Photo: Sang An
Can privacy come in a can? No, it's not the beginning of a prank phone call—it's a question about my mother, the lovely, cheerful English mum of my childhood who, twice a year or so, opened a small tin of Progresso Eggplant Caponata and ate it, standing at our kitchen counter. We children looked on from the table in horror, forking up our early dinner of pork chops and buttered noodles as our mother disappeared. Bug-eyed from TV, I could practically see the wavy lines around her, the shimmer that tells you a person—at least a seventies sitcom one—is receding into memory or daydream. She spooned the inky, oily Italian relish onto a cracker, chewed it, and looked out the window, lost in thought. Or maybe found.

As far as I was concerned, eggplant didn't deserve to be in the house at all, let alone anywhere near my mother's pretty mouth. "I hate that," I said, and she turned her face toward us and smiled. "Why are you even eating it?" I asked, and she laughed: "Because I like it." In a world of domestic attentiveness, this little treat was a quiet assertion of her difference from us. Sure, she still looked like our gracious mother, ours, the one who pinned her silky-dark hair into a neat chignon before proceeding to soft boil our eggs and slice toast into "fingers" for dipping—but who was she?

It's the same way I felt looking at her honeymoon photos: There sat my mother, in her clingy, lacy nightgown, sticking a spoon into her room-service grapefruit and smiling at the camera—at our dad— in a way I didn't recognize. What about us kids? Where were we?

Inside a box of snapshots, inside the happy, demanding tumult of a family, the slightest separations can still make themselves felt. Privacy is possible, it turns out, even when you're never alone. If, back then, my mother could have popped in a yoga DVD or snuck into the study to Google her high school boyfriend, maybe she wouldn't have chosen the particular retreat of a tinned appetizer. Those bites of eggplant were one way for her to create something, in the middle of everything, that was hers alone.

Because I was a weird kid—the kind who read Red Cross manuals cover to cover, as if they were novels about shock and resuscitation—I understood. At least, I understood about tunneling hollows of personal space out from the thickness of family life, even if I didn't understand the lure of eggplant itself.

My dislike of the plant ran deep. And not because I once embarrassingly confused auberge with aubergine in a French assignment, and ended up writing an inadvertently peculiar story about a family who housed guests in a small but charming eggplant (Trés originale! Madame Spodheim had praised in her spidery cursive). It was just something about its sponginess under my molars, something about its bitterness that gave me a bad feeling. In high school, I'd feel vindicated when I found out it was a member of the deadly nightshade family. And during college, I'd be almost joyful when I read a recipe that urged, "Salt the eggplant heavily to sweat out the poisons." I'd walk around for days, repeating it: "Sweat out the poisons! Not exactly a ringing endorsement." But back there at the kitchen table, eggplant was one way that I, a scabby-kneed and pigtailed little girl, was different from my mother. "Maybe it'll grow on you," she teased while I hung around watching her spoon summer ratatouille into freezer bags. And I'd say, "Yeah, like a fungus."