I could sense it from the deepest part of my soul. It was as far back as I can remember. My mom pouring her love over an oven and stirring in pots that I couldn’t reach. The smells that came from that counter top was the most elusive other-worldly creation. It was god finding it’s way to communicate through my mothers hands and into my olfactory system. Letting me know that good food was the most important creation in my life. It’s some of my earliest memories of her.
Time went on and my mother continued cooking us meals. Through divorce and through heart break she kept on cooking. Always more quantity in the colder months of living in Montana and our later home of New York. Her chili was something I would attempt to recreate for years to come and I still continue to try. I could use the exact same recipe as her but I will never have the same loving labor that she placed into the tomato paste, the chili powder, kidney beans and the flavor you can’t describe. The food she cooked was made for an extension of herself. Her children. It also served as an escape from financial distress. We were rich around the dinner table. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t afford to replace the furnace in January in Upstate New York.
She has always made world famous cookies. My extended family on my fathers side knew about it. Some didn’t know her at all. They knew her cookies. They also had a feeling that me and my little brother were her loving creations. Once they had her cookies, they knew we were created with love.
When cookie season started in October our entire house was topped with newspapers. Cookies always cooling on top of old articles. I was always invited to decorate them. It was like dressing another one of her children.
She has always been depressed and had that mental illness stopping her from constantly being present. When we were cooking that all disappeared. She was right here with us. The long look in her eyes was replaced with focused intent and a full presence in her surroundings. This person became my mother while she cooked.
We never had money. Never more than enough to get by comfortably. Just enough to get by. I learned a lot about what is truly important because of our financial status. I longed to have the things every other kid seemed to have. New bikes, shiny new shoes, the clothes of the time. One thing I knew I never needed was food. We always had food in my mothers house. I never went unfed while living with her. I didn’t realize the importance of a full fridge until I wasn’t allowed to eat.
I left my mothers house in Montana when I was 9 to live with my father and his new wife in Olean, New York. Immediately I realized that I was not welcome in that household. I was seen as a heathen and a burden. I felt the earth quake the moment I walked in. It was summer and I felt the icy burn of a nor eastern storm coming from the front door of that green house. The house was the color of illness. It was vacant even though 5 people were living in it. I lived there for four fucking dismal years.
The years following that day would be the first 6 times I was arrested. The uncountable amount of times that I was suspended from school. It was the first times I felt what isolation really was.
My room was a 10 foot hallway. They installed a door onto the hallway for me to stay in. To be forgotten in. Hidden from their false image of a happy family. Very Harry Potter-esque in retrospect.
I was locked into my room and I wasn’t allowed to eat or use the household dishes. I learned where every creak and crack was in the house. I didn’t mean to learn those cracks. The cracks that I was sure my step mothers hatred created in the physical foundations of that house. I learned to avoid the screams of each floor crack. I was avoiding a hate that screamed from the pores of our stairway.
I found those cracks so that in the middle of the night I would be able to make it downstairs and eat food while everyone slept. I couldn’t create a dirty dish and I couldn’t eat anything that anyone would notice to be missing in the morning.
In the morning I was allowed a bowl of cereal and a small snack. It was never spoken, but I knew my limits by the look on my step mothers face. I was a red headed step child. I wasn’t beaten but I was starved.
If she was in the house, I could not leave my bedroom other than to use the bathroom. I had one cup that was dedicated to me. I could use that to drink water and sometimes I would have milk.
I became a very efficient theft at this period in my life. I knew how to steal anything from any store. Size didn’t matter. I knew how to get it from inside of the store and into my possession without a hitch. Sometimes it was clothes. Almost always it was food. Nothing nutritional, but food none the less. I could fill a duffel bag full of food, bring it home, and hide it under my bed so that I could eat while I was hiding and locked away.
I found friends who would let me eat at their houses. These people were a small escape from my displaced notion of home. They were essential. Their families could make me feel as though I was theirs, from a distance. They fed me.
Suicide always seemed like a logical exit plan. If I died I knew that I wouldn’t be left hungry, alone, and disregarded in an abandoned hallway. I could leave this place that was empty of love and trade it for freedom. I failed at all of my attempts. I came close once but my body stopped me from hanging by kicking my legs to the ground. I didn’t have a way to get my self higher off of the ground. I cried and cried. I failed at quitting. I was upset. I had nowhere and nobody. This feeling has carried on through my entire life from that moment.
I finally made it back to my mothers after my 13-year-old-self stood up to my father and told him how it was going to be. I was either going to be live with my mother, who traveled across the country to live closer to me, or I was going to find a way to disappear from the abuse of my stepmother.
What upset me the most is that he let those things happen. I know that he was aware of what happened in that house. Coming face to face with my pain allowed him to see what was happening in his life. He couldn’t reject my demands. It could no longer be ignored. I moved back to my mothers house shortly after that conversation.
When I made it back to my mothers house I created a tick. I looked into the fridge a thousand times a day. Not necessarily to eat anything. Just to see it and know that I could have any of it without being yelled at.
I would eat at all times of day or night. I was allowed to cook. I was allowed to use dishes. I could look into the fridge when anyone was home. It was completely foreign to me. Food wasn’t hidden from me. I was free to eat without judgement.
My mothers cooking had slowed but never stopped. I was reminded of the intimate connection that food created for me during my first winter at my new home. A bond that my little brother and I had with our mother. It was a tie that held us together.
We were all very different, but the food that was created from my mothers hands could erase the pain and hunger from my past.
That first batch of cookies fresh out of the oven and too hot to eat are what freedom is to me.
Please cook with your family. Cook for the people you love.The art of food can bring love to a lonely and lost soul. Pour your heart into it. Let the spices be your time and the knife an extension of your soul. It will let you forget the ongoing pain of existence for a short time. It won’t fix you but it can help you get to the core of your problems and bring you back to what we call home.