36: A Bowl of Soup

36: A Bowl of Soup

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

A Bowl of Soup

Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.

~Ludwig van Beethoven

“Lunch is almost ready.” My mother’s accented speech rose up the stairs like a heat-seeking missile. The target, my defenseless stomach, never stood a chance. That woman knew how to cook.

I could see her in my mind’s eye, all five feet of roundness standing at the base of the steps, peering up at the empty landing, a wooden spoon clasped in her arthritic hand. Which housecoat and apron had she donned for this day? It didn’t matter, really. All of the worn and faded garments looked alike—comfortable, practical and frugal—just like her.

If you searched for Old World grandmothers in a German travel book you’d find my mother’s face smiling up from the page, a set of oversized dentures marring otherwise delicate features. Even after decades in the States, her softened “th” sounds and sharp letter V gave away her heritage. Never much of a talker, she still labored at finding the proper English translation for words and ideas she wished to share. And when frustrated or upset, she wouldn’t even try. Thoughts shot from her lips in a wild blend of German and English, with a sprinkling of her own hybrid thrown in for good measure. Confusing? Yes. Amusing? Undeniably. But we didn’t dare laugh.

“Okay, I’ll be right down.” I rolled over on the bed, hating my room, my body and my life. What had I done to my future? Here I was, twenty-two and very pregnant, curled up on a chenille ’60s bedspread in a baby blue room I’d occupied at age six. I was as stuck as a beached whale.

Back home with Mom and Dad—that had never been part of the grand plan, but a series of devastating circumstances had returned me to this space. In the course of one week, I’d discovered I was pregnant, lost my job as a dental assistant, and ended the relationship with my boyfriend, the baby’s father. One consequence of the split? Homelessness. I shuddered as the door to my carefree existence slammed shut.

I battled depression daily, convinced of my worthlessness. I, myself, had been an unplanned—and to my mind unwanted—surprise late in my parents’ marriage. I fought to belong, to fit in with them and my much older siblings. My neediness hung in the air, heavy as a shroud.

But Mom didn’t care for hugging, and gushing shows of affection embarrassed her. Physical touch wasn’t part of her upbringing. Her early life had revolved around the struggle to survive. To hear her say ‘I love you’ to me or anyone else would have required a birth, a wedding or a death. As my childhood passed, I hungered for those words.

Rebelliousness defined my teen years, and the current situation hadn’t won my parents’ favor more than any other catastrophe I’d dragged them through.

Yet, these two good people had reopened their home to me. Survivors of the Depression and World War II, both knew how to build, mend and grow almost anything. They’d learned the ins and outs of scraping to get by, a tough lesson I knew awaited me as a single mother. I’d study under the best, and this time, I’d keep my eyes open.

Just as the past three months had challenged me, autumn offered a welcome change of season, and perhaps an improvement to my health, both emotional and physical. I’d experienced morning, afternoon, and evening sickness and everything in between. Particular smells triggered nausea with uncanny reliability. Whether I dined in a restaurant, shopped the mall or endured a job interview, the enemy struck hard and fast. Eating induced vomiting, which inevitably brought on humiliation. My appetite went AWOL.

Trudging downstairs, the tantalizing fragrance of Mom’s cooking pulled me to the table like a baby to a bottle. And I was hungry—famished. My mother had discovered the cure for my queasy stomach.

Soup. Every day. In every way imaginable, but always from scratch. Egg drop, chicken with homemade noodles, twelve bean or lentil soup filled my bowl at the mid-day meal, as predictable as the noonday sun. It was often accompanied by a warm slice of Mom’s homemade bread spread thick with sweet butter. From the moment she rose until lunch was served, Mom’s attention focused on me, the baby and our health.

“So, what did you make today?” The ancient pot, its base no longer flat, wobbled on the trivet. Steam rose, silent witness to the flavors awaiting my palate.

Ladle in hand, Mom smiled. “It’s stew. One of your favorites.”

“Thank you.” I lifted the chipped bowl from my setting and handed it to my mother. Her deft fingers gripped the rim as she poured the rich broth and chunks of meat and veggies in—first one scoop, then another. If I hadn’t stopped her, she would have served the entire pot to me and scrounged up something else for herself and my father. She would give all she had, just as she’d done all my life. Even if it wasn’t much, it was enough.

So what if my mother never actually said out loud that she loved me? She didn’t need to. She lived those words with a richness that overcame our poverty, in a language anyone could understand. One I yearned to master.

Luther, in a letter to Zwingli, once wrote, “… God is hidden in the soup…” I believe it.

I know love was. I tasted it gratefully. And I was filled.

~Heidi Gaul

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