Leaving home is often painful. As the oldest son of a Sicilian mother, when I left, it was exceptionally so.
I had been doing something that she did not approve of, and when I told her, she gave me an ultimatum: stop, or leave.
Afterward I had a dream that I was a passenger in a crowded Volkswagen, driving across a sun-scorched desert. I asked the driver to stop and I got out. As I was walking away from the Volkswagen I could hear a voice from inside it say, “You’re killing me! You’re killing me!” That voice was my mother’s.
I kept walking. But I went home for dinner.
Sunday dinner at Mom and Dad’s was spaghetti. Sauce from homegrown tomatoes, simmered all day. Homemade meatballs. Spaghetti el dente. Fresh grated cheese. Hot chill peppers for Dad.
I would sit down to dinner and pray. Partly I was thankful for the food. Partly I was offering a supplication. God, please let it be different this time.
It never was.
Mom would go on about how long she’d worked on the sauce. Her arms were tired from stirring. Her hands were sore from shaping meatballs. But she had prevailed.
She would serve me first, a large heaping plate. And pass me the cheese. Then she would serve Dad. And my brothers. She would serve herself last.
And then she would taste the sauce, and make a face, and say, “Oh, the sauce tastes terrible!”
I had failed her by leaving home. I had a debt to repay. And besides, the sauce was superb. Not a thing wrong. I knew what I had to do. I prepared myself for the inevitable conclusion.
“Mom! The sauce tastes delicious!” I said.
She rebuked me. “What do you know about cooking?” she said. “You left before I could teach you all my secrets” (which I will now take with me to the grave, she didn’t say).
And then she provided her proof: “There’s too much basil.”
Or not enough salt.
Or too much pepper.
Or too many bay leaves.
It was always something. And no matter how hard I tried, I would fail to convince her that she had done well, and that the meal was fine. I think that the intended message was that my leaving home had ruined her life. Even the sauce.
And so I lost, every time.
I went to see a psychiatrist about this. That’s not the reason I went, but since I was there anyway, and I was already sitting in the chair (he didn’t use a couch), I told him the story of Dinner With Mom.
The psychiatrist never said much. I went to him all summer and I can count on two hands the number of words he said. He was particularly generous on this occasion.
He said, “This is a game.”
Having been to the Oracle at Delphi, I went home and pondered the meaning.
This is a game.
Games have names.
Let’s call this one, I’m a Bad Cook.
What are the rules?
1. Mom prepares a sumptuous dinner
2. Carl sits down to eat
3. Mom proclaims the meal tainted
4. Carl argues that the meal is fine
5. Mom invokes her rank
6. Carl loses
I’ve always enjoyed puzzles and games, but frankly, I’m not very good at them. I lose at Monopoly. I lose at Risk. I cannot solve the Globe & Mail Cryptic Crossword (wait, that doesn’t count. Nobody can.) I have been trying to solve a rope puzzle for months. My daughter figured it out in three minutes.
“This is a game.” How is that supposed to help me?
The problem when people argue is that nobody questions the rules. Everyone assumes that they have to play within the rules. If a race is set from start to finish and I have short legs and my opponent has strength and power, then my opponent wins. If I play by the rules, all I can do is try harder. And I will lose every time.
If I play by the rules.
This is a game.
What if I change the rules?
1. Mom prepares a sumptuous dinner –
Queen’s Gambit. Let’s go along with this.
2. Carl sits down to eat –
Pawns evenly matched.
3. Mom proclaims the meal tainted –
Here comes the attack. Time to change the rules.
4. I looked at her with mock concern. I cautiously dipped my spoon in the sauce, brought it to my lips, wrinkled my nose, and said, “This sauce tastes terrible, Mom! What happened?”
5. Mom invoked her rank. “What do you know about cooking?” she said. “This sauce tastes fine.”
6. Carl wins. I could have wept for joy.
I have told this story for years. It happened a long, long time ago. Only today as I tell it again do new things occur to me.
It occurs to me now that by changing the rules of the game, by agreeing with her that the sauce was bad, I was also, as per her metaphorical communication, agreeing that by leaving home, I had ruined everything (even the sauce).
It occurs to me now that my mother never wanted to stop me from leaving home. But she wanted validation. She wanted my appreciation of the enormous effort that it cost her to facilitate my launching.
It occurs to me that it is perhaps no accident that I get it now. Now when my own children are leaving home.
I was freed on so many levels by this. Not only did I finally “win the game”, but really I won the lottery (in more ways than one, which I will tell you about, another time).
I resolved the problem of leaving home. I had ruined my mother’s life by leaving home. She hadn’t wanted to stop me. Hadn’t wanted to prevent me from growing. She had only wanted me to acknowledge that the sauce was ruined.
Just validate her loss.
And once I did that, everything was okay.
Even the sauce.