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Hippie Squared: Making My Mom’s Mistake

Is there a gene for putting too much milk in the macaroni and cheese mix?

And could it lie dormant for over forty years, only to be triggered by stress in middle age?

These are the questions I pondered three nights ago as I felt my mom’s ghost laughing at me, finally.

I was raised largely on packaged and processed foods—I used to hate vegetables, because the ones I ate all came out of a box and were boiled in a bag, then spread nearly lifeless on the plate.

But man did I love my Kraft Dinner macaroni and cheese—a top comfort food to this day. Creamy, cheesy, and that special heavenly orange color all its own. My mom would serve it with ham, and green beans—boiled in a bag, yes, but somehow the golden glow of the macaroni and cheese shone on them and gave them new life and taste.

That’s when I was an only child in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Idyllic days, for me, in some ways. And certainly relatively calm and peaceful.

So later, when my mom married my step-dad and we moved in with him and his three sons in East Lansing, I suppose the dramatic decline in quality of her mac-and-cheese execution became a symbol to me of the chaos and conflict of our new household.

Instead of thick and creamy it became thin and milky, almost watery. I was an angry teenager by then, so even though I knew she had a lot to deal with, I still complained.

“I’m doing it the same way I always did,” she’d say.

This drove me crazy. She was an archaeologist, a scientist. Seemed to me this argument violated her training. “Obviously you didn’t because it didn’t come out the same.”

I seldom get the Kraft Dinner mac-and-cheese anymore, but we often get the various Trader Joe’s versions, and I still often make it for myself, particularly when I’m alone. It’s still a basic comfort food, only now I serve it with baked beans and beer.

During one of the last long conversations I had with my mom, while she was dying of pancreatic cancer, but we still had some hope that she could beat it, she told me about walking her dog in the spring air, and looking at the flowers. “I’m not afraid of dying,” she said, “But I love being alive.” I told her how much I loved her, and she said, “You know, that love goes on.”

“Even now,” my mom told me, “I can sometimes feel my own mother laughing at me.” That sounded mean to me, and she must have heard that in my pause. “Oh, not in a bad way. Just sometimes, for instance, when I’m trying to find some leftovers I’ve stuck in the refrigerator. Because she always labeled everything perfectly so anyone could find it and know what it was, and I always think I should do that but I never do.”

My mom believed in ghosts. I don’t, really, but she had personal experience with them. I wish I remember the stories. They’re the kind that I could always rely on hearing again, so I never committed them properly to memory. They died with her and went into the soil. I would need her ghost to come back and tell them to me again. I would dearly love for that to happen, because I miss her, her stories, her wit and her rye love.

So even though I don’t really believe, I love the idea, and I’ve been on the lookout for the last almost four years. On her first birthday after her death, June 21st, 2006, I was in a bookstore, and felt myself drawn to a book called Agincourt, about the great battle the English king Henry V won against France during the Hundred Years War. Only after I bought it did I realize that my mom, such a big anglophile, would have been attracted to that same book. I chose to feel her unseen hand at work in that selection.

Since then, her ghost has mostly gone silent and unseen, and I’ve missed it. I’ve wondered if I’m just not sensitive enough. If maybe I haven’t thought about her enough.

Well, just three nights ago as I write this, I was home alone and making myself mac and cheese, yes a comfort in the midst of a certain amount of personal chaos. The last two or three times I’ve made it, I’ve put too much milk in. I don’t know how or why this happens. I know better. I know to add milk sparingly, stir the mix, add a little more. You can always add more, but you can’t subtract. It’s just that it’s the milk that makes it so creamy and good, and I want it to be creamy and good. Maybe I want that too badly.

And maybe all those years ago my mom, in the midst of the chaos of finding herself a reluctant housewife forever tussling with four strong-willed boys and a brilliant but childish husband, wanted too badly to make that mac-and-cheese a meal that could soothe our savagery and bind us all in harmony.

Anyway, I saved my mac-and-cheese both times, by adding parmesan cheese or more butter. But three nights ago I did it again. Even as I did it I knew I was screwing up, and I could feel the comfort of the dish slipping away and the chaos rushing in, and out loud I said, “Dammit! I’m doing it again! I’m making my mom’s mistake!”

But all at once, I felt my mom laughing at me. Finally, there she was, just when I needed her, and it was the most light, gentle, loving laugh. A laugh of kinship and understanding reaching back over decades and touching our past hurts and conflicts and making of them a light, genetic cartoon, and reaching from all the way back there to right here, right now, and shining that golden glow on me in my own kitchen. And I laughed with her. And I understood.