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I’m forty years old, newly separated from my spouse of twenty years, and my mom is getting ready to move in with me. Somewhere out in the metaverse, my teenage self is going: “Damn, Nishta, what are you thinking?”
Let’s be clear: my mom, Veena, is a total badass and we’ve always been close. She’s got a razor-sharp wit, a take-no-bullshit personality, and is far more open-minded than folks half her age. She’s hilarious and real and for as long as I can remember, my friends have loved hanging out with her (they still do).
We are a lot alike, Veena and me, partly I think because of genetics and partly because I was determined to mold myself in her image. My admiration for her and everything she has weathered in her life—the bravery it took to travel halfway across the world in her early twenties to start a new life, the compassion that is the bedrock of her thirty-plus-year career in early childhood special education, and her resilience in the face of so much adversity—has rendered me just as hard-headed and tough as her. I was a hard-fought-for only child, and my mom and I have the tight entanglement to prove it.
If you know Veena at all, or have read about her, you know that the kitchen is her domain, which is how it came to be mine as well. My mom is an encyclopedia of culinary knowledge (to this day she continues to build her repertoire, now a devotee of “The YouTube”) so vast as to be intimidating. Her wizardry, and that of the other Indian women I grew up in community with – my “aunties” – planted a deep ambition at the core of my being. I wanted to earn my place among them, to master the kitchen arts as they had, to carry on the legacy of throwing big dinner parties and making it look effortless, of keeping a full fridge just in case you might need to feed a guest, of always remembering someone’s favorite foods and making them whenever they visited.
This vision lived on the edges of my consciousness as I moved through college and into grad school; then my dad died very suddenly and unexpectedly when I was 23, and his death served as a catalyst for me to take cooking seriously, as he was a great lover of food. Time spent in the kitchen quickly became a way to honor both of my parents, as well as connect with different cultures with which I identified (Indian, yes, but also Southern, since I was born & raised in Memphis.)
In retrospect, there was probably a bit of first-gen imposter syndrome at play here, too; not only am I the only queer one out of all of the Indian kids I grew up with, I’m also one of just a couple who didn’t become a doctor or a lawyer. Oh, and for fun, I also married a white lady. Cooking in the tradition of my mom and aunties became a way to bring together the disparate parts of my identity, to prove that I belonged, even if my outside pieces didn’t seem to fit in.
Turns out, I inherited my mother’s gift and also her deep pleasure for making magic happen in the kitchen. Slowly but surely, I became known for my dinners, for my baked goods, for my care packages filled with homemade granola. I started a food blog. I tackled elaborate, multi-step recipes, once buying a goat leg so big it barely fit inside my oven. I threw lush, colorful Diwali parties, swirling around the kitchen, feeding forty people while dressed in a sari, just as I had seen my aunties do.
Unfortunately, I seemed to think that an essential part of my journey into becoming was eschewing my mom’s help and doing everything myself instead. After all, I thought, she had somehow managed to figure things out on her own as a young immigrant in a brand new country; why should I have the help that she didn’t? Whenever she would come to visit me, I would feel her trying to take over my kitchen, to make it hers, to organize the cabinets the way she saw fit, to clear out the refrigerator, or do a deep-clean of the stovetop. I interpreted everything she did as a critique, a sign that I was failing to live up to her expectations or that all of my attempts to demonstrate my competence were not enough. This was, of course, all internalized shame and uncertainty projecting its way out onto my sweet mama, who simply wanted to contribute to me in any way that she can; acts of service are how she best shows love.
Now that I am adding “soon-to-be-divorced” to my Black Sheep Bingo card, my life is so far afield from where I ever thought that it would go. I have done the therapy to know that my worthiness is inherent (yours is, too, by the way) and that I have nothing to prove. There are days when I can hold this knowledge front-and-center, and others when the shame spiral of voices telling me all the various ways I’m a disappointment come rushing into my mind. But you know what? My mom loves me and she wants to show up for me. And I’m going to let her.
Veena is seventy-five and though I hope she has many good years left, she is invariably at the end of her life. I’m going to let her come into my house and reorganize my cabinets. She can put the spices in whatever kind of order she likes. She’s going to label everything obsessively and keep things much cleaner than I ever would, and when I ask, she’ll make me tea in that way that only she can seem to manage (why does it taste so much better when she makes it?) I’m going to let her feed me, in all of the various ways moms do.