Sweet Ways to Honor Mom
I Cook Jjigae
AA JJIGAE, OR STEW, is most satisfying when you don’t plan on making one. You check inside your refrigerator and realize that all the basic ingredients are there—doenjang (fermented soybean paste), onion, a bit of pork belly or beef, zucchini, and tofu. I cook Korean food at most once a week, and so the coalescence of all these ingredients that just happen to be in my house at the same time feels like the universe is telling me how to get through. Cooking for myself and my family is a silent way of saying, “I’ll nourish you.” Cooking was the safest way for my mother to love my sister and me without facing too much rejection. My sister and I had to eat. There must have been so many ways my mother tried to express herself, only to be confronted by the fact that it was difficult for us American-born kids to fully see and love her back in a world that shamed single mothers, immigrants, women who didn’t speak English, women who were poor.
Now I know that my mother was not simply feeding us; she was speaking to us through the meals she made. There are many kinds of jjigae. Soondubu jjigae, with its silky tofu roiling in an earthenware pot. Budae jjigae, or
“army base stew,” includes American staples like Spam and sliced cheese.
Jjigae is often served on the side at Korean-American restaurants, where the focal point is something more dramatic—meats marinated in soy sauce, sesame, garlic, ginger, and fruit juice or sugar that drips onto the fire and caramelizes in the center of smoky tables. But in my family, jjigae was the main dish—humble, savory, and nutritious. We’d shove a large spoonful of rice into our jjigae, which would become more pungent, more ripe, vegetables softening, each day it sat in a pot in the refrigerator, waiting to be reboiled for the next meal.
Growing up, I would often become bored of my mother’s jjigae, which we would eat for seemingly days on end. But my mother was waking up at 4 or 5 a.m. to prepare us breakfast, lunch, and dinner in advance of being at work all day. It was not just love but a letter to our future, near and far, a letter to right now: Sometimes all you can do is good enough. Sometimes all you have is good enough. This is what a jjigae teaches us.
—Nancy Jooyoun Kim is the author of The Last Story of Mina Lee.
I Reject Dusty Gender Roles
TTHERE’S A STORY MY PARENTS say defined their marriage early on. They were living on an air force base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, when a family member came to visit. After he arrived, he asked my mom if she would make him a sandwich. “It’s not her job to make sandwiches for me or for you,” my dad said. And that was that. Though raised in the conservative South, my mom rejected gender roles—and my dad loved her for it. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for him to do the grocery shopping, the ironing, and the cooking while she managed the finances, cared for a worm farm that ate our garbage (way before composting was cool), and brought us along to her rugby practice (a full-contact sport, mind you). By the time I was a teenager, Mom was my family’s primary breadwinner, and I remember how proud she was of that. Watching her work—and seeing my dad support her, without his ego getting in the way—taught me to know my worth, both at work and in my relationship with my fiancé, Francisco. Following the example set by my mom, we strive for a partnership that feels equal and plays to our strengths. And we both share sandwich duty.
—Brandi Broxson is the features editor at REAL SIMPLE.
I Work in Beauty
WWHEN ASKED WHAT I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d toggle between an aerobics instructor and a chiropractor. What can I say? I had pep—and loved to crack my knuckles. Then I turned 12, and my mom, Sally, whisked me off to the bathroom and walked me through Mary Kay’s three-step skin-care system. Those pink and white bottles changed my trajectory forever. An overworked CT scan technician by day, my mom sold Mary Kay products as a side hustle before side hustles were even a thing. With three kids and a full-time job that required a beeper and grueling overtime—plus a husband who worked night shifts in a coal mine—my mom barely had a minute to spare, but she loved Mary Kay products, and friends always noticed how good her skin and makeup looked. They wanted some of her sparkle, so she sold it to them in product form.
Though she was usually running late, she never went anywhere without cream foundation (applied with her fingertips), pink powder (swirled onto the apples of her cheeks with a stubby brush), frosted blue eye shadow (“It matches my eyes!”), a few coats of mascara, and berry lipstick— even if that meant putting it on at red lights (shh!).
She displayed her inventory in a giant hutch in our finished basement. I’d observe her friends—“clients”—come over to pick up a TimeWise moisturizer or get their foundation matched. They walked into our house looking a bit tired, sometimes glum, but after a quick consultation they’d leave holding their chin a smidgen higher. That’s when it hit me: I wanted to do something that made people feel that way—more confident, happier. My mom showed me that beauty had that power, inspiring me to be a beauty editor. Even more valuable, she taught me to be a hard worker. She showed me that with a lot of determination and a little medium-nude lip liner, you really can do anything.
—Heather Muir Maffei is the beauty director at REAL SIMPLE.
I Channel Her During Driving Lessons
MMORE THAN AT ANY OTHER TIME, when I’m teaching my teen how to drive, I become my mother. It goes beyond my automatic grab for the “oh crap” handle above the passenger side door, or my desperate stomp on the floor as my teen screeches to a stop. My mother comes out in what bursts from my mouth, all the things she yelled at me decades ago, back when I was the student driver. Whenever my teen rounds a corner, I yell, “Centrifugal force!” and hope we don’t drift into the next lane. As my kid attempts to manage both the gas and the clutch, I say, “Timpla!”—the Tagalog term for “mix and adjust.” And finally, as a red light turns green, I calmly command, “Waitttt”—always with the emphasis on the t—to hopefully avoid the jerk who runs the red light. I’ve come to realize that my mother’s driving tips serve as critical life advice. Leaning into the curb, into the foundation of family and work, keeps me grounded. Adjusting my expectations allows for flexibility in the ebb and flow of life. And of course, practicing patience, especially in times of urgency, can result in better decisions. Perhaps my children can learn these things too. Though they’ll need to pass the driving test first.
—Tif Marcelo is the author of six novels, including In a Book Club Far Away, which came out in April.