Around the table with Mom

In many cultures, Mother's Day means food and love

click to enlarge Aruna Mundlapudi, center, on her 70th birthday with her daughters, Sacharitha Bowers, left, and Sankirtana Danner, right.
Aruna Mundlapudi, center, on her 70th birthday with her daughters, Sacharitha Bowers, left, and Sankirtana Danner, right.
Mother's Day customs in the United States are as varied as the mothers they celebrate. The holiday has evolved from its original purpose of promoting community service and education for women, to a more celebratory event reflecting a vivid patchwork of traditions. For some it's a day to relax, some come to party, and for others it's a day to mourn and remember.

In my family Mother's Day has always been a day to work in the garden and, of course, eat. The last frost in central Illinois falls around Mother's Day, and so for my family of Midwestern gardeners this was the time to plant green beans, tomatoes and flowers. My great-grandfather purportedly filled his mother's flower bed with red geraniums each year on Mother's Day, a custom which I've tried to keep alive for my grandmother to this day.

My own mother (and original author of this food column) died several years ago, so Mother's Day for me is full of memories and shared loss. Time in the kitchen often serves as a bridge back to my mom and Mother's Day is no exception. The main dish for this holiday meal has varied, but for four generations there has always been spinach, asparagus and the first rhubarb pie of the season on the side table. Now, when the weather is fine, I like to spend Mother's Day morning out in the garden picking the first crop of sweet greens before heading into the kitchen with my own young daughters. We make their great-great grandmother's German spinach and practice rolling out my mom's pie dough. My girls don't remember my mom, but through these recipes they are able to foster a connection to their Nana and all the women who came before.

For many South Asian families the idea of honoring motherhood is a daily practice, not simply a holiday that occurs on the second Sunday in May. When Aruna Mundlapudi, who now lives in Bloomington, immigrated to the United States nearly four decades ago from India with her husband and young daughter, the idea of "Mother's Day" was a uniquely American concept that she learned about through her children. "As the girls grew up, they would make cards in school – that was our first experience with it," explained Mundlapudi. "In India, every day is Mother's Day – respect for motherhood is a central theme in our culture. In our religion, the universal mother who created this whole universe is represented in the mother who gave birth to you, so honoring motherhood is central to our daily life."

Mundlapudi's daughter is now grown with two girls of her own. A modern mom and physician, Dr. Sacharitha Bowers of Springfield happily celebrates a relaxed Mother's Day with homemade cards and breakfast in bed. "Who doesn't love Mother's Day?" she remarks. "It's different, though, than the way motherhood is exalted in Indian culture. For example, in India during pregnancy and after the baby is born the whole community comes together to take care of mom and baby – there's constant connection. After both my girls were born, Mom gave me daily therapeutic massages with turmeric oil and she made all sorts of special dishes geared towards recovery and nursing. I remember she made laddoo, which are like delicious granola balls, and she'd have me eat them throughout the day. And even though my mom is vegetarian, she made meat dishes for me so I'd have extra protein. The role of food is truly central to every facet of Indian culture and my mom is very proud of the food she makes. She puts all of her love into it."

Mother's Day in the Watson family, and for many Black families across the country, is a major event.

"As a kid it was like Christmas – we couldn't wait to celebrate Mom. I remember waking up early and deciding amongst my siblings who was going to make her breakfast in bed and there were always homemade cards and gifts before heading off to church," recounts Dominic Watson of Springfield. Mother's Day is an especially important day in the Black church. "The churches present all the mothers with flowers, there are speeches and gifts and lots of music – they really go all out," he explains. "As we got older and had families of our own, the day has taken on a slightly different shape. Now it's about letting Mom relax and getting the grandkids involved, but there's still a lot of celebrating."

On any given occasion Dominic's mother, Margaret Watson of Springfield, can be found preparing huge pans of macaroni and cheese, greens, dressing and an array of desserts, including her famous three-layer caramel cake. "I put the caramel in the batter," she divulged, "so it stays extra moist." The deep connection that was created around her dinner table formed the basis of a family bond that has extended well beyond that of a typical Sunday dinner. "Without realizing it, for all those years my mom was showing me, not telling me, how to celebrate my own wife and family," Dominic said. For her part, Momma Watson, as she is affectionately known, relishes the time spent with her children and grandchildren, especially after a year of pandemic life. "It just means the world to me to have my family close by. This last year showed us what a blessing it is to be together – so many people have been through difficult times and lost loved ones. I say, give people their flowers while they are still living. You just don't know what's going to happen. We need to pour love back into our families and be the example, show that closeness and love so that our children want to come back home even after they're all grown up."

The diversity of these traditions is matched only by the depth of connections that they embody. In spite of the modern hype and commercialization, Mother's Day is still a cherished opportunity to love and acknowledge all the women in our lives who give us life and build us up.

Ashley Meyer lives in Springfield with her husband and two daughters. This Mother's Day she's looking forward to relaxing with a book and a strong cup of coffee, and of course rhubarb pie. Find her mother's recipe here:

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