Last week was a bit rough for me. I’d just spent six days with a friend from home who was passing through on a month-long Europe tour. We hung out in Amsterdam and then spent a weekend in Munich (more on that later), and then I headed back here on a hellish train trip that deserves a post all its own. My friend’s presence was such a powerful reminder of home and family that taking my leave of him was almost like leaving home for a second time. Usually, being with him means my family is also nearby, and when they weren’t and I found myself instead waiting outside a random train station in the cold with a small group of strangers at 2:00 in the morning, it felt like a rather harsh contrast.
But I made it back safely to Amsterdam to begin another week of au pair-ing on a mere two or three hours of sleep. I wasn’t back in Livermore, but I was at my new home with my new family, and that had to do. Fortunately, my mother and I finally managed to have a good and much-needed video chat; it was the first time I’d spoken to her since I arrived in Holland two weeks before. I told her everything, including the trouble I’ve had cooking for a family when I’d barely managed to cook more than pasta or scrambled eggs for myself in the past. I asked her to send me a couple of the easy, healthy and reliable family recipes that she used when we were young, a few that she knew I could handle.
Several days later an email graced my inbox, subject: “Recipes and Skype.” Beautiful words to a girl far away from home. Attached were five old recipes from my mother’s personal recipe box, neatly written on white 4″x6″ index cards in faded pencil and scanned into the computer. I opened up “Trout Meuniere” and was delighted to see her familiar script, always consistent, a combination of cursive and print that is tight and efficient yet not without its own curl and whimsy.”Dredge fish in flour,” she wrote. “Melt 2T butter in large skillet. Add fish, saute over moderate heat till golden…”
I sat at my Dutch family’s computer and stared out the window at the yellow and green leaves churning in the wind, the tiny circles on the gray surface of the canal as the rain drops fell. And although the view was completely foreign, I felt as though I were looking at my mother’s index-card recipe on our kitchen counter at home, dancing with my bare feet on the linoleum and whining about setting the dinner table as she stood singing over the stove.
I hear crying from the boys’ room. They’ve woken from their naps, so we all head downstairs. It had turned into a rather hectic week at the house, with me and both boys having come down with a vicious cold. My life was suddenly a muddle of snot, headaches, and abrupt and formidable crying fits. Alex, the 3-year-old, had exceptional trouble getting up from his nap. His cold had gotten the better of him, and he cried and rubbed his eyes and wanted only to be on my lap. We sat together on the big chair by the front window, looking at the bicycles go by on the street outside. His face buried in my neck as the tears slowed, I rubbed his back and spoke calmly to him. “It’s OK, Al. A cuddle always helps,” I told him. “A cuddle always helps.”
Then, with these words, I started crying out of nowhere. Before this, the abrupt and formidable crying fits had been reserved for the boys. But it came on strong and relentless. I sat there holding Alex as he breathed quietly, curling his fingers through my hair, and it became newly and sharply apparent that this year I will be doing the mothering, and that video chats with home will be the closest I get to any of the same from my own family.
I can dance barefoot on my kitchen floor in Amsterdam as I try to cook fish – fresh from the market down the street – that will feed a couple of tiny mouths and, if I’m doing anything right, hopefully keep them smiling. The important thing to remember is that, like your mother’s index-card recipes, home can be taken with you wherever you go. And if it seems too far away, a nice cuddle with a 3-year-old always helps. Along with a good cry.