There are probably many reasons why I should curb my obsessive-compulsive tendencies. This is likely one of them.
Ever since we convinced my mother to sell her house in Los Altos back in Summer 2012, she has stayed with me when she’s in town. We reasoned with her that she’s been spending more time in Manila over the last three years. This is because it had become increasingly difficult for my father to travel. In late 2011, he fell several times at the Los Altos house, one of which necessitated sutures for a 4.5 inch gash in the back of his head. Yeah, he’s stubborn and insists on clinging to whatever last vestige of independence he could muster. But this had meant some trips and falls when he would decide to suddenly get up from his armchair and shuffle hurriedly to either the bathroom or the kitchen, sans walker, sans nurse, sans aid from anyone. He forgets that his balance has been deteriorating. (Ugh! I still remember the bloody mess in the bathroom when my hubby and I raced through HWY 280 at 7:00 on a Sunday morning after my mother’s frantic call It was supposed to be a lazy day…)
It was also high time that my mother not be alone for prolonged periods of time in a house. She had left the stove on and gone to bed a few times in Los Altos. On one of these occasions, the caretaker who lived in the house when she went away, was awakened by the smell of burning food. He rushed out of his bedroom to find the soup she had left simmering had dried up and whatever was left in the pot was beginning to burn. The next day, when she was informed of the mishap, she smiled sheepishly and dismissed the event as an anomaly. The rest of us siblings were all too shaken, let alone mortified. The house was saved similarly by my father’s nurse, who we had asked to go around and check the house before she retired to bed every night.
The transition has not been easy for my mother. When she’s in the United States, she is fiercely independent. She cooks meals, does her own laundry, cleans her bathroom, takes her medication like clockwork. She even packs her own travel bags. Of course, it’s completely different when she’s in Manila. There, she has a secretary and a personal assistant. It is a starkly different life there, such that she does not even hold her own phone or send her own text messages!
And so, it has been about three trips now since late in 2012 when she would stay at our place. We had moved some of her things to our house. We had to convince her to let go of quite a lot of accumulated stuff when she sold her house. We did not have a lot of storage in our own home, we reasoned. But she still managed quite a few plastic storage containers full of odds and ends. We take some of them out when we know she’s coming.
When my mother is in town, my kitchen is turned upside down. My fridge is full to the point that I have to rearrange the contents daily just so the door can close properly. I had been planning to shut down the upright freezer in our garage. I had thought of selling or giving it away. It had been empty for about a year already. But, when my mother is in town, that too is stuffed to the gills!
What is it about sales on poultry and pork shoulder that has her buying enough to feed an army? Or the 20 heads of romaine from Costco? Two whole chickens to make Hainanese Chicken for dinner for the three of us? (Two chickens make for a richer broth, she reasons.)
Ever since my hubby and I became empty-nesters and we only occasionally have to feed young people who have hollow legs like my daughter, her friends or my nephew Matt who lived with us in the past. I have refrained from stocking up on large amounts of food in the house. In the recent years, I have even gone the opposite direction. I buy what I need for the next day or so. I go to our neighborhood supermarket 2-3 times a week. I visit the farmer’s markets on the weekend. It has made for fresher food, less clutter of forgotten mysteries lurking in the back of the freezer. We also don’t consume as much as we used to anyway.
If there was ever a place in the house I seem to have heaped all my predisposition to obsessive-compulsive behavior, it’s the kitchen. It has become the source of head-shaking-upward-rolling-of-eyeballs resignation from my hubby and daughter. It has to be clean. And orderly. And everything in its place (A place for everything and everything in its place.).
Initially, I’d go through the angst of seeing just about all my counter space filled with days of foraging in different markets–Asian supermarkets, Costco, Safeway, a favorite butcher in San Francisco, and stuff brought in from Manila. There would be avocado seeds drying by the window sill for a planned future propagation. Or a case of pears or mangoes that looked succulent, fragrant, and a great deal too(!), loosely arranged in one corner to ripen. There would be stalks of lemon grass, leaks, and herbs propped on my various pitchers and vases. Some plantain would be wrapped in brown paper bags and tucked under my onion baskets to over-ripen. My paella pan has become a catchall for fresh heads of cabbage, Chinese eggplant, long beans, zucchini, celery stalks, and bell peppers of all colors.
She has complained that I don’t have big enough pots or pans. (I have one medium-sized stock pot. My largest pan is only a wok, which, by the way, she had purchased for me a long time ago). She tells me after working in the kitchen daily for a month now that my knives are beginning to dull. My soy sauce container is too small. I should have purchased a gallon container. (But that would have taken me years to consume!)
I would say nothing. I would wait until she goes to bed close to midnight every night. Then I would move all the clutter and proceed to scrub all the counter tops with soap and hot water. I’d wipe down the cabinet doors for drips. I’d scrub the stove and wash the grills. Check my exhaust filters if they need a good scrubbing in the dishwasher. Reorganize the fridge and freezer. Throw out any leftovers longer than a week. And move any utensils that were stored in the wrong drawers.
Sigh! The kitchen is ready for battle again the next day.
My daughter once commented that she is reassured I’m not teetering towards some dangerous path because my office desk always looks like a typhoon has just blown through it. But my kitchen? Well, I have curbed much of my prickliness over the constant disarray. My mother seems happiest when she’s creating something in there. She tells me the smaller size suits her. But she insists on making enough food to feed a multitude most of the time. At 82, she’s still full of gusto and passion for her craft. (Did I mention that my mother, along with her sister, founded a food company almost 50 years ago that now employs 7000 people?)
How can I possibly get in her way or dampen this enthusiasm? If anything, I should enjoy her creative productivity while it lasts.