Mom had all the sayings but words couldn’t describe her cooking

A funny thing happened in August when my seven siblings and I gathered for the first time since our mother’s funeral 11 1/2 years earlier. Actually, a lot of funny things happened, with the emphasis on funny.

Whenever we get together, whether as a group or one-on-one, discussions normally include a recitation of “Mom-isms.”

Me:  “What’s for dinner tonight?”

Her: “Baked boy, “ delivered with a deadpan even Jack Benny would envy. “How about boiled arm?”

You see, Kay Sullivan was an enigma who left quite an impression on all eight of us. In one moment, she could stun you with an icy stare, a raised eyebrow or a slight tilt of her head—words simply weren’t necessary. The next moment, you’d be doubled over in laughter at one of her random descriptions of life around her. We’re all richer for being her child, we realize now, but it was quite an upbringing.

“Things sure have changed,” she told my son Brian, then 16 and tasked with using his new drivers’ license to take his 80-year-old grandmother to the store. “When I grew up, we had mortal sins, cardinal sins and venial sins. I sure could go for a red hot mortal, don’t you think, Bri?”

A couple of years later, our younger son was behind the wheel when she asked, while looking out the car window and clearly enjoying making him uncomfortable, “Did you ever consider cleaning your house in the nude? I have a friend who vacuums naked. Don’t you think that’s strange?” 

Brian turns 40 next month and Dan is 37. I think they just recently recovered from their Grandma’s randy attitude during their teen years.

My sister Ann, six years my junior and still bitter about being stuck—alone– with our aging parents as we aged, shared a yarn this summer that encapsulates our mother. 

Ann: “Mom, the dentist told me I need to floss more. I don’t think we have any floss.”

Mom: “Sure we do.” She then took the ribbon off a new pack of cigarettes, slid it between her teeth and handed it to Ann. “This will work just fine.” 

Material things didn’t matter to Mom, to her credit. She was 8 when the Great Depression hit, and grew up with any number of suffering relatives who appeared at their door on the west side of Chicago. Hand-me-downs were part of our lives, and it wasn’t strange to see her wearing a sweatshirt or shoes she somehow inherited from a dead relative. I’m sure the average length of a pencil in our house was 2.5 inches, and the eraser had been worn away years before during one of the nightly tussles over homework.  

We didn’t even bother asking about getting the fanciest pair of tennis shoes or a pair of Levi’s. No Converse All-Stars for me (I actually took white shoe polish and tried to fashion a star on the back of my off-brand sneakers in a futile attempt to be cool), and “Tuffskins” from Sears “will suffice, Mr. Gotrocks.” 

We always had food on the table and the house was always warm. Nothing else really mattered. That’s not to say the food was great. Or even good. Mom was, and I say this at the risk of being struck down from the great beyond, a terrible cook.  Meat was either overcooked or undercooked, all vegetables were mushy and most fruits were out of a can (I was 25 when I discovered that cranberry sauce didn’t naturally come with embossed rings on it.) Food was uncovered for days in the fridge and then used in some inedible “triumph.”

 “Eat, or you’ll get rickets or scurvy.”

“There are starving children in Ethiopia who would love those peas and lima beans you’re trying to hide under your knife.”

This summer, Ann also shared the story of a grade school assignment in which students were asked to bring in their favorite dessert from home. The teacher asked each student to describe the dish, and one girl fawned over her “Aunt Susie’s Cups of Loves,” and a boy boasted about his grandmother’s “Chocolate Heaven Cookies.” When the teacher asked Ann what she brought, she simply stated “Turds,” which is what our family called no-bake cookies.

We didn’t know how poorly Mom operated in the kitchen until we experienced real food at friends’ homes. Imagine our surprise when other mothers fed us, and salt and pepper were used at the same time! Such “exotic” foods as garlic salt, oregano, fresh veggies and brand-name cereal were foreign to us. 

Public displays of affection also were not among Mom’s strong suits. The only time I remember kissing her was at a football banquet when, as a senior, I was expected to plant one on Mom while handing her a plaque. Unbeknownst to anyone else in the room, she muttered to me “Go on, get it over with” when I leaned in for a peck on the cheek. We both snorted in laughter.

During high school, there was one of those “whose baby picture is this?” contest in which the winner received movie tickets. After a tedious search of our home, I couldn’t find any baby pictures of me, so I reluctantly entered the contest using a photo of my brother. (I won, of course, and I can only pray that the statute of limitations has expired by now.) When I asked why there were no pictures of my early days, Mom barely looked up from her crossword puzzle and declared “You came out as a 9-year-old in a Little League uniform. Get over it.”

We knew our mother loved us, and we all loved her. She passed along her gift of humor and a common-sense approach to life that has served us well. She showed her love by unconventional methods, to be sure, but we never wanted for anything. She ruled the Sullivan roost with her “thundering velvet hand” as Dan Fogelberg described his father’s method of discipline. We miss Mom, and we hope she knows our stories are told with love accentuated by laughter. 

And to my knowledge, none of us ever got rickets or scurvy.