A Taste of Degrees

My mother’s pasta sauce always tasted just right to me, even though she often didn’t remember my favorite foods while I was growing up. She didn’t remember that I hated ham, that I wouldn’t eat mayonnaise. For years, my three brothers and I didn’t understand why my mother was the way she was because we didn’t know. All we knew was that she forgot our birthdays, confused our names. Some of this was the effect of the drugs, my older brother and I decided later. When she did remember—where her keys were, where her car was parked, whether or not she’d taken all her pills—it was a fine day. There were many, many of those.

During a particularly bad episode when I was a sophomore in college—the first one my older brother and I had to handle on own after our parents’ divorce—my mother refused to go into the hospital. She couldn’t be persuaded without our father’s influence and, while my older brother discovered that he could not bring himself to force her, I found my own voice ineffectual from a thousand miles away. As I sat in my dorm room in Boston with my cell phone pressed between my ear and shoulder, my older brother told me I didn’t know what it was like to hear her pleading with him. But the truth was, I didn’t care. I wanted her stable even if it meant she had to be in the hospital; I wanted her normal even if it meant she had to be medicated. I wanted her there.

My mother is Irish, and cooking authentically Italian-tasting pasta sauce was something she both learned and invented, combining the recipes of her mother and my father’s mother onto one blue-lined index card. Over 20 years of marriage, this recipe regularly changed as she added new ingredients and tried new variations, mainly in an effort to perfect it for my Italian father. The original recipe was lost during a series of cross-state and cross-country moves, never filed away with its companions in the dented metal box stored in our kitchen cupboard, but preserved only, faithfully, in my mother’s mind.

I returned home for Christmas break that year—nearly nine months after her episode, after we tried to admit her to the hospital. I noticed my mother’s cooking had changed, including her pasta sauce, which was now unbearably sweet, all traces of a skilled and intuitive cook gone. My brothers and I sat around the kitchen table, spearing pasta with our forks while we tried not to look at each other, but I couldn’t fake it. I ate my penne covered in butter and sprinkled with Parmesan.

Nearly nine months, and she still wasn’t stable. When she’s manic, my mother talks continuously and buys things she doesn’t need. During that episode, she’d bought a yellow stroller and prenatal vitamins, even though it had been 12 years since her tubes were tied.  She’d bought a small red car with rusted doors that promptly broke down and then sat in our driveway for months. She’d bought a second house even though we often struggled to make the mortgage payments on our current one. My older brother and I worried and talked. We lied to our father and didn’t tell him about the second house so he wouldn’t sue for custody of our younger brothers again. At a department store, I fought the Christmas crowds and returned dozens of onesies and baby outfits that sported miniature blue airplanes and ducks wearing sailor hats, and then I returned to Boston.

One evening, several months before that Christmas, a police officer had pulled her over for driving without her lights. I never talked to my little brothers about it, but I could see them from a thousand miles away with my worried, big-sister-vision, their sleepy eyes peering out at the officer from the darkness of the backseat. Later, I found out she’d also bought a used organ—so we’d have something nice to play, she said. She’d kept it hidden in the second house for months so we wouldn’t know. I never did find out if she’d even had it repaired, or if it just sat there abandoned, only capable of producing notes that were out of tune.

I can’t imagine what it was like for my little brothers to have new and strange things popping into their lives every day. Maybe it seemed normal to them. I only knew how it felt to come home and find everything changed, all in one shot, a shift as sudden as…. I have nothing to compare it to, the way everything about her that once was true was now unbalanced.

If I’m honest, I’ll admit I remember strange times, too. The first time I ever made pasta sauce on my own my mother told me the instructions from bed. She’d tell me one step, I’d run downstairs to the kitchen to complete it, and then I’d run back upstairs to wake her up to learn the next step. For much of my life she was that way—bordering on depressed, quick to cry, falling asleep—but it was less scary than her mania, which made her erratic and, sometimes, irrational. The summer I was eight, I fell on a rotten board with protruding nails that tore open my ankle. She rubbed a lotion she was convinced had healing powers into the open wound until it burned. Later that year, my youngest brother was born.  After my mother came home from the maternity ward, she obsessed over a dream she’d had that she would give birth to twins on the side of a dark road. Days later, she described a vision she’d seen: a red light beaming out of the chest of the plastic Virgin Mary that covered our nightlight in our hallway for years. She talked and talked to me while she stroked my arm, touched my hair.

As I’ve grown older, and the longer I’ve lived away from her, the less I feel I know her. Sometimes I can’t tell over the phone whether my mother is manic unless we talk for a while. It’s a matter of degrees: how often she calls me the nicknames she used when I was very young—“Curly-Q” or “Sweet Pea”—her description of the latest skincare or diet product she’s selling, or the tone of her voice—a little too sweet and loving, almost flirtatious.

Her depression has always been easier to justify to others: “She’s just tired. She’s just feeling a little down today.” But I sometimes wonder if I’ve ever really known her, or if I’ve only known degrees of her—lulls of medicated days when she was “fine” meshed in between depression and mania. At other times, I marvel at her strength, despite her many weaknesses and the frequent disappointment, because she fights so hard against her mind to come back to us. My father had always been so quick to get her help, so fast to “fix” her with in-patient care and medication, that my brothers and I wouldn’t know anything was wrong until our mother was already gone.

So, I thought I knew that my older brother was wrong, categorically wrong, not to force her into the hospital that year. Nine months and she still wasn’t fine. Ultimately, it was almost a year before she appeared to really be herself again. While home for spring break a few months later, I still recalled the sickly sweet taste of her pasta sauce and tried to eat my penne with butter and Parmesan again. But my mother pressured me to eat her sauce, and called me “Curly-Q.” I quickly asked her if she’d taken her medicine that day. “Just taste it,” she repeated.

And I did. It wasn’t the same. But it was closer than it had been. There was just that hint of basil. The alteration was so slight that many wouldn’t notice, but to me, the taste was changed by the greatest of degrees.

Natalie Gleason is a creative nonfiction and short story writer. She holds a dual Bachelor of Arts from Boston University and a graduate degree from the University of Maryland. She currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

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