My mother rarely ate anything other than cigarettes, mountain dew and strong black tea. Occasionally, when she was feeling generous, she would buy a bag of fritos and a tub of cottage cheese and we would eat them together, sitting cross-legged on the carpet. Fritos and cottage cheese were a combination that she had brought with her from her past, an artifact from her life before Alaska. It seemed as though, when she got married, she had left behind her the desire for all other food- it was as though, when she got married, she had abandoned all pedestrian comforts.
But still, there were her children, and on rare, lucid days she would remember- children need to eat! And not only that, but there were certain foods that children should eat. Foods that, if she succeeded in getting us to swallow them, would validate her parenting skills at last, and compensate for the weeks of dismal neglect that piled up between her periods of mania.
Barbara was a terrible cook. A terrible, disastrous cook, a short-tempered, hateful woman with a rough, impatient touch and not a single taste bud in her mouth. The kitchen, to her, was a battle zone- a place where dirty dishes and empty cupboards mocked her, where small children with hungry mouths made ceaseless, high-pitched noises and reached out at her with their tiny, sticky hands. She hated the kitchen, she hated to cook, and most of all, she hated her children. But pride drove her, in her moments of lucidity, to face that hateful space, and attempt to prove her dominance over it.
One of the foods she prepared was beef liver. Raw beef liver, pureed in a blender, and then injected into sausages, which were fried in a pan. The sausages, since they were filled with pureed beef liver, tasted terrible. Barbara hated liver the same as she hated most foods, but she wanted us to eat it. She sat at the table and watched us, her hands curled into claws, her green eyes like black, bottomless coals. We pushed the cut-up pieces of liver-sausage around on our plates, and tried not to vomit.
Eventually this manic phase passed, and she retreated back inside herself, with only the demons and the deep voice of god for company. The liver was forgotten. She was back on the couch, hair matted beneath her, and would remain there for weeks. She was lost to us, unreachable even by our shrillest, most incessant crying, although if we went at it long enough, we might rouse her for a good round of chase-us-down-and-beat-us-until-we-shut-up, which, ninety percent of the time, was the only way that she would interact with us.
The next time the fog lifted, the canneries were handing out salmon from the backs of semi-trucks downtown, and Barbara got the brilliant idea to make fish soup. It was chum salmon, third-rate, called “dog salmon” by the natives because it was only fit for dog food. It was a byproduct of commercial fishing, and the canneries couldn’t use it. We drove downtown with fistfuls of black plastic trash bags and picked the slimy, less-than-fresh fish from the barrels where they sat, packed in slowly-melting ice. By the time we got home our big, black plastic trash bags of fish were already beginning to stink, and Barbara barked instructions at us as we stood over the sink, cutting open the bellies of the fish, one by one, and pulling out their slimy, messy insides. The finished fish we tossed in coolers, which had no ice, and once they were all gutted we were instructed to put them, slimy heads and all, into gallon freezer bags, and we were to suck out the excess air with a plastic straw, so they would not become freezer burnt in the freezer. While my brother and I did this awful, endless chore, Barbara assembled a pot of fish soup, using the biggest pot she could find in the house. The soup had potatoes in it, and milk, which were the two ingredients that we were sure to have around, if we had any food at all. And then it had the putrid salmon, bones and skin and all, and some black pepper. This soup crowded the fridge for days, and if we were hungry Barbara reheated the pot on the stove, until the milk in it had congealed, and the potatoes had disintegrated, and the bottom part of the soup had burnt to the pan. And when that pot ran out Barbara made another from the fish that we had frozen, which had become hopelessly freezer burnt, despite our efforts with the straw. And if we didn’t want to eat the soup anymore, if we were hungry and our stomachs gnawed and legs cramped and we screamed at her for something, anything else to eat but that- then, of course, she would beat us.
Unsurprisingly, as an adult, I do not like fish soup. I do not know who thought it was a good idea to put fish into heated milk and eat it with a spoon. And with potatoes, no less! Yuck. My mother was a terrible cook, and everything she touched turned inedible. Even if, in the middle of the night, you asked her for a cup of water, she would hand you a plastic tumbler with a half-inch of cigarette ashes in the bottom, filled up from the tap. She would hand you anything that was near her, just to get you to shut up. She did not know what food was, she did not know how bodies worked. All the rules and boundaries of the known world had tumbled down around her like a deck of cards, and she no longer knew how to navigate her life. Each day was an ocean and she had only one hateful paddle with which to navigate her canoe in angry, erratic circles. I lay in the bow, forgotten, dreaming at the clouds, weak from hunger. And my brother, frustrated, would jump over the side on occasion, as if to swim to safety. But the water was filled with sharks and he would always return, a little more ragged, a little more lost than he had been before. There weren’t any islands, anywhere, as far as either of us could see. We didn’t know, yet, that land was something you built with your mind. We didn’t know, yet, that it was possible to live any way but this, in a canoe on the wild open ocean with no food and a mad captain who steered us in circles. We wanted to swim to safety but first, we would have to believe that there was any place to swim to at all. Because to build something you have to believe in it, and to believe in something you have to imagine it, and how do you imagine it if you have never even see it at all.