When I moved away from home after living with my parents for four years my mom gave me a variety of cacti and succulents as parting gifts. Mom figured I couldn’t kill a cactus, but I killed all of them by overwatering them or leaving them out in too much shade. Even as our relationship got more and more strained over the years and eventually broke down completely, Mom made me take home from Charleston to Raleigh a big aloe pot that filled up the back seat of my Mustang and usually tipped over on the first turn of a four-hour trip. Yes, I killed the aloe too. You could call out the metaphor right now and say that my mother’s familiars were the plants she gave me and I killed them because some part of me wanted to kill our relationship. Maybe. Or I didn’t care about these plants enough because I wasn’t into plants at all and she foisted her horticulture genius on me. OR that my mother WAS the cactus and I wanted to get back at her.
Today we have several plants on our kitchen counter I haven’t killed yet: a poinsettia, a bamboo shoot and a Christmas cactus. So plants aren’t my thing even though I agree that gardening is a fabulous hobby and a wonderful way to meditate, share time and conversation with friends and get some exercise and Vitamin D in. Plus, if your vegetables turn out all right, they are so much better for you than the Food Lion variety.
But I don’t garden because I associate planting with her and I get chills just thinking of constructing a container garden. Then I think of her tomatoes and how she put too many tomatoes in her homemade pizzas so they were too soggy and had to always be eaten with a fork. Then I think the first time my husband (then boyfriend) met my parents and how he was offered a tomato sandwich and he doesn’t eat raw tomatoes. But he ate it anyway that afternoon with my parents’ dog snarling at him the whole time he forced the pulp down his throat.
My family says I don’t cook for them enough and know that I’m still corded to my mother—that I associate the kitchen with her—she made everything homemade and got so mad when my fourth grade teacher implied that she had used an orange cake mix. Because of her French cultural background, she had to shop for fresh produce and bread every three days—I also suspect it cured her boredom and got her out of the house since she didn’t work. I was her Girl Friday at the grocery store—finding couponed items, bagging the groceries at check-out and waiting by the yellow safety bollards with our full cart for her big American car to pick me and the groceries up in the carpool lane. I hated waiting for her to pick the apples in the produce aisle—she took forever and to this day my husband complains I can’t pick any good fruit.
But somehow I like to bake and could bake cookies better than her flat ones. I associate her baking with kindness and generosity, like the time she made a scrumptious pineapple upside-down cake for our neighbors, the Nyes, who had just lost their nephew in a motorcycle accident. I knew it was true since we stopped hearing the sounds of the bike go up and down our street. She’d also bake for birthdays—even making two cakes for my 13th birthday when I expected 10 people to come and only one showed up.
Whenever I feel sad that my mom is not the mom I deserved I think of her baking that pineapple upside-down cake. I also think of all the time and energy she spent in our vegetable garden in Virginia.
For my daughter’s and for my own sake I know I have a lot of work to do—to get over this thing against gardening and cooking. So I’m beginning with education. I’ve performed my acoustic guitar at several area farmers’ markets to make me associate gardening and plants with newer, more pleasant memories. I’m also working on a gardening article for my job at Wake Living where I had to interview experts in urban gardens, community farms and composting—I know so much more now about what it takes to make a plant survive and how here in North Carolina we need to embrace our sustainable agricultural roots that go way, way back to the yeoman farms. When it comes to baking, I’m trying out my creations on my family, always save them the burnt and misshapen cookies and the leftover cake—ha, ha! Next week I’m competing again in an Irish soda bread contest and I got my daughter to roll the dough and add the baking powder—in fact, we need to buy all of the ingredients later today.
Like I said, I’m not healed yet from my gardening/cooking dysfunction, but bent is better than broken.