3: Everything I Would Need to Know

3: Everything I Would Need to Know

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Mom, with Love

Everything I Would Need to Know

There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.

~Willa Cather

My mother was the “different” mom. Rarely home, she more closely emulated the dynamic career women who would not become commonplace for another decade. The year I turned ten, Mom bought a deli and started her catering business in the back room. My friends arrived home from school to mothers in the midst of cooking dinner, eager to hear about their day. I often came home to an empty house and a dinner made by my grandmother or heated up in the oven by my sister or me.

I never liked school, but by high school I absolutely hated it. I used to fake all sorts of illnesses to get out of going. Mom had little energy left from her seven-day workweeks to argue with me. Her reputation as a caterer had grown. And impossible as it seemed, her work hours increased too, something I highly resented. Between designing wedding cakes, making entire meals and expanding deli hours to attract early commuters and last-minute evening shoppers, she was often on her feet a grueling seventeen hours a day. She simply had nothing left to deal with her willful fourteen-year-old. So she punished me the only way she could.

“I don’t know what you’re trying to avoid,” she said. “But you’re not going to stay here in bed all day if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Impatiently, she sipped a cup of coffee while I showered and dressed.

Our first stop was Temmler’s Bakery. At five-thirty in the morning, when the business district was empty and dark, the kitchen at Temmler’s was brightly lit. We arrived at the back door as the men, all dressed in white, were just winding down from hours of mixing, baking and decorating. Business was about to shift to the front end of the building where the salespeople, including Mrs. Temmler, were sliding huge silver trays filled with sweets onto shelves in preparation for the arrival of hungry business people on their way to catch the train to Chicago.

Slouched atop a stool and holding a mug of steaming coffee, Mr. Temmler brusquely directed my mother to her orders through the ocean of sugary treats and racks of aromatic bread loaves. With his thick German accent, he sounded severe. But I noticed he always pointed her toward the best assortments. We lugged the heavy trays jammed with sweet rolls, cream horns, jelly doughnuts and coffee cakes out to her station wagon. Loaves of warm, unsliced bread were carefully placed into large brown bags and gently tucked into available nooks and crannies. A few miles away at her store, Mom parked the car on the empty street. We hauled everything inside to the deli’s bakery section just beyond the front door where the appealing aromas would waken another set of early risers headed for the train.

I hated the deli business, with its unpredictable ebb and flow of demanding customers. I preferred the kitchen. At the back of the old narrow wooden building, the kitchen occupied an enormous space with twenty-foot ceilings that hoarded heat in winter but suffocated us with a thick blanket of warmth in summer. Rows of fluorescent lights suspended above the workspace cast a warm glow on the worn wooden floors and bounced light off metal prep tables. I was fascinated by the old Hobart mixer that stood nearly as tall as me. It was twice my age but its low-pitched motor whirred along reliably, mixing enormous bowls of ingredients into silken smooth cake batters. The big black pizza oven in the far corner looked like no oven I’d ever seen with its six-foot wide, one-foot high ovens stacked atop tall legs. But it effortlessly baked pies and cakes by the dozen.

My first job of the day was usually to make the doughnuts. Mom didn’t trust me with the mix, so she prepared it herself. She poured it into the conical dispenser that hung suspended over the gurgling grease pit. I glided the dispenser over the sizzling pool, pressing the lever that dropped doughnuts one by one. The smell of fresh, hot doughnuts was at first inviting but eventually disgusting as the greasy fragrance permeated my clothes and hair. I swirled blistering hot doughnuts in pans of chocolate and vanilla glaze, then dropped them into huge tubs of brightly colored jimmies or fluffy coconut before settling them onto large silver trays like those from the bakery. I handled so many scorching hot doughnuts by the time I was fourteen, I swore my fingerprints had been permanently removed.

Mom might’ve been good at talking to me about my problems and the reasons I didn’t want to go to school, but I wasn’t listening. If we talked at all, it was usually a blazing verbal battle that got nowhere fast and ended abruptly with a slap across my face for some impertinent remark.

Ultimately, she gave up talking and just worked. And I worked alongside her. I learned to clean and prepare huge shrimp and make an attractive sandwich loaf layered with crabmeat or tuna and iced like a wedding cake with cream cheese and savory decorations of olives and chives. I stood for hours carefully cutting canapés from loaves of bread and learning to decorate them neatly. I noticed her attention to detail and the way she smiled and her posture straightened when customers praised her lovely presentations and the delicious flavors of her food. I listened to her conversations with the deliverymen. She knew everyone’s name and all their stories. They looked forward to seeing her and sharing their lives with her. I saw how everyone respected and admired her. And I was proud she was my mother.

I scrubbed floors with a heavy rag mop and wiped down the equipment. I washed piles of pots and pans, and kitchen utensils. There was no electric dishwasher, only me. My back ached from standing over the old porcelain sink but I soon realized that if I hadn’t been washing dishes, the person doing all the washing up would’ve been my mother. That was why she was always late for dinner or not home in time to eat at all.

In time, I understood her tenacity and determination to fulfill this dream. I loved how she brightened when we met the deadlines that constantly loomed over her, both from a production standpoint and a financial one. And I learned what price a dream can extract when, at the end of the day, she collapsed into bed knowing the routine would begin again within a few hours. But I saw how much she valued her dream and believed it worth that price.

Before I finished high school, I understood overhead costs and marketing, scheduling and payroll. But more importantly, I learned about faith and determination, hard work, responsibility and most of all, about caring. Mom and I never really had any of the conventional mother/daughter conversations you read about. But wordlessly, over pies and cakes, canapés and sandwich loaves, she explained everything I would need to know.

~Barbara Ann Burris

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