I didn’t find out until recently that my mother was once engaged to another man. This would be shocking to most people, particularly those that are obsessed with the theory of sliding doors and how one’s life could be remarkably different based on the choices that are made, but it took me especially by surprise because my mother has always told me that she doesn’t believe in the concept of marriage. She and my father, despite being in a relationship for 25 years and birthing two relatively well-adjusted daughters, never actually legally married, because they, quote unquote, did not need some fucking piece of paper from the fucking government to validate their relationship. In their words.
So when I was in my early twenties and buying bridal magazines just for the fuck of it and reading the Times wedding announcements religiously or when I would watch Father of the Bride on repeat as a child and pretend that I was Annie Banks, betrothed to Bryan MacKenzie, planning to get married in the giant suburban home of my very successful, charming, and relaxed parents, Steve and Diane, my real mother would always tell me that I was better than that, that I did not have to settle for that fairy tale ideal, that we are not white dress kind of people, that she and my father were together because they loved each other and because they loved my sister and me and not because of the state and that the only reason to get married is because of the taxes but screw taxes because that is the state too.
So much to my shock, I found out by accident no less— the casual slip of the tongue by my mother’s gossipy, neurotic best friend— that she had previously been engaged to a man. The biggest shocker was not that I could have been half black but that my mother once believed in the sexist, materialistic, arcane institution of marriage. She was going to have a wedding, with a man named Eric. Eric gave her a ring. I could have, in fact, been half black.
My family is super waspy. We love to drink. Our favorite activity is judging other people, and we throw excellent parties. Our favorite meal is a cheese plate. We watch tennis. We pronounce the word “homage” like “fromage,” the French word for cheese. We speak French. The biggest insult we can throw at someone else is calling them a “plebeian.” We also don’t talk about our feelings, and we definitely don’t talk about how my mother was once engaged. Like Uncle Eric, who was always known to me as my mother’s best friend, I too could have been born with the ability to cultivate amazing, luciously long and impressive dreadlocks, instead of the rat’s nest that I birth when I am too lazy to brush my hair. I too could have been celebrity hair stylist, a club kid, and star of the New York downtown scene, instead of a cardigan-wearing paper pusher who needs to go to bed early and is always worried about my mortgage payment.
Instead, I was born into a family that communicates through food. Likely a trait from my father, who is a man of few words and frankly the scariest person I know, but is known to show any sort of warmth or appreciation or joy or compassion through a delicious home cooked meal. His father, my paternal grandfather, did the same. He, a military man, knew no other way than to cook a feast and that is what he how he single-handedly raised his five children, one of whom happens to be my father. And this is how I was raised. Food. Food is good. I don’t know if Eric was into food, but I doubt it. He was too busy partying and cutting hair and probably doing cocaine and proposing to my mother.
I hate talking about 9/11, if only because it’s so many years later and still so vivid in my mind. I remember the weather (81 degrees and not a cloud in the sky), how I was running late to work and took a cab (I never take cabs), what I was wearing (a red button up shirt and khakis— like an employee of Target before Target existed in my orbit), what I changed into after the Towers fell and I finally made it home (a baby blue Echo and the Bunnymen vintage tee, army green capris, and flip flops— it was the early aughts, so sue me), the sound of the first plane hitting (a curious thud), the frenzy and frustration of trying to get through to my loved ones (my mother first, my boyfriend second), walking downtown with my father while everyone else was dazed and dusty and escaping in the other direction (I made a joke about feeling like a salmon swimming upstream to keep the mood light), and going on a wild goose chase around the neighborhood to eventually track down my mother and sister (they were at the grocery store buying batteries and coffee). I also remember the food. One of the most delicious meals that I have ever eaten. A giant pot of lamb curry, fragrant jasmine rice, dips, and pita, and wine, and scotch for the grownups. My father cooked for the dozen or so people stranded in Manhattan who were unable to return home and those friends and family members of ours who were simply too frightened to be by themselves. My father too tired for ceremony— he placed the large pot on the table and had everyone serve themselves. Until that day, we were never allowed to watch TV during dinner, but we all instinctively piled into the living room and ate in front of the television— it seems like we didn’t turn off the news for months after.
We didn’t say much that night. All we could really do was eat, though frankly no one was really hungry, but it was an activity in which we could all partake without having to say much at all. It’s not like anyone knew how to articulate what was happening around us— or what was to come— anyway. The adrenaline of the day finally settling down, the dust showered off, the windows closed to prevent the acrid smells of smoke and destruction and death and fear from seeping in, we ate for what felt for hours and wiped that giant pot of curry clean, sopping up whatever remnants remained with the leftover pita or maybe even with our fingers.
My father cooked a lot during the months that followed, likely to work through his own demons about the world changing before us, the new war, the uncertainty that all of it brought. That fall he taught me how to properly sear meat. He drilled in that salt and pepper should be added at every stage of the cooking process. I perfected a recipe for pizza dough then set my sights on bread. I made risotto and tackled other cuisines—some better than others, of course. I got nervous when my father would sample my food because the weight of our relationship seemed to rest on it. Despite a couple of (literal) fires, he was wholly supportive, though he still hovers and re-seasons and stirs as I move about my own kitchen as an adult.
My mom’s former fiancé Eric died tragically when I was five years old. A spontaneous aneurysm if I remember properly. My mother was devastated and stayed in bed for what felt like days. I had never seen someone so sad, and in retrospect, it was probably the first time I realized that my parents were mortals rather than waspy automatons whose sole purpose was to spend money on me. I didn’t know how to console her, the concept of death not yet understood, but I knew that this was the most vulnerable that I had ever seen her. My father, too, seemed at a loss at his inability to care for her, so he stayed out of her hair, relegating himself to the kitchen downstairs while making sure that I was bathed and fed.
My father and I made my mother a pot of fresh chicken noodle soup. I insisted. Chicken noodle soup. The food always associated with both emotional and physical healing. My mother, not the cook in the family, would always head up a can of Progresso chicken soup when I was sick and, to this day, I associate it, like ginger ale, with comfort. But this, this we made fresh. My father, a firm believer that soup should take days to make, indulged me in this poor man’s culinary exercise, if only to instill empathy rather than actual culinary technique in his five year old daughter. Sweat the onions, then the garlic, chop the carrots, and the celery, simmer the broth, shred the chicken, wait until the last minute to add the noodles, for there is nothing worse than a mushy noodle, salt and pepper at every stage of the cooking process.
My mother still didn’t want to get out of bed, exhausted by her bereavement. I wonder if she ever looked at me and thought what if I didn’t exist, what if I had been Eric’s child instead of my own father’s. I brought a tray up to her with a tray of soup and said, “Eat, Mommy, eat. Food to break the sadness.” She obliged with a few bites. I knew at that moment that food is the language that I speak and really the only the emotion that I understand. It is the reason that I cook for an invisible army when I am sad or why I am willing to travel hours on the 7 train for a good, cheap meal. It is how I try to impress new loves and what continues to bring my family and me together despite many bumps and bruises and divorces and deaths and wars since. It is why I know that I could never give up carbs and why I have uncomfortably resigned myself to eternal love handles. It is how I measure my day, undoubtedly planning my next meal before I am finished with my first. I read cookbooks like any other book and have them piled in stacks around my apartment—most of them I took from my grandfather’s home after he passed away and the entire family flew across the country to get their hands on a piece of him, this great force in their lives. Someone called dibs on his microscope, others on his art, a few took puzzles. All I wanted was his cookbooks, so I shipped them all back to New York, and they have been following me from apartment to apartment since.
My mother wrote a poem a few months later called “Lullaby.” It was published in a book and everything. Writing was her outlet, to deal with her loss and ultimately the pain of unexpectedly losing a loved one. For all she talks, she’s rarely one to say much at all. She is parties and cocktails and joy, but in this poem, she wrote:
I cry big fat tears
stir up the phantoms
there are so many dead
You crawl inside my head
make it all better
“hush, mama, hush…
food to break the sadness…”
“eat, mama, eat…
food to break the sadness…”
I remember feeling both honored and embarrassed that I had been featured in her work. It wasn’t the first time, and it wasn’t the last. I had become accustomed to popping up in her writing and having her friends and admirers tell me how I should follow in her footsteps when I grow up. Little would they know that I would settle into a career of cardigans and paper pushing, far from the glamour of galas and book parties and book tours, before the publishing industry went broke.
I don’t know what would have happened had my mother actually married Eric. Regardless of my complicated relationship with my parents— particularly my father who makes me cry randomly and who I still want to please more than anyone, despite not respecting many of the choices that he has made as a partner to my mother, father to me and sister, citizen of the state, and aging man who hit his midlife crisis hard— selfishly, she made the right choice. She is not the marrying kind. My father provided her beyond what, I think at least, Eric could offer: stability, fatherhood, love through food. I never heard my parents refer to each other with loving pet names and because they were not married, they often referred to one another as their “partner”— it was the nineties, after all, and they were political. Yet on that day in 2001, as my father and I descended downtown toward our home, amid all the chaos, before the lamb curry, my father said, “I need to go find my wife.”