Last winter, I get a call.
"Mom. Mom. I'm sick," my youngest daughter, Shauna, groaned.
I give her advice. I call four times a day.
This kid drives me nuts. She left me, her mother, and went to live on the edge in Chicago. What kind of a place is that - with all the wind? First she worked in a cigar bar, then it was a bunch of fancy restaurants. With a perfectly good degree in Photography, what happened to her forensics career? She stays up all night, rides around Lake Michigan on "Lucille," her antique bike, wearing glasses the size of two postage stamps. She sings and makes CD's with some reclusive nut who plays a keyboard and gets his fingers de-polarized. She even got a tatoo of a coffee cup on her upper left arm that says "Mother," and walks around on four inch black platform shoes. I ask you, what's a mother to do? Especially an Italian mother who clucks over her kids night and day. Squawk is more appropriate these days.
Like I said, this kid drives me nuts.
The next day, I get another call.
"Mom. Moooommmmm. I'm sick."
I'm grasping my breast and rolling my eyes to heaven like some Michael Angelo suffering Holy Mother painting.
"You gotta have the lemon, honey and aspirin," I'm shotgunning, desperate to throw her in bed, and cover her up. "You don't eat right. What's your temperature? Feel your ear lobes. Where are you sick? What part? When? Why? Who gave it to you! Stop breathing in crowds. Come home right now!"
The next day I get a call from my eldest daughter, Erica, now a Pittsburgh resident, which is another story.
"Mom? Now, don't get all upset, but ... Shauna's in the hospital."
I'm yelling. I'm shrieking. I'm screaming, "What! Why! Waddoyoumeanhospitalwhere!"
"She says, don't come. All the airports are frozen in with snow.' You can't come. She says she's calling a deli and getting chicken soup delivered, when she gets out."
Spots appear in front of my eyes. I stagger. Feel faint. The phone gets choked almost in two. I see myself running from Albuquerque straight up to Chicago, jumping snow drifts, holding a steaming bowl of chicken soup, never spilling a drop, 1,100 miles. They'll find me dead frozen holding the spoon.
I page the doctor. She's got no insurance. He jumps out of a cab and calls from a phone booth, piled with snow.
"I know how you feel. I got kids in Korea. Your daughter is fine. Don't come. It's a kidney infection. She tried to treat herself with herbs. This is what we're doing ..."
His voice fades into the background. I'm crying. The phone is sucker-stuck to my ear.
The next days are a blur of dozens of phone calls to her sister, to the hospital station, to my sick child. The weather never breaks. I can't do a thing but pace the floor, knowing a mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child. I am unhappy. Very, very unhappy. I'm helpless.
"Soup," I mumble to my husband. "That's it. Chicken Soup. With Matzoh balls, and a touch of Tuscan. White beans. Endive. Strength. Wine to fire the veins. I gotta do something! It's her favorite."
I collapse at the kitchen table, then jump up, dashing out the door for the health food store.
"Maybe Sweet and sour cabbage soup - like her Bubba made," I think, roaring down the street. My husband is watching open-mouthed from the porch.
My first husband was Jewish, God rest him. He died when Shauna was only five. That was it. His Momma Bearman's cabbage soup. Vitamin C in the cabbage and tomatoes. Maybe raisins. She always loved this soup, almost as much as the chicken.
I fly into action finally back in the kitchen. The pots come out. The chicken is boiling, keeping company with nests of celery, parsley onions, garlic, carrots, a parsnip and ginger root. A touch of sugar. Enough salt. She'll need that. In goes the beef in the next pot. The tomato juice. Somebody donates their last jar of home grown and canned tomatoes. There's the garlic again, and onions, and more heaps of parsley. I KNOW that's good. Now friends arrive, and are in the act. They've known the girls since birth. They're over smelling, tasting, talking to Shauna and offering advice. Erica is on the three-way calling. The whole place is a mothertude factory, shoulder to shoulder with stirrers, salters, tasters and talkers. Then it hits me.
"How am I going to send this," I shriek, after the last person leaves.
The phone rings. It's my old friend from teenage days, Stephanie, who wants a lunch date. We've buried three of her husbands, and one of mine.
"Shauna's in the hospital," I choke out. "I'm making soup. I don't know how to send it. She's got no insurance! She's killing me!"
"I do mail, not murder," she says. "I'll be over tomorrow."
She owned a little copy/mail it business.
"I'll freeze the soup in zippy packs," I say. "Little individual portions."
"Right." counters Stephanie. "We'll get this soup on the road!"
The matzoh balls float like clouds. The iron-rich endive adds the perfect bite. The beans melt like butter. As a last touch, in goes the white wine, for strength. Cabernet goes in the cabbage. Fresh Parmesan is grated generously - pepper ground, just one more time. They are perfection. Now cooled, I pack them flat into the freezer.
The next day, Stephanie arrives with just the perfect cardboard box, and smoking dry ice.
"You gotta line this with newspaper," she instructs. "Then goes the ice, and then more newspaper. It won't burn the handlers. Then soup."
In stacks the frozen mother-plasma - red on the right, green and yellow on the left. We wrap it like a cellophane mommy mummy. Address is huge and bold. No mistakes. I float back to the time the great USPO returned my chocolate chip cookies, sent to the girls at camp.
"You owe me thirty-eight bucks," Stephanie announces from the UPS place, a half hour later. "Thirty- two pounds of Bubbasoup taking flight." The next day, the phone rings.
"Momma. I'm home, and I'm eating the soup. I'm feeding it to my friends who took me to the hospital and brought me home."
"Not so much," I say, with a smile and a sigh. "It's only for you. Is it good?"
"Good Momma. I feel my strength coming now. I love you Momma."
"Oh, my beautiful child. Your momma loves you big as the moon. Now. You eat. Then sleep. I'm kissing you, and I'm rubbing your back. Sandman's coming. I'll call tomorrow."
In a week, Erica send me an e-mail, copied from a letter, sent her, from Shauna.
February 2, 1999
I'm flashing back to "Like Water for Chocolate." The history in her soup, rich with family and blood lines and the flavor of love and ritual - all combined into a soup that is so much a wonder cure, much like the dirt of Chimayo. Remember? That little church up north in New Mexico, where all those hundreds of people make a pilgrimage at Easter time because they believe the dirt has miraculous healing powers?
I almost see mom's reflection in my bowl like a crystal ball. She, in an apron, with ruffles. Strong hands pulsing blood through each vein that chops each onion, every bunch of parsley. She stands over the pot caressing the broth as if it were my forehead. She adds each ingredient, nourishing the creation, as if it were my mouth she was hand feeding. The lid - my blanket, keeps me warm.
If what they say about the magic of food is true, then I am a believer! There is no way that any medicine or doctor can create what a mother's love CAN.
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Isabel's Story List and Biography