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Recipe for Motherhood

Why an Imperfect Mother is Really the Most Perfect Kind of All

In 1985 we banned my mother from making meatloaf. To be honest, I think she was relieved. I doubt she enjoyed making it any more than my father, brother, sister or I enjoyed eating it. My mom, Sheila, subscribes to the 1:2 ratio when it comes to eating bread with butter and grew up believing butterball turkeys and store-bought bundt cakes to be “homemade” dishes.

What she lacked in culinary skills, however, she more than made up for in creativity. And despite the occasional overcooked frozen vegetable mishaps, we grew to love the enthusiastic improvisation Mom brought to the table. She somehow managed to make every meal special, regardless of the bag, box or fast food restaurant from which it hailed. I still drift off into reverie over our cool taco assembly line dinners, Friday pizza nights and the Tupperware-microwave parties — aka leftovers night. Flaws and all, she put the fun in dysfunction.

Case in point: One Tuesday night a few years back, my brother — who inexplicably still likes mashed potato flakes from a cardboard box— requested his ol' favorite. Sheila obliged. As the bowl was placed upon the table, we noticed it to be a little off. (Well, even more off than one could normally expect from potatoes made from powder.) The flakes had congealed into a gummy glob. My dad quizzically plopped a pile onto his plate. Then my brother got his hands on it, literally. He dug his paws into the potatoes as if needing dough and gauging the consistency to be that of the perfect snowball-making snow, he swiftly rolled his faux-spuds into an edible (er, inedible) ball. And then he threw it at me.

I actually caught it, looked to Dad to sense the temperature in the room … and there was my athletic father ready to catch. I chucked him the monster mash; he cradled it like a football and then gazed up at his wife, smiled his big warm grin and tossed the ball of food Mom had just “slaved” over right into her hands. And true to form, all she could do was laugh (and toss a highball to my sister). Game on! When Mom gives you mashed potato flakes, make a ballgame out of it. Then promptly order up some pizza.

Sheila's cooking did gradually evolve over the years, thanks to our aunt Kath (one of the best cooks in the entire world), who took Sheila under her wing and molded her into her sous chef (of sorts). She even managed to master a few signature dishes, from tuna noodle casserole to baked ziti. By the time we were adults, Sheila had started a tradition of making our favorite meals on our birthdays. And like a fine wine, these dinners have gotten better with age. So for Mom's 50th birthday, we decided to return the favor.

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Keep in mind that Sheila's original habits had settled into a permanent spot in our subconscious. To this day, thanks to olfactory sense memory, we love the smell of boiling hot dogs (a childhood staple) and when my sister and I are together making mac 'n cheese from a box or PB&J out of the jars, we ironically tilt our heads with a wink and a smile and declare, “just like Mom used to make.”

Nevertheless, we decided to set the bar high for Sheila's 50th. The menu was set: tequila-lime marinated chicken with mango salsa chutney. Wine, check. Bread, check. Chicken breast? Well, we'd bought chicken tenders rather than breasts, but they were close enough. We doused the teeny pieces of chicken in not one but two bottles of marinade for five hours. Then we made the chutney from memory, because in delusions of grandeur we were convinced we were THAT good. Two hours later, my godfather was drunk and the grandparents were pacing. Dinner was finally served! As the plate hit the table, my dad innocently asked, “What fish is this?”

The tiny chicken strips had soaked up the tequila lime sauce like their lives depended on it. The meat was dead on arrival.

“No honey, you don't want that," my Nana said as she slapped down my Pop-Pop's hand as he unwittingly reached for more of the chutney, a nauseating confusion of potent garlic and angry fruit.

Break out the wine, STAT.

While we were processing the surreal realization that this dinner was inedible, my resourceful little bro snuck away from the table and nuked a bag of rice. He returned with a fork in one hand and the bag in the other, walked around the table and scooped a pile onto everyone's plate. No one spoke. We just ate the grains as if they were filet mignon. Sheila's legacy had simultaneously created a monstrosity and saved her own birthday. Rice-in-a-bag: just like Mom used to make.

Those years without the Holly Homemaker home-cooked meals actually turned out to be family-bonding dinners. I'm now a firm believer that family meals should be a joyful expression of love, no matter what's on the table. They're opportunities to reconnect, appreciate everyone's personalities and simply remember why we like being together. In our home, we never had to endure the cold and stoic dining room propriety or learn to appreciate sushi at an age when it's probably not all that good for a kid. Don't get me wrong, we learned our manners and could dine with adults at a fancy restaurant if the occasion called for it, but we were partial to down-home fun.

I wouldn't trade our crazy meals for the world, as they gave way to unplanned and unforgettable splendor. We grew up with a role model who didn't take herself too seriously, always did her best but had the wits to laugh at her goof-ups and celebrate her imperfections. It's a relief to be able to laugh at yourself and make the most of it. We now take pride in turning our faux pas into funny anecdotes that always make for a great story.

Sheila may have been sparse on culinary expertise, but her spunk made up for it. Like many parents, she found other ways to express her love. She took us to museums and nature centers on weekends, built science projects with us, gave us the freedom to express ourselves when we picked out our own outfits, let us get dirty in the backyard on our exploration missions and shared all of her super-cool vintage clothes that she'd saved for us in our special "dress up box."

At a time when competitive parenting is at an all-time high, interviewing for pre-school, the challenges of fitting into a new school system or the inevitable stink eye shot between the stay-at-home moms and the working ones, how do the Sheilas of the world measure up? At the end of the day, what really matters? How do you compete with the mothers who diligently keep their families perfectly coiffed, poised and fed five-course meals on good china every night?

I'm no expert, but I'd say as long as your kids are smiling, laughing and learning about life and how to make the most of any situation, it really doesn't matter what your pot roast looks like or if Johnnie went to school with two different shoes on. What it boils down to is love and cherishing the time, however much you have, together.

To this day, tidy packages scare me. I prefer the creative-looking family unit, where it's obvious love abides, but sometimes there's just not enough time in the day to brush hair or turn on the oven. Mistakes are often blessings in disguise and a great opportunity to see imperfect people perfectly. After all, isn't that what love is?

My perfectly imperfect mom wrote the recipe on family bonding with her contagious laughter, undeniable sense of humor and innate way of seeing the (wine) glass half full, and she's passed it on to her kin. I endeavor to pass it on to my kids one day. It's the gift that keeps on giving and feeds more than our bellies, but also our spirits and our souls.

  • Motherhood's key ingredient: Spunk.

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Recipe for Motherhood
Why an Imperfect Mother is Really the Most Perfect Kind of All
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