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Facts & Arguments

I dreaded the ethnic school lunches my mother packed, writes Kayla Esser, but now those dishes are a source of pride

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In elementary school, I remember being embarrassed by the packed lunches of leftovers that I would bring. They were always variations on dinners my mother prepared: okra and lamb stew, kebabs, chicken in turmeric-yellow rice.

My version of cookies involved dates and black sesame seeds, instead of the white flour and chocolate chips of my classmates.

I dreaded the moment someone would peer into my lunch box, scrunch up her nose at the overwhelming smell of za'atar, and whisper too loudly, "What's that?" When it was my turn to pack lunches, I would reach for sandwiches and pasta, anything that wouldn't draw attention.

In middle school, I was a voracious reader. Sometimes my mother would leave her book club novels around the house, often keeping them past the return date so that I could read them at leisure.

Maybe this was her version of a white flag, neutral territory that was free of the tensions of everyday life. I remember one book, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, in which a girl discovers the ability to taste what people feel through whatever food they have created. Loneliness. Happiness. Guilt. Anger. To her horror, her mother's food tastes of despair and desperation.

I wondered what my mother's food tasted like, beyond the rosewater and cardamom that pervaded every dish. I wondered how you could overcome the incredible difficulty of loving someone you knew too much about.

The pictures I have of my mother's life before I existed are scenes from a fairy tale, cobbled together from stories told to my brothers and me over midnight snacks. As she speaks, I imagine my mother and her brother tobogganing down the stairs on a flipped-over coffee table; my mother backpacking through Scandinavia after finishing her undergrad; her home being plagued by debt collectors when my grandfather's gambling debt outgrew his salary. It takes effort to reconcile these images with the person I know, a quiet woman who prefers safety to adventures, who bakes muffins late at night because she can't sleep.

I realize that I do not know my mother as well as I hope to. I know her favourite singer is Rufus Wainwright, that she knits compulsively, and that she falls asleep while watching Gilmore Girls. But I do not know all her hopes or fears or her most significant moments.

When I have a fever, when I am anxious about my future, when I came home from camp stung by a bee, my mother, the doctor, always takes care of me. I know she will never ask me to reciprocate. But as I get older, I wonder if it is becoming my turn to take on the responsibility of looking after her.

Over the past few years, my mother has revealed more of herself to me. When she moved from Montreal to Toronto to complete her residency, my mother was set up on a dinner date by the large and enigmatic network of Iraqi-Canadian immigrants. She brought a bouquet of roses to the house, and when the young man answered the door he took the flowers and promptly closed the door in her face.

"I thought she was delivering them for the dinner," my father tells me when I ask about the story of how they met. "It was only after your grandma asked who was there that I realized she was the guest."

I look at my mother incredulously, as if to say, and you still married him after that? And then we are both laughing, a rope-length of laughter between us.

When I was 11, I had my first real fight with my mother. She was in the kitchen, boiling a pot of dumplings, when I came in yelling, raining down words as sharp as razors. I remember my mother, twisting a tea towel, voice winding slowly around the room as she tried to reason with me.

I stormed up the stairs to my bedroom, but her voice caught me on the landing. "I get it," she called after me. "I'm a terrible mother, is that what you want me to say?"

"No," I whispered, but she can't hear me.

A few hours later, when the breeze from the bay windows dissipated the tension in the house, I slipped back into the kitchen. Wordlessly, she ladled out a bowl of soup. The dumplings, though cooked to perfection, tasted of burnt onions.

Now, I am 21 (born the day before my mother's birthday. "You were the best present I ever got," she says every year). I am beginning to understand that I won't be somebody's child forever, that I am also sometimes responsible for the taste of my mother's food. I am ashamed I ever allowed the dishes I associate so closely with my Jewish identity to become a source of insecurity, rather than pride. I am more curious, and humbled by the things I have yet to learn. I have so many questions: for my parents, for my grandparents, for my past self.

These days, when my mother sends me back to university with a bag packed with food, I kiss her cheeks and thank her. When she calls me, I cherish our conversations. I ask her every question that comes to mind, I write down her recipes so I can make them myself. I admire her persistence and wisdom, the stories she shares and the silences in between.

Kayla Esser lives in Toronto.