Almost every time I cook rice, I remember my mother warning me not to lift the lid while it was cooking because then it wouldn’t come out right. Somewhere along the way I got brave and discovered that this isn’t true. I lift the lid a couple of times to make sure I catch the rice precisely when it’s absorbed all the water. It comes out fine.
My mother was no cook, but she did manage to keep four kids well fed until we were old enough to fend for ourselves. Neither of my grandmothers was much of a cook either, but along the way I’ve taught myself enough to feed myself pretty well. I credit much of my success to Martha’s Vineyard. There’s no fast food here, so I couldn’t live mostly on Roy Rogers fried chicken, which I was in danger of doing in my D.C. days. Eating out regularly is way above my pay grade, and until fairly recently restaurant fare on the island was mostly mediocre as well as expensive (and often seasonal).
My idea of hell looks something like my mother’s life: preparing meals for four kids (two of us rather finicky) and a husband who often came home late. During my first couple of years on the Vineyard, as I was learning to feed myself, I even wrote a sonnet about it:
I was not close to my mother in the way that word usually suggests: regular phone calls or visits, mutual support, etc. Two of my friends died the same year she did, 1996, and I think of them and miss them far more often than I think of my mother. Not all that surprising, because they were embedded in my day-to-day life in a way my mother wasn’t after I left home. (These two were journalist Gerry Kelly and theater director Mary Payne, for you Vineyard people.)
But in other ways I’m very close to my mother, because I’ve never stopped being wary of the ways I’m like her. Strange (perhaps) but true, however, the harder I tried to be different from her, the more alike we turned out to be. The older I get, the more clearly I see her face when I look in the mirror. Trying to understand her gives me gives me insight into myself.
My mother’s birthday was Hallowe’en, so it’s not just cooking rice that makes me think of her this time of year. When her birthday rolled around, she often repeated something her father (who was not a nice man) said to acknowledge the occasion: “You were born on Hallowe’en, so you’re a witch. If you’d been born a day later, you’d be a saint.”