Sitting in an overstuffed chair in a hotel room in Boston in 1995, I looked out the window at one of America’s oldest cities. With breakfast in front of me on the polished walnut table—a dense granola loaded with fresh berries thickly thrown in, along with a huge bran muffin, lathered with butter, and I smiled. Mom would approve. No fake butter for her, ever. (Photo by Liz West.)
I was years and miles away from our little mobile home on Fish Pot Road, yet with a lick of the butter dripping from my muffin I was transported. I saw the hills and valleys outside of our kitchen window, and the tiered curtains billowing in the cool Pennsylvania breeze. One moment I’m thinking of mom’s oven—opening like some forgotten gift and displaying poppy seed cake or pumpkin pie—the next minute the scent from long ago and faraway fades. But somehow the food of home is easily recalled, asif it’s seeped into my blood and pores and into my core.
I looked around at my luxury-filled room—overly plush, deep blue linens, art framed in gilded golden carvings—even stylish phones and clocks glistened. “This is no Howard Johnson’s Ma,” I
suddenly said out loud to the air, or maybe to the ever-present form that is my mother living in my head, the voice that warns me, comforts me, chides me. Howard Johnson’s was the place my mother worked for 15 years, scrubbing floors and toilets for the other half—the half that had the money to travel.
I celebrate in my writing and my life the cooks in the restaurant kitchens, the grandmother keeping her family tradition of handcrafted Polish sausage alive, the struggling organic farmer with dirt beneath his nails, the Cistercian nun making cheese in a secluded monastery. Sometimes it’s pretty, sometimes its not. Sometimes it only takes a moment of readjusting my eyes to see the beauty in the simple line of a calloused finger as it glides along hand crafted cheese or in the way a burly,
apron-donning man gracefully stirs huge vats of sausage gravy. My mother, the hotel maid, danced and sang in her kitchen, and created majestic pies, lasagna and haluski, even as hotel travelers did even see her as she quietly moved in and out of their rooms.
So back to Boston, my elegant hotel room, and thinking about the maids. I have no idea if their lives are as hard as ours were. Or as happy. I looked out of the window, offered a prayer of thanks to the universe, along with a prayer of hope, and left the maid a tip on the shiny walnut table.
Now, as I think back to that day in Boston, I see that my life is completely different than what I thought it was, even then—that my small success is a process of growing both backwards and forwards and sometimes in completely non-linear, unexpected ways. I remain firmly rooted in Pennsylvania in a little mobile home on Fish Pot Road, but it is here in Shenandoah Valley of Virginia that I make my home between the blue mountains and red earth, and yes, in my own kitchen, with my own food, my own words, with the kitchen queen always in the back of my mind.
Do we always have our mothers’ ways and words in our hearts and minds?
(Stay tuned next week for my mom’s poppy seed cake recipe!)