By Kristen Rudd
Growing up in Houston, after-church Sunday dinner was a hard and fast ritual for my family.
Sometimes, we went to Luby’s, and stood in the snaking cafeteria line with all the other church folk who raced over to “beat the crowd.”
If extended family was in town, we went to Pappasito’s, a famous Houston Tex-Mex institution. There were no eternal cafeteria lines, just the long bar where, sandwiched in by relatives, I traced the names carved into the water-ringed wood until blessedly, we would be seated.
We also went to Ducho’s, this mid-century steak place, the kind you’d imagine the mob might run. Waitresses who had worked there since the dawn of time smoked cigarettes at the table in the corner. Waiting in the wood-paneled foyer, the only way to pass the time was by yanking on the cigarette machine pulls, which sprang back with a satisfying bounce.
But the Sunday dinners at home, after Mom had stripped off her pantyhose, and I couldn’t get the feel of church clothes off my skin, were sacred. We squirmed through it, through the in-between space that was post-church, with its best-behavior-all-morning fatigue, but not quite to the afternoon freedom while Mom took her Sunday-only, do-not-disturb-me nap. The yin and yang of the “shoulds” with the “coulds.”
We had pot roast only on Sundays, never during the week. It was oven-cooked with peeled new potatoes and carrots dumped out of cans, and served with iceberg salad, store-bought rolls, and sweating glasses of Lipton iced tea. Sweet, of course.
At all of six years old, I turned to Mom one Sunday and told her that when I grew up, I would cook pot roast every Sunday and have her over for dinner.
When her laughter subsided, she asked, “Well, then, where will you live?”
“Down the street from you.” I was matter-of-fact to a fault. “You can just walk over.”
“Every Sunday?” she asked.
“Yes,” I chirped. “So you don’t have to cook every week."
“I see,” she said. Then she admonished me to eat my meat, and I asked for more salt for my already salted potatoes.
Every time we ate pot roast for Sunday dinner, I reminded her of my promise. It became a family tradition.
As teenagers, we preferred eating out with friends after church, but occasionally, our presence was non-negotiable. We all had our assignments – whether it was the iceberg salad or the sweetened tea – and constantly bickered about whose elbow went where at the table.
“Will you still make me pot roast when you grow up?” Mom would ask.
“I said I would, didn’t I?” I would reply with a healthy roll of my eyes. “What? Do you not believe me?”
One Sunday, when I was fifteen, Mom and Dad took us to Fajitas, this Tex-Mex joint about 30 minutes away in another part of the city. We fiddled with the cloth napkins, waiting for the sizzling meat and grilled onions, and they told us: Mom had cancer. I suppose we went there because the likelihood that anyone we knew would see us crying into our food was slim. I believe Tex-Mex has the ability to lessen all of life’s blows.
Once treatments started, pot roasts were out of the question. With Mom buried under blankets on the couch, sleeping off the chemo, we made the meals – the ones she taught us so we could pull our weight during those happier years. Her lasting gift to us had been capable hands.
She died at home, in the middle of a thunderstorm. Buckets of hastily bought KFC were scattered around the kitchen. When the men from the funeral home rolled their gurney through the front door, I thought I would suffocate and bolted out the back. The only thing I managed to choke down that night was a ham sandwich our next-door neighbor set down gently in front of me at her kitchen table.
I’ve heard the foil-wrapped meals that people bring in times of joy or crisis jokingly called “casseroles of hope.” In the weeks following, we went through the motions of eating many casseroles, but there wasn’t a lot of hope. There were certainly no pot roasts.
I now live in California, where Sunday brunch with friends has replaced the post-church traditions of my upbringing. My children don’t know the relief of tearing off itchy dress clothes every week, and you wouldn’t catch me dead in pantyhose.
My family gets together at my Dad’s once a month for Sunday dinner. Iceberg lettuce has been upgraded to Romaine, and Shiner Bock has replaced the Lipton, but I’d bet my residual twang the rolls are still store-bought. If it wasn’t for the 2,000 miles that separate us, I know without doubt I would be there. Our children would play together on the floor and watch movies curled up on the couch, piled on each other like puppies.
I wonder sometimes, if Mom hadn’t died, if I would have left home like I did. If she was still here, could I bear to live across the country from her? Or would I live down the street like I solemnly promised?
Obviously, I’ll never know, but I’m pretty sure I would have learned how to make a pot roast.
Kristen Rudd grew up in Houston, moved around a lot, got married, and now lives in San Francisco where she homeschools her two children. She didn't see that last part coming. Really. She used to do a lot of things, but now she writes novels and is still really good at shuffling cards. She tweets under @kristenrudd.
This post is part of our Women of Valor series. Eshet chayil—woman of valor— has long been a blessing of praise in the Jewish community. Husbands often sing the line from Proverbs 31 to their wives at Sabbath meals. Women cheer one another on through accomplishments in homemaking, career, education, parenting, and justice by shouting a hearty “eshet chayil!” after each milestone. Great women of the faith, like Sarah and Ruth and Deborah, are identified as women of valor. One of my goals after completing my year of biblical womanhood was to “take back” Proverbs 31 as a blessing, not a to-do list, by identifying and celebrating women of valor. To help me in this, you submitted nearly 100 essays to our Women of Valor essay contest. There were so many essays that made me laugh, cry, and think I’ve decided that, in addition to the eight winners we featured in August, I will select several more to feature as guest posts throughout the fall.
We have honored a single mom, a feisty professor, a midwife, a foster parent, an abuse survivor, a brave grandmother, a master seamstress, a young Ugandan woman who reached out to a sister in need, and many more.