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Honouring the death of a difficult woman by remembering the soup she often made.

Ten years ago today, my mother died.  We had a ticket to fly the next day, with toddler and baby to say goodbye, but we didn’t make it in time. I did feel– and I know this might seem incredible- that her spirit visited me that night, in the quiet of the deepest dark, when I was awake breastfeeding my son; I felt cold wind and presence and a kind of love, and then suddenly, it was warm again.  She’d wanted to see my baby, or so I felt that night.

Though I was in shock at the time and would have wished for her a different death, I have never been able to grieve because somehow to do so would require a focus and attention to myself I can’t quite find space for.  I don’t miss her. In fact, I’ve enjoyed that she’s not here anymore– daily life is so much easier without the disruptive fact of her volcanic eruptions of unhappiness and rage.  I spent a lot of time when I was younger just wishing she would die, because I couldn’t imagine any other way her psychic power over me could dissolve. She was self-centered and needy and demanding and often cruel, consistently managing to sabotage my happy times and celebration of achievements.  Somehow I learned my job was to calm and soothe her, reassure her, take care of her needs, but this role took its toll.  My two sisters had different and painful relationships with her.  We are all her daughters, with one mother and different stories.

How to describe what my mother was like?  A psychiatric diagnosis such as “Borderline Personality Disorder” or “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” is helpful, or even just the general Personality Disorder kind of fits in a broad way.  For a while I met with friends in a little group, two sisters of sisters with “Personality Disorder,” one friend the mother of a daughter with something maybe similar in behaviour and attributes, and it was always interesting to look at things that would come up from different familial points of view.  If you are reading this and feel a bell ringing, one of our group really recommends the book Stop Walking on Eggshells to help gain insight into relationships like these.  I feel it’s important to talk about what it’s like to be enmeshed with truly impossible, destructive people, those with whom you can never win, with whom you are always wrong no matter how circumspect or how much personal responsiiblity you are able to accept.  These people are mind-fucks and having one as a parent means one fights for one’s sense of reality.  Sometimes I encounter young people who will say something, hint at an experience that sounds close to mine, and I try to somehow, even if obliquely, offer some support about growing up and moving out, that there is a kind of hope that resides in an emotional, and spatial, distance.

Yet my mother was also a woman with a sense of occasion and fun and sometimes surprising open-mindedness and warmth. She had a truly beautiful singing voice, a vivacious friendliness, and wide intellectual curiosity given that she had not come from a world that valued that.   I also loved her food and always as a child thought of her as a really good cook, experiencing love through this fact. And even if many of our family meals were deeply riven by her emotionally violent or alternately depressed or drugged moods, we gathered nonetheless pretty much daily around that kitchen table, the very one I now use with my own family.

I know a lot of people seek refuge remembering a feeling of maternal nurture; I can’t go to that place, because it’s so deeply compromised by just the reverse —  a wounded faith in the possibility to get love from where love is issued.  Yet she did love us.  Just — the intentions of her heart were marred by the maladaptations, or pathologies, of her personality.  Wow– doesn’t that sentence sound like an intellectualisation!  I guess you can see why I cannot properly grieve her death. Not yet, maybe never, and must one actually grieve?

When I began to consider how I wanted to honour today as an important date, and to do this with my kids who never knew her, and because everyday the question “What’s for dinner” will arise, I thought of her Vegetable Soup.  I felt a connection to her and the little girl who I was, really enjoying this soup which we ate so frequently.  My oldest sister remembers the soup in the context of my mother’s own childhood in which big pots of food needed to last for a long time — and represented a monotony.  In our case there was the freezer to break this, and I remember the tupperware she’d take out to defrost– having made big batches and carefully apportioning for the future.  She was organised this way.

Through the years I’ve made various attempts to recreate Mom’s Vegetable Soup, and now I’m satisfied with close approximations. I think the soup represents a culinary confluence, kind of Eastern European Jewish cooking (the pulses and barley and cabbage) with some of the larder of abundant, energy-intensive America (the frozen vegetables, the canned tomatoes.)

MOM’S VEGETABLE SOUP

Take a bag of mixed pulses–

like this Manischewitz one if you are in the US (even though some of these seem now to include artificial flavourings I don’t remember):

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Or this one if you’re in the UK (and marvel on the mystery of which British soups are made frequently enough to warrant that this product gets continued shelf space.) (Here’s a recipe that is amazingly similar to my mother’s, without the cabbage, which offers a distinctive element.)

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And if you are in neither place, or don’t want to buy a mix, take a large handful each of: yellow split peas, green split peas, red lentils and pearl barley.  This would be my preferred option.  Such pretty colours!

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I added a nice handful of these lovely Hodmedod’s Split Fava Beans because they are delicious and I’m a huge Hodmedod‘s fan.

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Boil everything in a few cups of water.

And chopped vegetables: onions, celery, carrots.  Salt and pepper.  Dill seed or fresh dill would be nice, I used fennel seeds.  Parsley would be perfect.

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Add two tins of tomatoes, or one of those big cans in the US.

Shred a cabbage and throw that in too.

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Let the whole mass cook, the longer the better. If the soup thickens too much, you can add more water and/or tomato puree/ paste, or even another tin of tomatoes, and some salt.  I used my nettle salt just because.  Obviously this soup would be very wonderful with a meat or chicken stock, but we’re enjoying every vegan possibility here…

Add frozen string beans and sweetcorn, both optional.  Adding these (and if you were to also add frozen broad beans/lima beans) would give a kind freshened heartiness… Anyway the taste, particularly the gloopy texture of overcooked greenbeans, and the sweetness of the corn, is most familiar.

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Serve with pulpy white bread that you dunk in.  This was always my favourite part of this meal, probably a significant early high-carb inculcation for me.  My children tonight definitely enjoyed the fact that the bread was what they always wish me to buy, soft and very plain tasting.

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Dear Mom, I think you would be happy to know I make this soup and think of you, and that I am grateful to you for giving me a model of someone who loved to cook and feed her family.  The soup reminds me of you and it is part of your legacy.  And so I share it in posterity here with your  7 grandchildren of whom you’d be so proud.  A, R, L, N, S, E and N — here is the vegetable soup of Marcie, your grandmother, mother of your survivor-mothers.

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