I'm thinking about my mother today. She died in 1993, became my mother in 1961, married my father in 1950, came into this world in 1925. I have to think about the math to realize she would be 83 now, but it seems unreal because she died at 67 and I cannot imagine her older.
The 35-and-a-half year gap in our ages seemed enormous, but I had a daughter at 34 and a smidge, and I understand better now. The gulf between mother and daughter may be as yawning as the closeness at other times feels oppressive.
Yesterday, while we waited for Snowman to arrive, I suggested cooking to Light Princess. We had plans to order his favorite pizza, so I wanted to make a dessert. She gave me the dead eye. "Why do you want to make a dessert?" I took a deep breath. "He is skinny and hungry," I said. "Let's make custard."
She allowed that she had made lemon custard once with her dad and thought it was great. And so we embarked on a culinary adventure.
I first made custard in 1986. We lived in C-Ville, The Father of My Children and I, though we had only one very small child at the time. My mother needed "female surgery" to treat endometrial cancer, and my father dreaded hospitals;he decided being near her daughter would be the best thing for my mother. He managed to get her referred to the University of Historic Commonwealth in C-ville for her hysterectomy.
I went dutifully to the hospital each day that week, in between breastfeeding a six-month-old and covering for a sick colleague at the undergraduate library, a job I left to have the baby. My mother struggled with the aftermath of the surgery. I remember an old-fashioned hospital room, the heat of summer, a few issues of temperament, and a Mennonite nursing student from across the mountain, this last the only bright spot of my mother's hospital stay.
One day I arrived and my mother told me to go home. "Take these milk cartons," she said, "take them to your apartment and make custard. I can't drink the milk, but custard would be good for me."
"Custard? I don't know how to make it!"
"You'll find it," she said, "in the 'Joy of Cooking.'"
I remember riding the University bus with the two little cartons of milk. Back at Family Housing, I turned to the index of the 1975 edition. It still felt a bit unfamiliar, a wedding present in 1983, one I hadn't used much. After much consideration, I decided I had a better chance of succeeding with baked custard, rather than boiled, and the Joy of Cooking commenced.
The next morning I returned on the bus, with the custard.
My mother smiled at me for the first time since her operation.
Yesterday I had to hunt for my copy, the cover long gone, the spine cover peeled away. It appears I did use it, after we left C-ville and moved to City By the Sea, when I took on trussing Thanksgiving turkeys and preparing lemon sponge for my in-laws, making brownies cockaigne and scratch cakes that never seemed to rise as high as magazine pictures. The spine is broken at paella, but I don't remember ever making it; it falls apart at quick icings, too: quick white and three-minute and French. Chiffon pies adhere to cheesecake. Lemon curd squares–the page falls out of the book.
My mother's shelf held the 1946 version. I wish I had it. I remember the heft of this Bible of the kitchen. Anything we needed to know, we could find in The Joy of Cooking.
Her copy fell apart, too, over time. I wonder what stories it might tell?
And whether my daughter will ever wish for mine?