Modern Love Podcast: A Mother’s Wild, Extravagant Love

[phone ringing]anna martin

God, I hope she picks up. We just talked.

[LAUGHTER]

[phone ringing]mom

Hey, Anna.

anna martin

Hi, mom. How are you? I talked to my mom a lot. She’s the person I call when I’m facing a big decision, or when a guy I’m seeing makes me feel sort of bad, or when I just ate some sushi that have been sitting out on the counter for a few hours, and I’m terrified I have food poisoning. I guess I’m old enough that I don’t have to call her for any of these things. It’s more that I just really want to talk to her. I need to hear her voice. OK, bye, mom. I love you.

mom

Bye, Anna. I love you, too.

[music]anna martin

From the New York Times, this is the Modern Love podcast. I’m Anna Martin. And this week’s essay is about how painful it is when a daughter can’t call her mother. In a lot of ways, it’s a love letter from daughter to mother and from mother to daughter. It’s called “She Put Her Unspent Love in a Cardboard Box.” It’s written by Genevieve Kingston and read by Julia Whelan.

In the back of my closet is a small cardboard chest with brass handles and latches. It has followed me to every new address. An old sticker on the bottom says it was purchased at Ross for $26.99. Now there are only three things in the bottom. Three wrapped presents marked in my mother’s tidy cursive: engagement, wedding and first baby. My mother was always prepared.

[music]

She ran a small nutritional beverage company with my father in Santa Rosa, California, while raising my older brother and me. By day, she made marketing slogans, distribution strategies, five-year plans. By night, bubble baths, pillow forts, bedtime stories. She and I had the same February birthday. Each year, my parents arranged elaborate parties. She once spent a week making a school of origami fish to swim through tissue paper seaweed across the ceiling of our dining room.

And then when I was three, she learned she had advanced breast cancer.

She immediately began to prepare by researching every available treatment — conventional, alternative, Hail Mary. She flooded her body with chemotherapy and carrot juice. She would sit for hours at our long oval dining table, her straight dark hair tied back, surrounded by piles of paper, studying dense technical paragraphs.

Medical research, my father said, as he shepherded me from the room. She was always looking for a way to survive.

When I was seven, the materials on the dining table began to change. Wrapping paper and ribbons took the place of her highlighted pages, as she worked busily under the dark fuzz of her shorn head. Scissors swished through gift wrap. Paper creased under her fingers. Ribbon cut to length with one snip. Knots came together with a tiny creak — swish, crease, snip, creak.

She was assembling two gift boxes, one for my brother and one for me. There was a rhythm in the room. She bent closer and closer to write the labels as her vision began to fail, a result of the cancer having spread to her brain. She packed presents and letters for the milestones of our lives she knew she would miss — driver’s license, graduation and every birthday until the age of 30.

When the boxes were full, my father carried them up to our rooms. She died 10 days before our shared birthday.

That morning, when I turned 12 and she would have turned 49, I woke up early. The box sat three steps from the foot of my bed. Just as my mother had shown me, I lifted the latches and opened it. Neat rows of brightly-wrapped presents glowed like the spring tulips that were just coming up in the front yard.

I opened the package marked “12th Birthday” and found a little ring with an amethyst at its center. A white card curling around the present read, “I always wanted a birthstone ring when I was a little girl. Your Granny finally bought me one and I loved it more than I can say. I hope you like it, too. Happy birthday, darling girl! Love, your mommy.”

I slid the ring on and traced her writing with my fingertip. Her words, written to bridge the gap between us, cut through space and time.

When I got my first period and couldn’t bring myself to talk to my father about it, a four-page letter from my mother, marked “First Period” laid out practical advice: “Take time to make friends with yourself. Take time to learn what interests you, what your opinions and feelings are. Find your own sense of the world and which values you hold most dear.”

As I read, I wanted to fall through the white lightly-textured page and into her arms. Year after year, my mother traveled forward in time to meet me in a little package with a pink ribbon and a little white note card: “Happy 15th!” “Happy 16th!” “Congratulations on your driver’s license!” “You’re a college girl!” “Happy 21st!” “Happy birthday, darling girl! Love, your mommy.”

Each time I opened the box, I could, for the briefest moment, inhabit a shared reality, something she imagined for us many years ago. It was like a half-remembered scent, the first notes of a familiar song, each time, a tiny glimpse of her.

When I was a child, opening the next package felt like a treasure hunt. As I grew older, it began to feel like something far more fundamental, like air or community, something like prayer.

Her messages met me like guideposts in a dark forest. If her words couldn’t point the way, at least they offered the comfort of knowing someone had been there before.

A decade after I lost my mother, my father followed suddenly. She had spent years preparing her exit. But with him, I blinked and he was gone.

The morning of his memorial, the box stared back at me with nothing to say. There was no letter for this. My father left no clues or letters. The only parenting I would have from 22 on was in the box.

When I hit 30, the nearly-empty box sat in my Brooklyn apartment, clashing with the furniture. Only three packages remained: engagement, wedding, first baby. The problem was, I didn’t know if any of those things would happen.

I didn’t know if I would choose them. I didn’t know if I ever wanted to get married. But I had been living with someone for three years. And whatever advice my mother had about committed, loving relationships, I wanted it now.

I felt 12 again and rebellious, as I pulled out the thick envelope marked “Engagement.” My fingertips felt cold as I opened it.

It read, “My dearest little girl, of course, you aren’t so little anymore as you read this, but you are little as I write. You are only 7, and I am facing the terrible sadness that you will be growing up without me.”

With the smooth pages crinkled in my grip, I found her hopes for what my marriage might look like.

She wrote, “A true marriage is a marriage of what is most sacred in both of you.

One must have an ease about both giving and receiving, a capacity for forgiveness for oneself, as well as for the other, a personal sense of balance that is not dependent on the balance of the other, a kind of loving detachment.”

I didn’t know if I was capable of loving detachment. There was no detachment in the love that made the box and no detachment in the love that opened it.

She wrote, “I’m so sorry to be leaving you. Please, forgive me. I know a box of letters and tokens can’t begin to take my place. But I wanted so badly to do something to ease your way through the future.” Love, your mommy.

For 20 years, I have pulled mothering from the box, but I don’t know if the next 20 will include the milestones she planned for me.

I often wish I could lift the latches, jump inside and ask her which path I should walk and how I will recognize it. I want to ask if the life I’m carving for myself looks anything like she would have hoped. But I know this time travel only works one way.

After I read the engagement letter, I put it back with its unopened present and closed the box.

Those three final secrets will remain secrets for now. Maybe I’ll open them tomorrow, or in 10 years, or 20.

There’s comfort in knowing there’s a little left in the box.

My mother’s gifts, her letters, are a constant reminder that I have already been given what every child, what every human needs. I have been fiercely, extravagantly, wildly loved.

After the break: A mother, a son and their Tiny Love Story.

All right, whenever you’re ready.

yogyata singh davé

OK.

Hi this is Yogyata Singh Davé, and this is my Tiny Love Story. I wrote this in December 2020, nine months into the pandemic.

[music]

My 14-year-old, Vedant, dwells in a dungeon under my bedroom. Through the muffled cadence of his voice, I deduce if he’s in virtual school or playing an online game. Twice a day, he comes up for air asking, “What’s there to eat?”

We used to talk a lot on our car rides about life and feelings. Now, we have nowhere to go. For the holidays, I make him my sous chef. Slicing a butternut squash, my knife slips. He takes my bleeding finger in his hand and blows a kiss.

Food an excuse, we talk about feelings again.

vedant

Hey.

anna martin

Hey, Vedant, what’s up?

vedant

Nothing much.

anna martin

I’m so pumped to talk to you. So you’re back to school, in person, right?

vedant

Yeah. How’s that going? It’s actually — it’s pretty fun. I totally love going back to school and being with my friends and everything. I mean, we just created a ping pong club so I just joined that, so.

anna martin

Ping pong, I feel like people forget how fun it is.

vedant

Yeah, it’s so underrated.

anna martin

Right?

vedant

Yeah.

anna martin

OK. So your mom wrote this story when you were 14, but it’s been two years now. So are you 16?

vedant

Yeah, I am.

anna martin

Do you have any early memories of cooking with your mom when you were younger?

vedant

Yeah, actually I do remember. We would make a roti sometimes. These are like bread bowls, things like that. And I definitely remember sometimes in the kitchen, I would help like make them in bowls and flatten them with a rolling pin.

anna martin

So fun.

vedant

But I also remember that I was very particular. Like, I didn’t want to get any of the dough like stuck to my hands. And getting the dough stuck to my hands was just the most annoying feeling, and I remember I would like immediately rush to the sink and try and wash the dough off my fingers.

anna martin

Why did you want to be cooking with your mom? What was fun about it?

vedant

I don’t know. Just the whole like feeling of finishing something from start to finish, and what looks like nothing at first — you cook it together, you put oil, you might put it on the pan. And all of a sudden, it turns from just like random ingredients to like a really tasty dish.

So I feel like it’s just a great opportunity for us to make some good food and, I guess, just talk to each other, vent out our feelings, and have a good conversation.

anna martin

Do you think you’ll ever become a better cook than her?

vedant

No. [CHUCKLES] I don’t think so. She set the standard far too high.

anna martin

Vedant, could we actually talk to your mom for a minute?

vedant

Yeah, sure. I can get her really quick.

anna martin

Cool, thanks.

Hey Yogyata. How are you?

yogyata singh davé

Hi, Anna. I’m good. How are you?

anna martin

I’m great. I just had a lovely chat with Vedant.

yogyata singh davé

Oh, that’s awesome.

anna martin

So, Yogyata, your story is about your relationship with your son, Vedant, and how cooking has strengthened it. When you were a kid, did you cook with your parents?

yogyata singh davé

I didn’t.

anna martin

Hmm.

yogyata singh davé

I didn’t cook at all, because I grew up in India. And we have house help there to help cook and clean and do a lot of the household chores. So I would say I grew up pretty spoiled in that manner.

But cooking is a very integral part of just the Indian culture, and a lot of the way that you manifest your love for your children is through cooking. I’ve seen my mom do it for me, but I wasn’t really required to be a part of the process. She’s done it for me and I feel I’m just passing on what I learned from her to my kids — my way of passing on my love.

anna martin

So if you weren’t as involved in the kitchen when you were growing up, how did you learn how to cook?

yogyata singh davé

Because I knew that coming to America, I would have to find my independence. So first, I started with Indian cooking, because I could always call my mom and ask her, hey how do you make this? And a lot of times, her answers would be, “Oh, I just eyeball this, and eyeball that,” and like, it’s not going to work. You have to tell me teaspoon, how much — what half a cup —

anna martin

Classic mom intuition. Yeah. [CHUCKLES]

yogyata singh davé

Exactly, right? And I’m like, no. That’s not how I’m going to learn. So I kind of found out the secret ingredients that she would use, but then I would go to a recipe book and kind of find out the proportions of it all.

anna martin

It sounds kind of daunting though, I mean, speaking for myself. My mom is Chinese. She’s an incredible cook. So was my grandma. And I haven’t quite hit the point where I’ve really delved in to making these dishes because it feels really intimidating. And I’m just curious, was it important to you to cook with Vedant from a young age?

yogyata singh davé

Oh, I think as he started getting older, I realized that one day, he’s going to fly away. He’s going to be going to college. And when he looks back at the days that he spent at home, what are some memories that I can give him?

anna martin

It’s almost dinnertime, right now, actually it’s like, close to 6 p.m. when we’re talking. What are you making tonight?

yogyata singh davé

Tonight, [CHUCKLES] my mom is here from India so she’s the one cooking for us. She is making matar paneer for us. It’s an Indian dish with cheese and peas. So this just goes in circles, right? [CHUCKLES]

anna martin

Wow I really wish I could come over for dinner right now. I’m getting so hungry.

yogyata singh davé

[CHUCKLES] Come on over.

anna martin

Thank you so much for talking to me today, Yogyata.

yogyata singh davé

Thank you so much.

[music]anna martin

Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero and Hans Buetow. It’s edited by Sara Sarasohn. This episode was mixed by Elisheba Ittoop. Dan Powell created our Modern Love theme music. Original music by Marion Lozano.

Digital production by Mahima Chablani, and a special thanks to Ryan Wegner at Audm. The Modern Love column is edited by Dan Jones. Miya Lee is the editor of Modern Love projects. I’m Anna Martin, thanks for listening.

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