She doesn’t cook for me

I had started working from home before my mother’s dementia-related problems became prominent. We moved in with her after my father’s death, when none of us suspected that those tiny problems we saw could have a medical reason. She seemed normal enough, except for her growing balance problems. I would do the cooking because I wasn’t comfortable with her working in the kitchen because she could sway at any moment, and would grab whatever she saw. Sometimes one would find her on the floor, a chair fallen on top of her–ouch 😦

I handled all the cooking with some help from my husband. Most of the time I cooked food the way my mother had cooked for me, using the same spices, cutting the veggies in the same shape and size, making dishes as close to the ones she had cooked. I did this so that she was comfortable with the food and could eat well.  Except that now my mother wanted food the way her grandmother cooked for her…

Because I worked through the day, I would finish off cooking in the morning. Daal, veggies, roties, all would be placed in hotcases, so that anyone could eat whenever he/ she wanted without my having to interrupt my work. This was something my mother herself had done for years now–finishing off the cooking early to have the day free for whatever she wanted to do.

But my mother had changed now. Her standards of “proper homes” had become more traditional, reverting to her grandmother’s days. She began complaining at this early morning dispose-off-the-cooking method, and I had to start making the rotis fresh in the afternoon, as is common in North Indian houses, because, when she was a child, she used to eating fresh rotis. I tried to get my maid to come at noon for making roties, but didn’t manage.

The problem arose on days when I had to go out for work-related meetings. The rest of the food was okay; I could keep it boiling hot in a hotcase and it would remain hot enough by the time my mother ate, but what about the roties? I would definitely not be back in time to make rotis. We tried out a rice-cooker, but she found it complicated to use, and she was not a rice-eater. I had to pack roties for such days.

One day, when I returned from a meeting in late afternoon,  she angrily told me that I did not make proper roties; they were too thick. She wanted phulkas, the thinner versions. She wanted them without any smearing of ghee. I told her that phulkas made and kept without oil for several hours would not remain soft enough for her. She got agitated and said I did not know how to make phulkas and was making excuses.

So next time, I made phulkas. They remained uneaten; she took the daal and sabji from the hotcase, but left the other hotcase, the one with the phulkas, untouched. I asked her why, and she made a face. I told her roties would have remained soft, but she said no, she wanted phulkas.

For the  next few weeks, every time I went out, she insisted I leave phulkas for her and would leave them uneaten. She said, what’s the point, how can they satisfy, they are as thin as potato peel. I reminded her that this was how she wanted it–phulkas, not roties, and that I could make roties instead. Should I? No, I want phulkas only, she insisted.

I did not have a full-time maid for her back then; I had not reached the state when I thought it essential, and my attempts to find one had failed anyway. There were maids who dropped by for housework in the morning, and my son would be back from school by afternoon. So, even on days that I needed to go out, my mother was alone in the house for barely a couple of hours. My son would check with her whether she needed help for her meal when he came back from school, but she would tell him she had eaten.

She would eat the daal and sabji, but the phulkas remained uneaten every time I went for work. I quietly doubled the amount of daal and sabji so that it was adequate for a meal as such, even if the phulkas were skipped.

One day, I returned to find the daal and sabji uneaten, too. Alarmed, I rushed to her room and asked her what happened, and she turned to me, her face twisted in a bitter way and said, “There was no food.”

I gaped at her. “It is there, exactly as I leave it every time I go out,” I pointed out. “I had even told you before going.”

“No one gave it to me,” she said, and turned her face away.

This was an unexpected turn of things for me. I tried telling her again, fool that I was, that the food was there, and she could have served herself as she had been doing all these days, and she said the same thing, “But no one gave me any food.”

I decided to cancel any meetings in the morning till I figured out a way for handling this. I said nothing to her; what was the point? I would have to fix my meetings only in the afternoons, after I’d fed her and my son was back to handle any crises.

I saw my mother chatting with a neighborhood lady that day, and felt my heart sink. There seemed something conspiratorial about her expression. The next morning, my mother was searching desperately in the kitchen shelves. She first refused to tell me what she wanted, but then, obviously desperate to find whatever she needed, she told me she was looking for a tiffin box.

It transpired that my mother, having seen that I was “not giving her food”, had complained to a neighbor that she did not get food at home and told her to send lunch every day. This neighbor, Mrs. V.,  was a North Indian vegetarian who wanted to start a catering business in the colony, and my mother had contracted with her to buy lunch every day because “my daughter is too busy to give me food” and “I cannot depend on my daughter.”

I went cold all over.

Even now, years after this happened, I shudder to think of that moment. I marvel at the fact that I didn’t explode on the spot; I think to explode means one has to be present whereas I totally froze. In my mind, I saw the news rippling through the colony and felt the burn of shame for a mistake I had not made. Already there were people lecturing me on “duty” and scolding me for various alleged atrocities based on her complaints–but this!!! How many people could I go around explaining things to, and why would they believe me? Don’t we have enough TV serials that show us how badly parents are treated? Enough movies? We were living in an apartment complex where most people were retired people, and had known my parents for years–of course they would believe her.

How would I walk down the corridor in this society and face those accusing looks? How could I live here?

My mother was staring at me, her expression a mixture of defiance of someone who will not back down, and also apprehension, as if she expected a scolding. I felt even at that time she knew she’d done something wrong, but she also felt it was right and that she had not had any other option.

“You know I’d cooked food for you and left it,” I said after I could breathe again. “If you forgot to take it, that is not my fault. Why tell people I don’t cook for you when you know that is not true?”

“I want my food hot and you did not give it,” she said, her tone and face set stubbornly. “V. will send me food every day. She has promised it. I will be paying her so she has to do it.”

My mother belongs to a generation and mindset where money buys not just goods but loyalty.

“But why didn’t to discuss with me? We could have–”

“I am paying her. She will give me food. You are too busy.”

And that was that.

My mother then said she wanted me to do something. She wanted me to go and give this catering lady the tiffin-box in which the lunch would be sent. I could not refuse, but I slipped into damage control mode. I did some deep-breathing, then went over to this lady’s house. I chatted with her as if it is a normal everyday event to be accused of not giving food to your mother. I said my mother’s tastes are very different and that my style of cooking was not satisfying her, so she had decided to try out catering instead, just for a change. I tried to twist it around like a “variety  is needed” angle, even implied that hey, maybe even I’ll like this catered food too. I tried to make this look like a business arrangement, and implicitly discouraged her to treat this as gossip fodder. After all, this lady wanted more business, I told myself, and spreading gossip will not help her.

But I felt I’d been pushed into hell.

My mother’s room had two doors–one that connected the room to the rest of the apartment, and another that opened directly into the corridor outside the apartment. In the afternoon, my mother would close the door that connected her to the rest of the apartment. I would hear this lady walk in using the other door. I could hear the rustle of small talk between her and my mother, and then footsteps going away. Then there would be sounds of plates and of my mother eating, and then my mother would open the door and I’d see a plate on the floor as my mother leaned back on the chair, fed.

I had continued to make food and keep it in her room, in spite of the fact that my mother’s lunch was now contracted out. Every day my mother would leave that uneaten, and eat this lady’s food.

The first day, and every day, I forced myself to smile and ask my mother how the food was. The first day, she praised that woman’s cooking. I kept on my forced smile, while cringing at what the neighbors would say. I was still struggling with what damage control to do for saving my face, and the only angle I could use was that my mother wanted her cooking done using a style I’d never used. Which was, in a way, true.

Our apartment complex had a small library where ladies often gathered in the evening to issue out magazines and books and gossip. I was scared to go there, dreading what I may hear. But withdrawing would only fan more gossip of how awful a daughter I was, and I forced myself to go to this place every day. This catering lady was also a member of the same library, and I’d meet her there. It was a struggle to keep smiling at her. What my mother did or said was not her fault, of course, but seeing her reminded me of the problem. And this woman now had “power” over me because she could tell others what my mother had said.

A few days later, I heard my mother pull up V. and complaining that the food was not good enough. “This is not how kadhi is made,” she said on one day. ‘This is not how channa is made,” she said on another day. And so on. My mother’s tone changed from polite to dissatisfied customer when talking to her. The once-perfect caterer was now an incompetent cook. Her once-perfect food was now over-cooked or under-cooked, over-spiced or under-spiced. The problem was not the food, of course; it was that my mother was measuring it to a past memory and now her tastebuds were not sensitive enough for her to enjoy any food as much. My mother even made me eat a spoonful of the channa sent by that lady to show me how awful it was. “I cook for you every day,” I said. “It is kept here every day. You can have it.”

Once my mother started complaining about the food, I felt a sense of relief because I knew that now this lady would not dare gossip about me, because her concern would be mainly on on preventing my mother from telling others how bad that catered food was.

By now, neighbors had noticed the daily delivery of the lunch box. I acted as if engaging the caterer was with my consent, a part of my trying to give my mother some variety in addition to the food I cooked. That we may all switch to the catering if it worked out; why not, isn’t that what catering is supposed to be for? I am not sure people believed me fully, but they did not disbelieve me, either…

My mother had stopped complaining about me after the first few days. I think she realized she had made a mistake by forgetting the food, and anyway she was getting to try what she wanted.

Soon, my mother started supplementing the food sent by this lady with what I continued to cook, and she also increased her complaints about this lady. It was clear that, by now, she was dissatisfied with the catering arrangement. I continued to make an alternate meal available for her every day, whether she ate it or ignored it.

Finally, my mother told me that if I could make sure that she got hot roties served fresh every day, she would discontinue the catered food. I had managed to get some maids by then who made satisfactory roties; three months after my mother had complained openly that I did not give her food, she resumed eating home food–after making V. all shaky about her cooking skills 😦

All through this episode, I kept my calm when interacting with my mother, but the fact was, it was awful for me. I felt extremely disturbed and stressed. I felt horror, shame, anger, helplessness.

I tried to make sure I did not sound bitter or hurt or resentful about the fact that my mother had contracted for the catered food. Saying something to my mother was pointless. anyway: one, she would not understand, and two, she would only badmouth me more. To her, anything she did to get what she wanted was fair; my feelings and reputation were of no consequence because she was just focused on getting what she needed, howsoever she got it.

I was not angry with my mother as much as I was angry with a situation where my reputation and social life were held ransom by a brain that could not think properly or remember things. My overall sense was one of helplessness. I felt I had to stay at home all the time, because the moment I was away, she would say or do something that would make things worse for me. But how could I do that? Did I have no life of my own? How much did I have to give up? I was becoming more and more of a recluse, tired of people pulling me up because of my mother’s ill-informed statements, and I could do nothing to stop them.

People are often quick to criticize others based on such complaints; no one would make such a complaint if it were not true, I was once told. I remember once, when I was trying to explain that my mother’s complaints were based on a confused and mistaken understanding,  a lady shrugged dismissively and said, “It must have happened, because why would she lie?”

But the problem is not lies. It is faulty memories, faulty understanding…And there is a price paid by both the patient and the family around the patient.

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India, and deeply concerned about dementia care in India. On this blog I share my own caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care in this set of pages:

2 Responses to She doesn’t cook for me

  1. Pingback: Reshaping career and identity « Swapna writes…

  2. Pingback: Murderers, thieves, and an old woman amidst them « Swapna writes…

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