When I was 25, I lived with my mom for a few months. If you’ve ever wanted to know what happens when a Costco addict and an avid cook live together, this is what:
Elisa: [hefting a 10-pound Costco box of Quaker granola over her head] “Mom, this cereal expired in 1995.”
Mom: “Leave it there.”
Elisa: “But it’s almost 10 years old!!”
Mom: “It’s not open, so it’s still good.”
Elisa: [wrestling a dual 5-pound bag of raisins, dried beyond belief, out of the cabinet] “What about these raisins?”
Mom: “That’s still good, too.”
Elisa: “But these are disgusting. I didn’t even know raisins could get dry. I thought they already were…”
Mom: “Someone will eat them, OK?!”
Elisa: “But there’s no space for my spices. If we just moved some of these boxes out of the way…. I could stick my spice rack in this little corner”
Mom: “You can keep your spices in the garage.”
End scene. Despite my romantic notion of building a better relationship with my Mom in my 20’s, needless to say…. this living situation didn’t work out.
Born to poor parents in the 12th poorest country in the world, my mother was born to a large family, with a father who was an honest tailor and a mother who raised seven children.
She was a sick, small little girl. Her destitute parents would sneak her a raw egg each day, out of sight of her siblings, as the only offering they could make to her health.
In her final year of junior high, my mother placed first in an entrance exam, beating out 200 students who were competing for a spot at a prestigious high school. Her prize: a full scholarship.
Without it, her parents could not have afforded to pay for her education.
Nearly 10 years later, my mother would be among the second wave of Asian immigration that would arrive to these borders due to the USA’s need for labor.
And it would be almost 20 years until she could afford the plane ticket across the ocean to see her parents again.
She was 13 years old when she left home.
I have lived near Mom 3x longer than she lived with hers. I have known her far beyond 13 years old. I visit her once a month.
Although Mom lives alone, she still makes weekly pilgrimages to Costco. There, she loads her cart with 10 pound sacks of pancake mix, bags of frozen chicken breast, and kitchen appliances she has unused 1970’s versions of at home.
The last time I opened her fridge, she had stacks of eggs in her egg drawer, so many that she had to lay them on top of each other.
Mom owns 2 fridges. They are both stuffed full of food. When you open a freezer, there’s a 50/50 chance a frozen-solid, 5-pound steak will avalanche outwards and sever your foot.
On a recent visit, my Mom was frying up some Korean BBQ. When I say “some,” I mean, “plates and plates of it.”
“Why do you make so much food?” I asked my small, 5’2″ mother. “You can’t eat it all.”
She turned around.
“In case you come and you are hungry,” she said. “I know you like these,” she said, gesturing to the sweet rice cakes she’d bought. She pointed at the army-sized plate of beef.
“Your little sibling likes this and eats it whenever they come home. So I like to make a lot of it and put it in the fridge.”
It’s been only recently, after several of these conversations, and years after our failed living experiment, that I have understood what I did not.
To a small sick girl whose parents gave her one, hard-earned, raw egg each day to nurse her back to health, food is life.
To a woman whose hunger shaped her destiny, food is safety. Mom’s overstuffed kitchen keeps her far ahead of the fear of starvation that sticks nearby.
And as her children come and go, Mom’s food is family. We will return to her fridge, her offering of frozen burritos and piles of banchan. Through this, Mom concocts the family she didn’t have. She becomes the mother that she did not have nearby, when she was my age.
“You should eat together. Food is love,” Mom said to one of us once.
Mom, I finally understand your expired sacks of pancake mix, the 10 pounds of frozen beef marked “1982” and the 6 stale jars of peanuts.
You keep this food near you – you offer it to us – because food is love.
We love you, too, Mom.
Happy Mother’s Day to everyone (1 day late)! — This took me some revision time so it’s a slightly-late post, which I will probably revise again later.
PS: Photo credit here.