My mother stirs the pot slowly and a tiny tornado forms in the clockwise movement of the broth. In the eye of the savoury storm is a broken chicken carcass, stripped of its flesh and humility. The broth will later be sweetened with coarse-cut carrots. It will be finished with a splash of sherry poured from a dusty cobalt blue bottle. My mother, who doesn’t drink, swears by this last ingredient.
“My grandmother used to make this when I got sick,” she says.
The telling of the soup, like the making of the soup, lives in my mother. She strains out the bones; the fine ones, ribs and wings, break into pieces as they crash against the metal colander. Some are fine as a splinter, but she manages to catch them all. Now the broth is ready for the pieces of meat to be stirred back in, for a palm full of peppercorns to be sprinkled, for dried elbow macaroni to become fat and slippery as it sucks in the rich stock.
This soup has travelled over dark and stretching seas. In the Baltic, where it was born, it required less seasoning; it gained throatfuls of flavour from the sea-salted air of its home. Here, in Toronto, where our water is filtered and processed, where our air is heavy with high-rises and car exhaust, we use the salt with a more generous hand. Sometimes my mother strays from the lessons of her youth and experiments with thyme or rosemary. These bowls, though delicious, taste still like chicken soup but less like comfort.
I have watched my mother make this soup only peripherally while walking through the kitchen on my way to get a drink or sitting at the dining room table reading a book as a child. I have tasted it many times, savoured the dark meat separating easily under only the softest pressure of my lips. I have coughed in protest as my molars bit down on a peppercorn stowed away in the U of a macaroni noodle. I could pick it out of a line-up from just the sight of the thin layer of oil floating delicately at the top. But I have never learned to make it, never asked to.
When my mother makes it, she thinks of her grandmother. She thinks of her grandmother’s stocky frame under loose floral dresses, worn until the material at the elbows stretched and faded. She thinks of light brown stockings that bunched at swollen ankles, nobody’s skin colour. She thinks of her sharp nose, her dark eyes set with dark circles. She remembers days home sick from school — fighting fevers, flus, and heartbreaks — with the soup bubbling gently on a gas burner in a narrow kitchen.
The soup has healing powers. It coats the inside of your mouth with kindness, fills the belly with endurance.
That’s the memory my mother has of her grandmother. Kindness and endurance.
I’m not sure if her mother, my grandmother, ever made the soup. Perhaps when she was younger, but my memories of her in the kitchen are much different.
She measured milk and powdered cheese with precision. She picked me up from elementary school, huddled beneath the west-side stairs in a faux fur coat on winter days, standing on the sidewalk hiding her eyes beneath large sunglasses on spring days. She took me back to her house where a box of macaroni and cheese often waited. She decided days where I was tired of it, days where instead a cabbage roll would sit in a plastic bag beneath a rolling boil of water in a small saucepan. But mostly she mixed the macaroni and cheese with patience as I sat on the sunken cushions of her threadbare couch and watched cartoons. Sometimes she would call to me to open the package of cheese when her arthritis-stricken fingers seized up.
“How was your day?” she asked me, sipping a cup of tea gone white with milk. She seldom ate with me despite my insistence.
I don’t remember how any of those days were.
She never bought real butter, only things that imitated it: yellow and slightly sour. She kept her whole wheat bread in the fridge and I sometimes ate two pieces of it, sliding it along the concave of the empty bowl, soaking up the cheese sauce that had painted the sides.
She sat beside me at the table, sharp shoulders leaning against a high-back dining chair with threadbare velvet. I had to stretch my toes to feel the soft fur of the brown shag carpet. It wasn’t the ’70s anymore, but change required money, required energy. Both of which were in short supply.
My mother picked me up when she came home from work and I left my grandmother to do the dishes — the one pot, the one bowl, the one fork. I always left my grandmother’s house full.
“The soup is almost done,” my mother says.
She is skimming the top with a too-small spoon, trying to remove some fat.
She is making me soup today because I don’t feel well, because my abdomen is tender and swollen, because my back has seized. She is making me soup today because my body, with swelling breasts and elevated heart rate, that worked hard to create a safe space, is alone again.
I don’t feel well, again, for the last time.
The last eggs, the last money.
My eyes roam the room, afraid to stay trained on any one spot because they’ve been quick to tear lately with no obvious provocation. I find a crack in the ceiling near the light fixture, aesthetic not structural. The door of the fridge has magnets from local Chinese delivery spots holding up mortgage statements and a picture from my university graduation. The weight of my body shifts, my shoulders lower and my fingers release from their unintentional fists. My bare feet are chilly on the checkered linoleum floor.
My mother ladles the soup into a familiar bowl. Some liquid splashes up the side and she draws her hand back to avoid the burn. The next scoop she is more careful. And even more still as she shuffles slowly to the kitchen table with the threat of the too-full bowl depending on her steady fingertips.
“It’s delicious, Mom,” I say. “Thank you.”
The steam rises up from the bowl and stings my cheeks. I pull back, but still try to smile. My mother reaches her hand across the table and finds my fingertips. The mahogany surface is wide, so we barely touch.
She squeezes just once before she lets go. Makeup has settled in the creases of her eyelids. I can see it as she closes her eyes for a moment and smiles without teeth. She takes a sip, blowing first on the spoon. The air around is perfumed with earthy sweetness. The burner on low keeps the soup simmering. It sounds like a steady whisper with no words.
“You know,” my mom says, “no matter how many times I try it’ll never taste the way it did when she made it.”
“Tastes perfect to me,” I say.
But I know what she means. There are some things that, despite best efforts, will never be passed down.
Alana Gautreau is a writer of fiction & non-fiction. Alana’s work has gratefully found comfortable homes in various publications such as Literary Orphans, Modern Loss, and Arcturus. The full list can be found at www.writingthewrongs.ca. Alana lives and works in the Toronto area.