Desserts illustration
Illustration: Chris Silas Neal
My parents were about the pursuit of the so-called good life. When they fell in love after the war it was as intellectuals. This meant that you got together with other couples like you—good-looking, highly educated, and amused folks who listened to Coltrane and Miles Davis and raised their kids to be extremely high achievers, drank a lot of wine, passed along great books, knew about the latest poets, and cooked Julia Child's recipes and cutting-edge ethnic food.

I still remember my mother fully engaged in a number of enlivening, centering pursuits—cooking, reading, baths, hanging out with her best women friends making marmalade and chutney (then trying to trick the poor children into liking it). And the figs my father and I devoured from our friends' backyards—how perfectly one fit into your mouth, the succulent flesh with just a little something to chew against, to keep you focused, the honey juice that didn't run down your chin but down your throat, bathing you in the exotic ancient pleasure of a most common fruit.

The food and life my parents created would have been delicious and nourishing, if it were not for one tiny problem—that they were so unhappy together. My brothers and I ate cassoulet at a table where our parents avoided making eye contact and, rather than shouting, which was considered déclassé, engaged in clipped conversation. It was the Joy of Cooking meets Harold Pinter. So the steamed persimmon pudding was easy on the taste buds but hard to swallow, because it came at such a cost: a lump in the throat, anxiety in our bellies.

What had happened that turned my parents from the bright young things who fell in love over literature and wine to a cheerless woman and man who after dinner took their books and glasses to opposite ends of the living room, connected only by a lily pad of children on the rug between them, lost in homework?

I think the answer is what didn't happen: They were not able to take their pleasures, their love of their children, out to the next concentric circle, where something bigger awaited. My mother and her women friends made not only vats of that world-class chutney but mole poblano and cakes from scratch, and yet because she was empty inside and stayed in a miserable marriage for 27 years, she who cooked like a dream could not ever feel satisfyingly filled, and got fat.

Next: Where she found the missing pieces

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