At age 7 or 8, I drew a detailed plan for a restaurant in our backyard. This was the 1980s in industrial Welland, Ont. We lived in a split-level on a suburban cul-de-sac, our neighbour’s grapevines curling like a shaggy carpet over the fence. My impractical kid brain imagined bistro tables stationed around our kidney-shaped pool’s patio, a tiki bar in the corner and, once word spread, Linda Evangelista and Monika Schnarre dropping by between modelling gigs. My younger brother and I would be waiters, earning more in tips than I did delivering the Tribune on my Raleigh with the banana seat. The restaurant would be called Helen’s, after our mom.
I figured we’d start with a brunch menu. Helen’s extra-fluffy buttermilk pancakes. Helen’s three-cheese omelette with chives snipped from our garden. Helen’s strawberry and custard tarts. All my favourites. At the last minute I added Helen’s spinach salad with mandarins and chopped walnuts, because, as I’d learned from her Silver Palate cookbooks, every brunch needed something green.
Mom laughed with an oh-brother snort when I presented my prim little menu and explained she’d be head chef. A restaurant at our house? Mark, what are you thinking? She turned back to stirring whatever was on the stove.
My mom wasn’t a perfectionist in the kitchen. Both grandmothers, it was agreed, baked superior pies and could never-ever dry out a turkey. But when she was in the right mood, Mom threw herself into cooking with more zeal than a TV chef whose job it is to make dicing onions seem fun. Cooking was her creative outlet, a way for her to travel the world, even if she was restricted by the shelves of the local supermarket. She saved her winningest recipes in a flip-top Tupperware box.
I now recognize that my real agenda with the backyard restaurant plan was to help Mom escape something I couldn’t name. She was happiest on weekend mornings when she made us big breakfasts. We’d set the table with bouquets of wildflowers I’d picked in the ditch by the park. She’d tell us to slow down – what’s the rush? – let’s enjoy our breakfast together.
But Mom’s sour days outnumbered her happier ones. I’d overhear her complain to her friends about what might have been if she’d finished university or maybe hadn’t returned from her teenage European backpacking summer. She was a full-time homemaker and defeated by her marriage – the rare times our parents spoke they disagreed about everything. When we boys played outside, she’d lock the front door and drop the blinds in her bedroom, cornered by her choices.
The same summer Mom laughed away my restaurant idea, she came back with an idea of her own. One morning she pulled me away from my cartoons and into the kitchen. It would be my job to crack eggs for our breakfast. I’d never cracked an egg before, at least not on purpose. It’s strange how something as small as an egg can seem, to the uninitiated cook, so mysterious (what if there was a baby chick inside!?) and intimidating (what if it shatters!?). Mom pulled out a stainless-steel mixing bowl, placed a fridge-cold egg in my hand and showed me how to knock it on the lip with a firm THWACK. The shell magically split in two like it’d been waiting to do so all along, and its contents slipped into the bowl.
The kitchen became my classroom. Mom taught me how to ease crepe batter around a pan, how to layer a casserole, how much syrupy sugar is needed for the perfect upside-down cake, and on and on. We religiously watched James Beard and Julia Child reruns, and worked our way through every version of quiche we could find in their cookbooks (this was the eighties – there must have been dozens). That summer, one of the dailies was running a series of kid-friendly recipes, with the final, grand instalment a ratatouille. I loathed zucchini even though I’d probably never tasted one, but I was up for the challenge of the finicky instructions, and when it came out of the oven I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever laid eyes on.
Later, when I finished university and landed my first journalism jobs, she would clip everything I wrote, even the smallest entertainment listing without a byline. She seemed most excited when I started reviewing restaurants for a Toronto magazine. Maybe it was her plan all along?
Like many self-involved individuals I expected my parents to remain static – that they’d always be there in my childhood home, reliable and never aging. Instead Mom divorced and remarried and divorced again. In her 60s, she acted like she was running out of time, joining ski travel clubs and a gym, and disappearing on months-long solo trips. She kept detailed diaries and snapped photos of everything she ate: grilled sardines on a Portuguese beach, nyama choma on a Kenya safari, currywurst in a Berlin square.
She only cut back on the international flights when my husband, Stephen, and I adopted our son, Sam – her first grandchild. She became our de facto nanny, pushing Sam in his stroller to the zoo and music classes, stewing his favourite mush, and fashioning him handmade whale and octopus figurines out of felt. I was jealous of their connection. They kept each other entertained, they’d nap together on the couch, she was his first best friend. Sam must have been nearing 4 when Mom asked when I was planning to teach him to crack an egg.
A year into the pandemic, I decided I’d try to recreate with Sam the specialness of my early cooking days with my mom. I gave us a goal of cooking breakfast together every Sunday, and Sam immediately took to egg-cracking like a pro. After the third or fourth Sunday, I noticed how cooking together helped us live more deeply in the moment of measuring ingredients, whisking batter and watching a pancake fluff up – the constant distraction of phones and tablets forgotten on the kitchen table.
I decided to write a cookbook about our morning routine, which I titled, appropriately if unimaginatively, Sundays. It would include all the recipes Sam and I made together, coupled with a memoir about me working at being a better parent. My mom would be everywhere in the book – I’d revisit many of her recipes. But I also wanted to explain how the childhood she created for me, despite and maybe even because of her struggles with happiness, was the best preparation for being a parent I could ask for.
Mom died a year ago when a blood clot travelled up to her heart. We’d talked on the phone the night before. She was afraid: She’d recently been diagnosed with a chordoma, a one-in-a-million cancer that had hidden in her tailbone and multiplied slowly and sneakily, her doctors said, for many years. She’d believed, or convinced herself, that her aches and pains were simply old age, and the solution was more physiotherapy, a better mattress, less salt in her diet.
But the hospital scans revealed dark shadows on her organs, throughout her torso. Her voice on the phone was reedy. She’d been crying. Maybe, she said, she shouldn’t bother with surgery or chemo. What’s the point? She seemed to want me to tell her what to do, but I held back – she’d spent too much of her life prioritizing everyone but herself. I told her we’d figure it out. That I wanted her to stick around long enough to see Sam grow up and find his own way to make her proud. We agreed I’d drive her to her next appointment.
Before hanging up she asked how my cookbook project was coming along. She wanted to see the latest draft. She’d been asking the same question for a year but I’d been putting her off – I didn’t want her to read it until she had the published hardcover book in her hands. I’d only told her the vaguest details about what was in it. I hadn’t revealed that it included her recipes – some of the very same recipes I wanted her to cook at our backyard restaurant. I wanted to see her surprise. But I’d never get the chance.
That March morning she woke up not feeling right and collapsed on the way to her bathroom. She died in the ambulance en route to the hospital.
I can imagine her annoyance, in her flurry of final thoughts and her panic, that she didn’t get to slow down – what’s the rush? – and enjoy one last breakfast together.
Mark Pupo is the author of Sundays: A Celebration of Breakfast and Family in 52 Essential Recipes.