Published May 6, 2004
Light floods the kitchen while the birds in the yard are singing hosannas on this glorious morning. I am making manicotti from my mom’s faded recipe, handed down to her by her mother, whose own mom was born in Naples.
It is a tricky process, but one that I watched my mom do, over and over again, on many special occasions. You whip up a batter of flour, eggs and water, and pour small amounts into a frying pan, waiting until bubbles appear in the dough.
Then you flip each of the crepes, hoping you will have the dexterity to do so with a degree of grace. You repeat this process until you have a sufficient number of crepes, stacking them upon a plate with sheets of waxed paper between each one.
Later, you stuff the crepes with a ricotta cheese filling, then bake them in a big casserole, liberally slathered with homemade tomato sauce.
It is a time-consuming procedure, but as I stand at the stove, waiting for the bubbles to appear, I remind myself that my Neapolitan grandmother rolled out fresh pasta dough by hand for her six children every day, which means I can’t expect to get the saint-of-the-week award for my efforts.
As Mother’s Day beckons, I marvel at the women who went before me, who daily fed their families meals made “from scratch.”
In the days before frozen TV dinners had made their debut in the grocery store, our grandmothers and great grandmothers also washed clothes, waxed floors, knit sweaters, made quilts, gardened, baked bread and sewed.
Although this is hard to believe, especially for someone like me who lets clothes pile up on the ironing board for months, my father’s mother was reputed to have ironed everything. That meant sheets and pillowcases. Even underwear.
My mom drew the line at underwear, but she definitely followed in my grandmother’s footsteps in other ways. Although my mom had a teaching degree from Hunter College, when she got married at age 29, she left the classroom and wrote proudly on my birth certificate a few years later, in the space marked “occupation”: “housewife.”
Being a housewife was considered an honorable profession in those days, and no one cringed at the term or felt that the word “homemaker” was somehow a softer description of what domestically inclined women did on a daily basis.
My mom loved her calling to marriage and motherhood and took great pride in navigating a smoothly sailing domestic ship. Things went well for her at first, since my dad evidently made a decent salary as a cab driver, but then Lady Luck turned on us.
It seems my dad had an unfortunate penchant for gambling, which meant that a big portion of his salary vanished at the racetrack—and before long, family finances were in such disarray that my mom felt she had to return to teaching.
Miraculously, though, she continued to put in long hours in the kitchen, cooked “from scratch” meals every night, kept an immaculate house and also found time to knit her girls sweaters and make dresses.
My favorite Gospel scene has the Risen Christ surprising his friends by building a fire on the shore, cooking fish and then calling out, “Come, have breakfast!” It has always deeply impressed me that the one who was so humble during life still served his friends after the Resurrection.
A tear sizzles in the frying pan as I remember a stream of childhood feasts with a similar refrain ringing from the aunts and uncles seated around the big table: “Grace, come and sit down!”
But Grace, my mom, took serving others seriously and was running around making last-minute adjustments to the sauce and testing the pasta to be sure it was cooked al dente.
The Gospel scene on the shore also reminds me of the many days when my mom arrived home bone-tired after teaching school, tied on her apron and headed into the kitchen, with the kids hanging off her, whining: “Ma, is it done yet?”
She patiently served the evening meal, then soaped the dishes, scrubbed the pans and helped us with homework and baths. Next day, it started all over.
At Mass on Sundays, we prayed that God would accept our sacrifice of bread and wine and make it holy, although as a child I wasn’t sure what sacrifice meant.
Over the years, I kept a close eye on my mom and gradually realized that sacrificing means giving up something you value for a higher good.
What moms give up so generously is their time, lavishing it on an endless repetition of cooking and chores, and recognizing the deep truth of the adage that says, “A man works from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.”
As any mom can attest, the meal that takes hours to prepare vanishes in a flash, the freshly done laundry returns like a homing pigeon to the hamper and the pristinely dressed toddler makes a beeline for the nearest mud puddle.
Repetitive actions at the core of housework and childcare might seem humdrum and boring, yet I can attest that they make lifelong impressions.
My earliest memory features my mom soaping me up in the sink when I was a baby, while she sang, over and over, a whimsical tune that she had invented, which I never, ever grew tired of.
My thoughts return to the present now, as I put the manicotti in the oven and head to the basement to fire up the (sigh) iron, tackle the tablecloth and napkins, then set the table and get the bathroom into shape.
Preparing this meal and getting the house ready has taken over 10 hours of time, which seems like a mountain of effort in a fast-food world, but I think it is a good exercise occasionally to do things the old-fashioned way, using the recipes our mothers and grandmothers handed down to us.
This means foregoing pre-made pie crusts and cake mixes. It means taking the time to dice, chop, mix and whip by hand as a way to honor the memories of the women who went before us.
For me, making a special meal like manicotti helps me grasp what kept my mom going so strong all those years. Like her own mother before her, I believe she took the words of the Risen Christ to heart.
“Do you love me?” Jesus asked Peter three times, and each time Peter assured him that he did.
And each time, Jesus told Peter how to show his love. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus said, and “Feed my lambs.”
Mothers take those words quite literally. They feed Christ’s beloved flock by frying up crunchy batches of chicken, baking loaves of fragrant bread and whipping up mouth-watering biscuits and chocolate cream pies.
And a mom needn’t look very far to glimpse the faces of the lambs that Jesus was talking about.
She recognizes them as the folks gathered around her table, their elbows pressing creases into the freshly ironed cloth. They are the aunts and uncles, the children and godchildren, the grandparents, husbands and fathers—and don’t forget friends—just waiting to dig into the feast she has prepared.
Mothers also know that the secret ingredients to any feast have remained the same for generations past. They are, quite simply, generous outpourings of sacrifice and love.
Lorraine V. Murray writes a bi-weekly column called Grace Notes for the Faith and Values section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She is the author of the books “Why Me? Why Now? Finding Hope When You Have Breast Cancer” and “Grace Notes.” You may e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.