Seven Discussions to Bring to a Debate on Nature vs. Nurture
My mom walked into the living room holding something hot from the microwave. I was on the sofa, the print floral, the arms ripped from years of cats’ claws digging in and taking out. The light from the standing lamp was low, the lightbulb dying. I was ten or maybe eleven years old, watching Even Stevens, or maybe it was The Amanda Show.
“I made something,” my mom said.
“What?” I asked.
“A dessert.” She wanted something sweet. She always had a bag of chocolate chips in the freezer. She reached in for a handful throughout each day. We never had enough chocolate chips when we decided to make cookies. The bags were always half-empty.
Now she showed me the dessert. I craned my neck up from where I was slouching on the couch.
“I just mixed together what we had,” she said. It was butter, brown sugar, and something else. I can’t remember the third thing. Vanilla extract? Or even frosting? We always had a plastic can of funfetti frosting in the refrigerator, sometimes months old, sometimes years old, from the last birthday we celebrated.
The dessert she made was mixed up in a toille-print bowl. The bowl had a chip on the side.
“Seems weird,” I said. And she said, “I know. But it’s good, try it.”
She handed me the bowl; she’d used a fork to mix it. I took a mouthful. It was good. It was butter, sugar, and something else, microwaved. It was hard to go wrong with those ingredients. It tasted warm and sweet, grainy on my tongue.
She gave me her bowl and went back to the kitchen to make another.
Years later, on the same couch, I’m watching The Sopranos, or maybe it was British Bake Off, with my dad. The blue and white bowl appears on the screen.
“We have that bowl,” I say, remembering the print, remembering the chip in its side, blue paint giving way to white clay.
“We do?” my dad asks. I go to the cabinet to look for it, but it’s not there. Maybe it was lost or broken in the years since I left the house. Maybe it was thrown away.
My mom could cook, though she didn’t like to. Here is what she made: spaghetti with angel hair pasta, chicken roasted in breadcrumbs, beef stew, pork chops, salad with my great grandmother’s vinaigrette recipe, meatloaf, chocolate pie. Jello from a box and angel food cake.
She was the oldest of six kids. While her mom was having the kids, my mom was looking after them. Born forty years later, maybe, in a way, I was the seventh kid.
“Have a lot of children,” my grandmother recommended to me, shortly before she died.
By the time I was born, TV dinners had evolved, and microwaves made many of our meals. Here is what we ate, my mom and me: Lean Cuisine chicken and mashed potatoes in gravy, Mama Celeste Pepperoni Pizza, Safeway Rotisserie Chicken, Oscar Mayer hot dogs, Tina’s bean and cheese burritos, Trader Joe’s mini tacos. Our healthy desserts were jello cups with frozen pieces of fruit.
Another cooking invention she taught me: Fritos dipped in cottage cheese. In college on the phone with my mom, I tell her I am eating this combination and she sounds surprised, like she forgot we ever ate that. Like she forgot when she didn’t want to cook, and asked if I was okay with eating chips and cottage cheese for dinner. I was okay, because the cottage cheese had protein, and the chips were delicious.
When she died, I asked my roommate to throw out my Fritos. Throw out my cottage cheese.
In a writing workshop, for fiction, I give the class some fiction. The story is about a girl. Something is wrong with her mom.
“What’s wrong with the mom in this story?” my professor asks.
“Yeah, what’s wrong with the mom?” a classmate asks. Others murmur their agreement, their confusion.
I laugh. “Actually, I don’t know!” I say. It’s a half-truth.
The mom in the story is mentally ill. The mom in my story is mentally ill, I mean. I don’t know what was wrong with the mom in the story I wrote. Or if wrong is the right word to use, in these situations.
My mom was mentally ill and she died by suicide.
In case you’re wondering what my grief is like: My grief is like a river, like a constant stream of running water, on a loop. Trying to write about my mom without writing about what happened to her feels impossible; it feels like trying to hold onto the stream, the water slipping through my fingers, the nail polish on my nails chipped, half-off.
Can you relate? What is your grief like?
In the last years of her life she was psychotic, her psychiatrist told me. My mom thought her brother Matthew was trying to kill her. Once at my grandfather’s house in Santa Monica, Uncle Matthew stood up from the picnic table on the beach in the sand and told his sisters they were all bitches. The story is relayed to me by my dad, who witnessed it, who enjoyed going to that house in Santa Monica and sitting back while my mom and my aunts talked and fought over room to share an opinion in the same way they fought to get one of the five pork chops on the table when they were kids.
My mother was the daughter of a veterinarian. Another story on that side of the family is that their father gave the kids animal medicine when they were sick. It’s one of those tales that is told so many times, by multiple people, you have to assume it is true. It is always said as if it’s funny:
“Dad gave us some leftover cat meds to cure a runny nose!”
Then you laugh until you get home and wonder what was funny about it.
If this were fiction, some might be compelled to ask: Why was the mom mentally ill? What was her diagnosis? How did she do it? Why did the uncle call the aunts bitches? Why did the grandfather give them animal medicine?
But it’s nonfiction so people don’t ask why, out loud. They simply put their head to the side or nod slowly and look away. I hope they forgive me later when I talk too loudly at a bar or get mad while driving, because my family is a little weird, and I once told them about it.
I still ask why, out loud. When I am trying to hold the rushing water from that stream of grief, I want answers. When I start to cry while driving I wonder when it will happen to me. The psychoses. The suicidal thoughts.
The answers to our whys are in an imagined metal tube of dog steroids that my grandfather must have given to them when they were children. And in the orange bottle of Zoloft that I take every day around 8 a.m. Was it the environment or their genetics that made them all that way? I swallow my pill. The answer is both.
My boyfriend’s name is, coincidentally, Matthew. Matthew can cook. While my mom and I ate TV dinners in front of reruns of The Nanny, he was probably watching the Food Network with his family. Matthew can make garlic butter and he can chop parsley and he knows what a Dutch Oven is for and he probably understands what the word ‘saute’ means.
Matthew reads my fiction and tells me it feels like I’m trying to write nonfiction. I tell him I can’t write nonfiction because I don’t really remember the details well enough.
He says, no one does. He says, they just pretend.
My mom walked into the living room holding a blue and white bowl that was warm from the microwave.
“I made dessert,” she said.
I was ten years old, watching Hannah Montana. In the bowl were three ingredients, mixed together with a fork: brown sugar, butter, and vanilla extract.
“Yum,” I said.
Fifteen years later I am in the same room, watching Derry Girls with my dad. The bowl appears on the screen.
“We have that bowl,” I say.
“We do?” he asks.
I go to the cabinet and bring it back to show him.
Melissa Dittrich is a first-year MFA in Fiction candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in Brooklyn.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021