My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent. – Ruth Bader Ginsburg
It was just 3 or 4 days shy of my ninth birthday. I had dreamed of owning a big bike, begged to change my little kid’s small bicycle for an adult-sized beauty, just like the older kids, and here it was in the garage, tucked between the station wagon and our other bikes! My new bicycle, a beautiful deep blue, baskets for so many books, a light sitting in the middle of the handlebars that whirred softly, deliciously when on, my new bicycle, standing tall and proud just waiting for my birthday. A siren’s call. I was ready to ride, no longer embarrassed, no longer fearful of being teased for riding a baby’s bike.
But it was still a couple of days or so until my birthday and my mother made it very clear that as it was my birthday present I would just have to be patient and wait. I was stunned! And furious! How could I possibly ride to school even one more day on my “kid’s” bike when this grown-up one was already here, standing right in front of me, tempting me? Well, feeling as if I was in the right, I decided that I simply would not put up with it – I would ride that bike to school!
The following day I got up, ate breakfast, got dressed and grabbed my books and went to my mom and proclaimed “I am taking my new bike to school!” She put her foot down and calmly said No! So I simply refused to go. Period.
Now, headstrong had never been my way. I had always been the “good girl”, the quiet and obedient daughter, the one who never missed a day of school, never cheated, never lied, never went against the rules. But here I was, faced with a dilemma, having to take what amounted to an ideological stance; I refused to back down. I stomped my foot and demanded, then begged to be allowed to ride my new bike to school. Or I wouldn’t go to school at all. But mom, ever pragmatic, stood her ground and told me, “You can make your own decision about school, but as far as I am concerned, for all intents and purposes, you have gone to school, so outside you go. Where you spend your day is up to you but it won’t be in this house. And there is a perfectly good lunch waiting for you in the school cafeteria, so don’t think that you’ll be allowed in the house at noon for lunch!”
So I spent the school hours, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., sitting on the chilly concrete step in the garage, leaning back against the washing machine. Cold. Miserable. And hungry.
But finally the day, this longest day of my life was done and I was allowed in the house for dinner. Now, I don’t remember if I was allowed an after-school snack that day or not, but when I finally sat down to dinner I was famished. And on that day of all days, that long ago January of my ninth year, simply the worst day of my life, a day spent humiliated, sitting in the chilly garage on cold, hard cement, knowing that tomorrow I would have to face my teacher and explain why I had missed a day of school, starved, without food, you can be sure that that day of all days my mother decided to make Liver and Onions. Liver and Onions, my arch-nemesis, the bane of my life, my bête noire, the worst of the worst as far as mom’s cooking went: overcooked, tough as shoe-leather, dry liver crumbling to ash in the mouth, its desiccated texture only relieved by the occasional mysterious chewy thing embedded in what could barely be described as meat. Desperately I choked down as much as I could, smothered in ketchup, and washed down with gulps of milk.
Now, was this some cruel twist of fate or was it just desserts for an unruly, disobedient child, punishment for the naughty girl that I had been? But either way, lesson learned. This day, this meal is still burned into my memory, leaving truly a bad taste in my mouth.
My mother never gave an inch.
My mother was an unusual amalgamation of homemaker and workingwoman, something like the strange merging of June Cleaver and Maude, but without the propensity to butt in or the commitment to perfection. She got married rather late for her time, I imagine, being a working girl and free spirit, but homemaker and mother she became. And as much as she loved us, I have never been convinced that she embraced her role completely, heart and soul.
As early as I can remember, she worked, one of the few mothers that did; she threw herself completely into her projects, running the Hebrew school at the synagogue, active in the Sisterhood, working for the Association for the Blind, and, by the time we were in elementary and junior high school, going into real estate. My parents also enjoyed a busy social life, throwing parties, going on cruises with friends, organizing neighborhood dinners, an active social life immortalized in dozens of Kodachrome snapshots, my mother dazzling in frosted hair, satin party pajamas, and sequined evening gowns.
As a mother, she set the rules and had complete faith in her children to follow them. I really don’t remember her ever stating what these rules were, lessons in how to behave or lectures about schoolwork. It was just something tacitly implied that we knew, understood, and accepted: work hard and get good grades, obey parents and elders, help in the house, eat what is served to you, and be polite. She was the true Matriarch, taking after her mother I assume, her presence and expectations felt beyond the necessity for loud words, or any words at all. As a mother, she was practical beyond expectations and the stories my sister and I share now have us laughing at what politely might be referred to as nonchalance (when my sister and her friend pedaled home to tell that a man had tried to lure them into his car she responded “well, you seem fine so get back on your bike and go to school”; or when I had a bike accident and banged my head on the road and, egg-sized bump blooming over my right eye, dragged a broken bike the mile home, she put me to bed and left for a meeting; or when I got hit by a car and had the wind knocked out of me she said “when something like that happens you should lay down in the road and scream bloody murder” and once when I called her for marital advice and a shoulder to cry on when things were bumpy she exclaimed “Oh! It’s you who wanted to marry a Frenchman so you deal with it!” Yes, she said that.).
She was as insouciant as she was protective, ferociously defending her children when need be, as in the time she showed up at school to defend me against the accusations of misbehaving by my sixth grade teacher. “My daughter does not lie; if she says that she did not do what you say she did then she didn’t do it and doesn’t deserve to be punished.” As simple as that.
When it came to homemaking, she had it down to the bare minimum: laundry every Friday, beds to be stripped and sheets and towels in the hallway ready for washing every Monday, and dinner on the table each and every night at six. She has always admitted to hating to cook, but, as in everything she did, she was efficiency itself, getting a necessary job done. As a wife and mother she was expected to have a wholesome meal on the table every evening, and a meal every night there was. But her cooking skills were learned from a mother who overcooked liver until leather and fish until dry as dust, and whose pots of cabbage soup left much to be desired; needless to say, my mother was not a very good cook. Happily, she embraced packaged and gimmick cooking of the 60s and 70s, Hamburger Helper and Tuna Casserole, canned soup and tv dinners, a great help to a woman who hated to cook, a sigh of relief to her children. As soon as we were tall enough to reach the top of the kitchen counter, we were each in charge of our own breakfasts and lunches, and, of course, as soon as we were old enough she called us together and stated, “Tonight I stop cooking. I’m done. You can all cook for yourselves from now on.”
It was something being raised by our mother, loving while being uncommonly unmotherly, odd and quirky, hardworking, confident, and independent. I may have craved a mother warmer, more present, yet my mother’s very being taught me the importance of education, self-reliance, the joy of being unconventional, the possibility of reinventing myself and doing whatever I dreamed of doing. Where she was lacking in maternal attention and warmth she all but made up for in her imposing power, her spunk, self-assurance and her humor. She patiently taught us how to play Mah Jongg, allowed us to choose our own Hanukkah gifts and encouraged our creativity, put up with our silliness and defended our differences from the other kids. Her punishment was swift and decisive, her praise was few and far between but all the more compelling and cherished; we knew it came from the heart. The rest of the time, her pride in each of us was simply understood.
My mother has fought hard, lived through and dealt with challenges that many of us would fall under; my mother worked for others as hard as she worked for herself; my mother has continued to face life with the same sense of humor, sarcasm, and passion no matter those challenges. And now, as she becomes frailer and more forgetful, she still takes great joy and pleasure in her children and now grandchildren, still scolds and teases us even as she brags about us, holds us close and eagerly questions the details of our lives. My sister, brother, and I sit and share our memories of her and we laugh and laugh at her oddness, and we wonder just a little bit how we survived such a mother, but we wouldn’t really change a thing.
A little bit more about my mother… My Mother Found Love at 89 at Good Housekeeping.
Happy Mother’s Day!
- 1¼ cup (170 grams) flour
- ¼ cup (50 grams) sugar
- ¼ cup (25 grams) finely ground almonds, optional
- Fine zest of 1 orange, optional
- 7 tablespoons (100 grams) unsalted butter, chilled & cubed
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 3 large egg yolks
- ¼ cup + 2 tablespoons (75 grams) sugar
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 cup (250 ml) milk
- ¾ cup (200 ml) heavy cream
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- ⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 – 2 tablespoons slivered blanched almonds
- 1 to 1½ cups fresh or frozen berries; blueberries, blackberries, raspberries
- ⅛ cup sugar or more to taste
- Small pinch ground cinnamon
- Powdered/confectioner’s sugar for dusting
- Stir or whisk together the flour and powdered sugar in a large mixing bowl; stir in the ground almonds and/or the fine orange zest, if adding. Drop in the cubes of butter and, using the tips of your fingers and thumb, rub the butter and flour together quickly until all of the butter is blended in and there are no more lumps; it should be the consistency of slightly damp sand. Add the egg yolk and, using a fork, blend vigorously until all of the flour/sugar/butter mixture is moistened and starts to pull together into a dough.
- Scrape the dough out onto a floured work surface and using the heel of one hand smear the dough inch by inch away from you in short, hard, quick movements; this will completely blend the butter in. Scrape up the smeared dough and, working very quickly, gently knead into a smooth, homogeneous ball.
- Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 to 30 minutes if the dough is too soft to roll out immediately.
- Lightly grease with butter the sides and bottom of a 13½ x 4-inch (35 x 10-cm) rectangular baking tin, preferably with removable bottom.
- Remove the dough from the refrigerator; roll out the dough into a large rectangle to a thickness of about ¼ inch (1/2 cm), dusting with flour as needed, and line the tin by gently lifting in and pressing down the dough. Trim the edges. Cover the lined tin with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes. This can also be done ahead of time.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C).
- Prick the pastry shell with a fork, line with oven paper and weigh down with dried beans or weights, and bake for 15 minutes.
- Remove from the oven, carefully lift out the parchment paper and beans, pressing the bottom of the shell down with your fingertips if puffed up, and prepare the Custard Filling.
- Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar, cornstarch, and the milk in a medium-sized saucepan until blended and smooth.
- Cook gently over very low heat, whisking constantly, for 5 minutes until thick.
- Remove from the heat, quickly stir in the cream, the vanilla, and the nutmeg; whisk until smooth.
- Transfer the cream to a bowl or glass/Pyrex measuring cup, cover with plastic wrap, pushing the plastic down to touch the surface, and allow to come to room temperature.
- If using frozen, place the berries in a colander and run very, very quickly under running water to defrost then spread out on paper towels.
- Just before baking the tart, place drained berries (patted dry) in a small bowl and toss with sugar and cinnamon.
- Once both the pastry shell and the vanilla custard are cooled, simply spoon the custard into the shell, spread to smooth and spoon the berries onto the custard.
- Bake in the 350 degree F (180 degree C) oven for 40 to 45 minutes.
- Remove from the oven to a cooling rack or wooden board and allow to cool to room temperature.
- Serve at room temperature or, better still, chilled, dusted with powdered sugar.