As wonderful as Mom was, she wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. She made chili every few weeks, and I never did like it, to the point where I wound up staying away from vegetarian chili recipes for most of my life. After I got here to Wisconsin, though, I knew that I needed to start making good warm-me-up meals I could take to campus with me for lunch and heat up in the microwave, so I bit the bullet and tried making my own vegetarian chili. I enjoyed it quite a lot, much to my surprise, and now it’s one of my regular meals every week.
I can’t be sure of this now, but I’m fairly certain that Mom fell victim to the cooking of her earlier years. The horrible recipes of post-World War II America that have become fodder for modern memes — salads encased in gelatin, unseasoned meat mush, and what seemed to be a deliberate attempt to make food as flavourless as possible — were the ones she grew up on, so they were likely the ones she learned when she was growing up, and even though she made some good recipes later on (especially as she fell in love with television chefs like Justin Wilson and Emeril Lagasse), I didn’t like a lot of her earlier cooking. I have to wonder if that may have influenced my decision to go vegetarian when I was a teenager, so I could cook all my own food and season it to my taste.
One of the dishes Mom made that I did enjoy was something she called “Swedish meatballs,” but were unlike any Swedish meatball recipe I’ve ever seen. She only made them once a year, for the winter holidays, but I liked them so much that I begged Mom to make a vegetarian version for me every year, even though we always had a hard time finding a good binder that worked with the vegetarian burger crumbles we used in place of ground beef. I wish I’d been able to take the recipe with me after Mom passed away, but I didn’t have access to it, and now that recipe may be lost forever.
For all the good memories I have of winter holidays back in the day — my parents usually spoiled me rotten when it came to presents — there were some parts I didn’t like, and which have kind of stuck with me. Mom, and a few of my other relatives, loved to knit, but the sweaters they made for me were so itchy and uncomfortable (I still remember one particular brown monstrosity with a neckhole so tight that I felt like my ears were being ripped from my head every time I put it on or took it off) that they kind of put me off sweaters for the rest of my life. Schools and colleges and universities tend to overheat their classrooms in the winter anyway, so I’m usually okay with just layering a bunch of quick-to-remove shirts instead, but every time I see ads for sweaters this time of year, I almost instinctively skip past them so I can see what else is on sale.
It’s been a while since I had to put up with holiday trees that had sharp needles — I can’t remember when soft needles became the norm around Toledo — but I begged my parents not to get a tree pretty much every year when I was younger, just because I knew a lot of fallen needles would dig into the bottoms of my bare feet by the time the tree finally came down. Even though my parents were hippies back in the day, they’d outgrown their barefoot phase long ago, but I never really have (even today), so up until we started getting trees with softer needles, the holidays were even more of a pain for me.
Mom kept up all the old traditions after my father died, but then a few years ago, when the first holiday season after Mom’s passing came up, I started feeling her absence all over again. I didn’t get a tree, and maybe having one in the house wouldn’t have helped me that much, but the emptiness of our living room that December just echoed the emptiness I’d been feeling inside since her passing. I moved to Colorado the following December, and there really wasn’t time to do anything for the holidays then, but thanks to a friend in Toledo who sent me a stocking and some presents to open, I was finally able to mark the holidays in a small way last year, and that helped me feel a little better.
Now that the holidays are coming up again, though, I find myself getting depressed once more, to the point where I even feel myself missing the uncomfortable sweaters and pine needles sticking in my bare feet. I know that I’m in for another lonely holiday season here, but I’ve gotten through worse before. Maybe there will come a time when I can mark the holidays more like I used to, but I doubt that time is going to come for a while here. In the meantime, all I can do is endure the sadness and loneliness as best I can, just like I’ve been doing every day for the last three years. At least now I have some good chili to help me stay warm here, far from my old home in Toledo.