like she had done in my childhood, when I had delighted in things for which she didn’t care, such as overly sweet peach-like cakes.
A few years ago, I saw a Mother’s Day card at the store that I loved. The image was nice but the text was even lovelier in its acknowledgment of all the sacrifices a mother makes and the unconditional acceptance she has for her children. I felt angry. My mother had not unconditionally accepted me. I couldn’t possibly imagine sending her a card like this for Mother’s Day. A few days later I returned to the store and purchased the card to mail to my mother. If I wanted so badly to have a mother like the one described on the card, I could not let my own feelings of anger and disappointment stand in the way. How could I know for certain, if my own mother had not really accepted me for whom I had become?
I’m not sure if my mother received that particular Mother’s Day card. There was no acknowledgement of it. Maybe the Bulgarian post misplaced it. Maybe on that particular Mother’s Day, my Mom wasn’t yet ready to accept my efforts at reconciliation.
On this Mother’s Day, I am proud of my mother and the person she chose to become. I am proud that she pursued her true interests instead of accepting a role forced upon her as a woman. She has worked hard to become a well-respected and much sought-after professional in her field. And more importantly, she is the most generous and giving person I know who unconditionally helps and supports those in need of her assistance.
Now that we have let go of the past and our feelings of guilt, my mother and I share meals that nurture both of us. She says that I am the best cook she knows. I am grateful for her generous praise, even though I believe that my grandmother was a much better cook than me. My mother knows that the food I serve her is an expression of my love and care for her. This thought helps her get through the times when we are far apart — she in Europe and I, in the US. When she is with me, I realize that she has flown thousands of miles to share my food with me, and I feel grateful beyond words.
Happy Mother’s Day to all daughters and mothers who on this holiday share a festive meal in mutual compassion and understanding.