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Written By: Annabella Twomey
March 6, 2015
"Quinoa salad with lemon juice, kale, red cabbage, hummus, and avocado," my mother declares, beaming. I look up at her questioningly, then down at the bowl she has placed in front of me. It looks good enough, bursting with a "rainbow of color you should always see on your plate" being my mom's latest mantra. I stick my fork in and swirl the different ingredients together obediently.
This isn't the first time a new dish has been set out, but I haven't quite gotten used to it. It's not like I inhale junk food, but I'm used to a couple of boxes of Oreos, even some ice cream, lurking in our pantry. I normally have salad with my dinner, but always something else to keep me from feeling like my stomach acids were gnawing at my intestines. A steak. Breaded chicken. Maybe even some pizza. But our pantry has gone through some major reforms, housing coconut oil, tasteless breads, and every grain grown in the Western Hemisphere.
Sometimes we make things together. I'll take a break from calculus problem sets or staring mindlessly at the Common App screen to mix a salad dressing or chop some tofu. Isn't this fun? My mom will say happily, her smile bright and eyes gleaming. She always takes pictures of our finished product, probably posting them somewhere. I once suggested she start a food blog and her eyes got wide. "You really think I should?" I'd nodded slowly, trying to squash her over-excited reactions.
I've been trying to think back to how things used to be. There was something different about this year. Just a hunch, but I think it has to do with the gaping abscence of a third of our family. It would've been nice to have a warning or two before my father packed his bags, taking away my mother's sunny disposition and my chance at eating my treasured snacks. It's been different ever since, but the most drastic change has been the meals. My mother is taking a simple thing, food, and manipulating every variable until it is exactly how she wants it. She can change the grain from farro to barley, or choose between onions or scallions. It is something she can control and work with, unlike my father. Does it help or worsen things? That, I can't yet tell. All I know is that each time she sets a new plate in front of me, her expectant smile and shining eyes need assurance that I like it for her to continue. Of course, this assurance is about more than the food, and I readily give it to her, even if it's lies.
Sometimes I think back to the way things were, processed food included. I don't know where things fragmented exactly, but I do remember the way we used to be. There was laughter, late-night Scrabble, desserts containing trans fats, and we were together. But somewhere along the casual burritoes and take-out Chinese, the simple smiles they gave each other ceased to exist, the furrowing of my father's eyebrows became more prominent, and his eyes filled with a gray emptiness I can see in my mother now.
I don't quite understand it, and I certainly don't understand myself, because I feel almost nothing. I've attended therapy session after therapy session, talked to more counselors than I can count, and the pitying looks people give me at school are enough to make me vomit my egg-white omelette. I have to admit, when my mother began to replace my bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch with greek yogurt, I felt the first sense of abrupt shock since he's been gone. You'd think I would've felt that when he first left, but when that happened, I was hollow and numb. But that's better than depression and I've said I'm fine far more times than anyone should have to in a few months, and as far as I can tell it's true.
Amidst the avocado and the chicken fajitas, I am seeing a change in my mother. She pours all her feelings into what she does, the regret, the sadness, the heartbreak, but also the love. She found a way to channel her passion and exhale her negativity. After months of avoiding mimicing her actions, I'm beginning to think I should follow her path.
One night, I am reading, when she asks if I want to help chop scallions for the salmon. The words, "Sorry, I'm busy" are already rolling off my tongue before I reconsider, get up, and take a knife to start chopping. She smiles, but her eyes smile too this time.