Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved thumbing through recipes. It started with my mother’s 1961 Betty Crocker New Picture Cookbook with the vanilla and egg and molasses-stained pages. Then, as a young (too young) married woman, I graduated to Taste of Home annual edition cookbooks. It was fabulous. I’d get lost for hours reading about Alma Sue’s Potatoes Au Gratin and how, regardless of her gnarled, painfully arthritic hands, she peeled five pounds of potatoes every Sunday night for her weekly family dinners. Naturally, her grown children and seventeen perfect grandchildren worshiped Alma Sue, who patched the holes in the knees of their jeans, donated plasma to orphans in Kathmandu, and, of course, was always good for showing up to the table with her famous Potatoes Au Gratin. Until the Alzheimer’s kicked in because, frankly, nothing short of forgetting the recipe would stop Alma Sue from churning out this family staple.
I went on to have children who examined their food as if I were secretly trying to poison them at every meal. They picked the minuscule carrots from their Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup. They would turn their noses up at a meal I’d spent hours slaving over but instantly slip into a combination of hysteria and hero-worship if I put a bowl of Spaghetti-O’s in front of them. “Mom,” they’d beam in unison. “You’re the best cook in the whole world!”
The kids went on to get busy with things like Tae-Kwando, writing for the school newspaper, dating, breaking up, part-time jobs, and generally anything that wriggled them loose from under my wing. “Mom, get a life of your own!” wasn’t explicitly uttered but certainly implied on several occasions. The problem was that in all of my scheduling family dental exams, planning themed birthday parties, and remembering who liked which snack, I had forgotten to plan for the day they’d grow up and leave me.
Thankfully, a divorce just before forty thrust me into the business of getting a life of my own. Not that I’m thankful for the divorce, but the timing couldn’t have been better since my husband of twenty years decided he no longer loved me (if he ever really did in the first place) right around the time my children were telling me they needed space to grow up. Rather than take my usual route toward spiraling depression, I used the time to spruce myself up. I got on the treadmill, went on a strict diet, made a few upbeat playlists, and bought a one-month membership to a dating website. I even briefly considered attending medical school after Grey’s Anatomy so kindly got me through all those low-carb meals.
During this time, dinners at the table were growing rarer. Someone was always running out the door in their fast-food uniform or being picked up for a date. Since my marriage was over anyway, I spent my newfound aloneness chatting with an old boyfriend online who didn’t seem to mind that my prom dress would now only fit me as a tube top. But one thing that always settled choppy waters and scored me points — and I needed them, especially with my son — was a fresh batch of pepperoni rolls. When anyone saw them sitting on the counter, I could expect two things: a compliment and a hug. Looking back, I should have made them more often since those things are too rare in all our lives.
I did meet someone, and it was quicker than expected. He was wonderful, and still is. He likes my cooking, and not just the Spaghetti-O’s. The kids turned out OK, but they still think I ask too many questions and should learn my place. They think it’s rude, for example, when I secretly clean their house while they’re at work. I’m unsure why, since I think I’m doing a loving deed. My son out-succeeded anything I could’ve ever done, so I sort of stopped trying. However, I am still dead set on writing that novel!
The family is getting together tomorrow. Let me be clear: By “the family,” I am even including my ex-husband (remember him? The one that stood at the foot of my bed and said, “I’m falling out of love with you?” Oh, wait. I didn’t mention that part before? Oops. Oh well) and his new(ish) wife. She bakes cookies and is everything I’m not: agreeable, level-headed, and willing to work a 9–5 job. But she’s great. It would be all my fault if I had a problem with her because she’s that sweet. Where was I? Oh yeah, so the family is getting together tomorrow because our son is flying in due to a medical crisis.
When one of your children has a suspicious nodule on their lung, pregnancy depression, or even a crummy day, it’s like you’re right back on the playground plotting ways to destroy the little brat who threw a fistful of sand in your kid’s eyes. But worse. Because the sandy eyes get remedied with tears and a hot washcloth. All is set right with a hug, a bedtime story, and a goodnight kiss. When it’s a scary lab report, though, who can you blame? Who can you seek revenge on? No one. So, you bargain with God, asking Him to take you, not your kid, if it ever comes down to it. When they’re grown, you can’t tuck them in at night. You can’t promise to make it better. You can’t even be sure they’re telling you all the information the doctor shared with them or if they might be keeping some things private to prevent you from coming unglued. Not that you’d ever do that. So, what can you do? Well, as frivolous as it might sound, you can cook. Something. Anything. Because it’s that or go crazy.
Tomorrow will be fine — once I know he landed safely — because the hours your kid is on a plane are a whole other horror dimension. The new wife will hug me and pretend she doesn’t know I once threw a bowl of — oh my God, I just realized this — Spaghetti O’s across the room during a fight with her husband (when he was my husband). I’ll say, “The place looks great,” but she’ll wonder if I’m judging the clutter. I’ll hug my son and feel like crying because he doesn’t love me the way he did when he was eight. But I’ll bite my tongue to prevent a scene if I have to. He’ll be thinking of all the ways I’ve let him down, but that he’s still glad to see me. The hug will end too soon, and I’ll only get one more before he returns to where he came from (the place I describe as the furthest point he could have gotten from me without falling in the ocean). I’ll look up at him — because he’s getting taller, and I’m getting shorter at every visit — and I’ll say, “Guess what?” He’ll look skeptical and wonder if I will make an embarrassing announcement. I’ll study his face and only see the little boy tapping on the kitchen window to show me his snow igloo, forgetting his annoying habit of ignoring my emails. “I brought you pepperoni rolls!”
And that will probably result in a genuine smile from him. When you’re facing the cold winds of the second half of your life, and all you can think of are the ways you’ve screwed up, it helps to have a family food staple you’re famous for, such as pepperoni rolls. In a world of uncertainty, I never have to wonder how the rolls will go over. I know they’re revered. No one has ever experienced indifference after eating one of them. In fact, no one ever just eats one. They’re that good. Maybe the night will go off without a hitch. Maybe. Or maybe my ex-husband will say, “How does a 27-year-old get a nodule on his lung? It must have been something you ate when you were pregnant. Hey, didn’t you used to be big on Spaghetti O’s?”