If you’re lucky, your mom will always be your moon and stars, even after she’s gone. During the month of Mother’s Day, celebrate memorable moms and their adoring (and occasionally aggravating) children with these five books.
Margaret Bragg is an extraordinary octogenarian cook from Alabama who’s worn out 18 stoves and has no use for things like mixers, blenders or measuring cups. She whoops at the term “farm-to-table,” saying she had it in her day—it was called “a flatbed truck.” Even though Margaret proclaims that “a person can’t cook from a book,” her Pulitzer Prize-winning son and author of All Over but the Shoutin’, Rick Bragg, decided it was high time to collect her cooking stories and recipes in The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table. “I guess you would call it a food memoir,” Bragg writes, “but it is really just a cookbook, told the way we tell everything, with a certain amount of meandering.”
And what marvelous meandering it is. Each chapter contains a family photo, recipes and the often uproarious tales behind them, starting with the legendary tale of Bragg’s great-grandfather Jimmy Jim, who deserted his family after a bloody battle that may have involved a murder, but was summoned back years later to teach Bragg’s grandmother how to cook.
These stories shimmer and shine, casting a Southern spell with Bragg’s gorgeous prose, while the myriad of recipes—including Cracklin’ Cornbread, Spareribs Stewed in Butter Beans and a dessert called Butter Rolls—are guaranteed to leave readers drooling. Each recipe includes directions like, “Turn your stove eye to medium. My mother cooks damn near everything over medium.”
The Best Cook in the World is Julia Child by way of the Hatfields and McCoys. Margaret Bragg can cook up a storm, while Rick Bragg writes with a powerful, page-turning punch. The result is unimaginably delectable.
A LIFE LIVED WITH FLOWERS
Academy Award-winning actress Marcia Gay Harden writes an extended love letter to her mother in The Seasons of My Mother: A Memoir of Love, Family, and Flowers. Harden’s mother, Beverly, has always been her best friend and cheerleader; she prodded her reluctant daughter to try out for a local production of a Neil Simon play, which turned out to be her entree into show business.
Texas-born-and-bred Beverly married her college sweetheart at age 19 and soon had five children. As the family of a Naval officer who was frequently away at sea, Beverly and the children traveled the world, living in California, Maryland and Greece. “If Dad was our captain, she was our navigator,” Harden writes.
When their travels brought the family to Japan, Beverly fell in love with ikebana, the ancient art of flower arranging, which became her lifelong passion. Harden uses its imagery and philosophy to tell her mother’s story, interspersing chapters with photographs of ikebana arrangements specially created for her book. It’s a soulful tribute that’s framed with sadness and loss: Harden’s mother has been increasingly debilitated by Alzheimer’s since 2007.
“The details of a home are usually what fill up a mother’s life,” Harden notes, “but how often have her children stopped to consider that her sacrifices are actually gifts?” With The Seasons of My Mother, Harden lovingly shares her mother’s gifts with the world.
BREATHE, THEN GRIEVE
One day, while contemplating the horror of someday losing her mom, illustrator Hallie Bateman realized that a day-by-day book of instructions would be helpful at such an unimaginable time. Naturally, she turned to her writer mom, Suzy Hopkins, for help. Their collaboration has resulted in an exceptional self-help guide, What to Do When I’m Gone: A Mother’s Wisdom to Her Daughter.
From What to Do When I’m Gone, written by Suzy Hopkins and illustrated by Hallie Bateman. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury.
Bateman and Hopkins share a loving, humorous outlook, and their graphic memoir is filled with plenty of heartfelt wisdom and edgy humor reminiscent of Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? There are recipes to feed the soul (Day 1: Make fajitas.), burial instructions, tips for overcoming grief and advice for things like marriage, divorce, childbearing and aging. For example: “Things not to include in my obituary: Nobody but my immediate family needs to know that I made mosaic tile flower pots, played piano badly, bought season tickets but only saw two plays a year, or cooked with the same six ingredients for the past twenty-five years.”
What can you do to help someone who’s recently lost a mom? Give them a copy of What to Do When I’m Gone.
MAKE ’EM LAUGH
It takes real talent to be consistently funny while sharing both your worst fears and greatest dreams. Kimberly Harrington is a mother of two who does just that with her debut collection, Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words.
This always lively, sometimes sidesplitting series of short essays tackles everything from the exhausting days of early infancy to the dread of having one’s children grow up (“I worry about what I will do with that silence when you both are grown. What will I do with that? Is it payback for me shushing you and waving my hands at you when I was on a work call in that NO-NO-NO-OH-MY-GOD-GO-AWAY way that I did?”). Some essays are pure satire (“What Do You Think of My Son’s Senior Picture That Was Shot by Annie Leibovitz?”) while others are deadly serious (“Please Don’t Get Murdered at School Today”). Many are wonderful mixtures of both, such as the not-to-be missed “The Super Bowl of Interruptions.”
Whether she’s aiming for your funny bone or your heart, Harrington’s takes on motherhood are spot-on.
Life doesn’t always go as planned, as author Jennifer Fulwiler can tell you. “I used to be a career atheist who never wanted a family, yet I ended up having six babies in eight years,” she writes in One Beautiful Dream: The Rollicking Tale of Family Chaos, Personal Passions, and Saying Yes to Them Both. This, coming from an introvert who “needed to minimize having people all up in [her] face.”
To add to the chaos of writing and parenting six young kids, Fulwiler hosts “The Jennifer Fulwiler Show” on SiriusXM radio. Before the children arrived, this Wonder Woman’s life had already taken a few surprising turns—she converted to Catholicism and left her job as a computer programmer, a journey chronicled in Something Other Than God.
Fulwiler is a likable, down-home Texan who never preaches or proselytizes. Thoughtful and funny, she whips off lines like, “Our home life had been utterly derailed when Netflix suddenly removed Penny’s favorite show, ‘Shaun the Sheep,’ from its lineup. The role Shaun played in our house was similar to the role a snake charmer might play in a cobra-infested village.” The morsels of wit and wisdom Fulwiler delivers are as delightful as fresh-baked cookies.
This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.