Food, Forgiveness, & the 5 Love Languages
Posted on June 5, 2014
If you ask me what my love language is I will–almost jokingly, but most seriously–tell you that it’s food. Food is not actually one of the five love languages; a slight oversight–in my opinion. I’ve just learned to grow a deep appreciation for the what the power of a well-prepared meal and elaborately set dining table can do for the heart.
Amid being raised in a dysfunctional household was a constant strain of friction between my mother and I. Pinpointing when and why the friction began always proved difficult, though my suspicions lead me to believe it was a result of my mother’s bitterness towards my father. My parents’ romance was passionate, the kind of passion that starts off sensationally then quickly burns into the ground. The combustion of their coup de foudre led to the inevitable. They divorced when I was barely five years old and their parting was less than amicable. Their hatred towards the other was, perhaps, evidence they once loved each other too much. And me? I became a casualty to the fallout. After their split I spent several years shuttled between California, Florida, Maryland, where my mother decided to move, and New York.
As you can imagine, I do not have pleasant memories of my childhood. In fact, many things I learned to bury so deep that when I try to remember my mind turns blank. What I do recall is lots of shouting, lots of tears and feelings of regret for having been born. “You’re just like your father. I wish I never had you.” My mother would scowl in an attempt to hurt my father except he was never on the receiving end of her tirades. It was always me standing helplessly while unable to comprehend how the woman who birthed me could have such disregard for my heart. She would go on like this–throwing insults like daggers–until my spirit was broken. Apologies were seldom, if ever; and there was certainly little room for affection. I’m sure my mother told me she loved me at some point, but it never occurred enough for me to tell you when. There were, however, the days we spent in the kitchen.
I learned to cook when I was seven. As the daughter of a former maid turned restaurant owner, mom strongly believed in grooming her daughters to be domestic and hospitable. “No man is ever going to marry you if you don’t know how to cook a meal and keep your home clean,” she would say. I didn’t want a man to marry me if it meant turning out like my parents, but I enjoyed our time in the kitchen. The kitchen was where mom was patient and attentive even if she still managed to remain emotionally distant. One of the first meals I learned to make was Jamaica’s traditional breakfast dish: ackee and salt fish with fried dumplings. Then came brown stew chicken, and oxtail, and curry goat. My mother chopped vegetables and stirred pots while giving me instructions almost rhythmically. I marveled at how she moved effortlessly through the kitchen without so much as burning anything. Our routine was a dance that she led and I followed, devotedly and without question.
Every so often mom told stories while we cooked. I hung on her every word as she talked endlessly about life growing up in England under my grandmother’s care. Their relationship didn’t seem much different from ours. They, too, had their discord. When mom shared these stories, there were small glimpses of her vulnerability. Then, before the oven timer would go off, we would be back to our separate ends of the ring: She was the mother–the authority and I was the child she had for a man who she grew to despise.
Mom and I spent much of my adolescents and young adulthood in an unhealthy cycle of relational dysfunction. I ran away from home on occasion, each time promising to never return. I always did, but when I turned 19, I left for good. The years of verbal abuse, manipulation, and neglect mentally wrecked me. It was hard to trust myself, let alone anyone else. There were times I missed my mother and her cooking, but was too proud to reach out. So, when the sting of not having her maternal love struck I made my way to the kitchen. I practiced all the recipes she taught me, trying to make them perfectly hoping that, somehow, I would be perfected. The cooking slowly began to heal me.
After my own divorce in 2012, I thought a lot about mom; she was a woman who wanted to be loved–just like me. I empathized with the pain of watching her family fall apart and the tension she faced trying to be “strong.” I now understood her anger because when you love someone to the point where all the love runs dry, sometimes the only emotion left is anger. Soon, my heart softened for my mother who didn’t know any better than to lash out. I had once vowed I would never become like her while, ironically, inheriting the best parts of her–her drive, her wit, and her fervor for life. In my kitchen I found the ability to forgive my mother for all the hurtful things she did and said. Though I made peace with my past, I knew there was more work to be done.
On the day I was to reconcile with mom, I had no idea what to expect. It was a spontaneous decision that led me to her doorstep unannounced. Fears of being chased off with a shotgun didn’t seem too far fetched. After all, I had become a stranger. I wasn’t a little girl anymore. I was now a woman marked by adult things: a failed marriage, a broken heart and an empty womb I had hoped to fill. All those days we spent in the kitchen, I desperately wanted my mother’s love and approval. Somehow I knew standing there at her door years later would be my last chance.
Mom opened the door as if she spent the day preparing for my arrival. She greeted me with open arms and an invitation for a warm meal. I made my way to the tiny kitchen where I had previously announced I was leaving. We stood talking as if time never passed and I still sat in awe at how she moved gracefully about the kitchen–older but no less talented. “I’m making your favorite,” she said.
Secretly, it had been my favorite. That’s when I knew she truly loved me all along.