Eat at Mama's
Sometimes I forget I'm a mother. Scratch that: sometimes, after directing my focus toward something else, I resurface into the knowledge of my motherhood with bafflement. Not dissatisfaction, mind you, or resentment, or even the fashionable "ambivalence." It's more as if, while concentrating, my sense of myself returns to some ingrained set-point, a reality principle that got burned in long before parenthood was a fact of life or even a goal. (Hannah said recently she thinks my inmost self is about 15 years old, and she's probably not far off.) Coming back from that place, there's a faintly disturbing, out-of-focus moment when my mental picture of "me" and my mental picture of "a mother" float in separate bubbles that don't coincide, like the two circles of binocular vision before they resolve into one. I have children, but I'm not Mom. There's a swimmy moment where motherhood doesn't seem as real to me as I think it should, and then a second later, I'm making a sandwich or giving a hug or whatever, and any lingering confusion is dispersed into action.
A long time ago, long before I was a mother, there was a cheap restaurant in the East Village called Mama's Food Shop. It was a post-punk kind of place in a storefront on East 3rd Street, without waitstaff, where you got served cafeteria style and then sat in the dining room or took it to go. (I sat in the dining room, always, because I do and have always despised takeout, a position that this pandemic / golden age of takeout has done nothing to budge.) Anyway, the menu never changed. A plate of food was about 14 dollars, and it was piled high, and I mean stacked to tumbling, with a protein and two sides. Salmon, fried chicken, and baked chicken were always available, along with green beans and mashed potatoes, and sweet potatoes, and other vegetables. You could buy dessert if you wanted. I seem to recall enormous stainless steel basins of custard-yellow banana pudding, with whipped cream and nilla wafers on top.
So anyway: if, say, you'd been at a thing in the Village after work, with a friend, and you were both a little spun on plastic cups of free art-gallery wine, you could head to Mama's and share a plate, and that one meal would be enough for both of you to get amply filled with nutritious and satisfying food. I did this lots of times. And I remember Mama's—which closed its doors the last time in 2012—as a comforting place, cool and crepuscular in summer, warm and clattery in winter.
Over the last few months, while we're all missing restaurants, I've found myself thinking about Mama's pretty often. In particular, I've been remembering as the walls. They'd been hung densely, like the picture gallery at Buckingham Palace, with thrift-store paintings and photos (but mostly paintings) of women. All kinds of women. Serious, smiling, fat and thin, variously coiffed, formal and casual; Black, white, and Asian; friendly and forbidding; pleasantly or garishly representative of the decade or era in which they'd been captured—you get the idea. Even long before I was a mother, I always found the sight of them strangely moving. As an artwork in its own right, the collection was really good. There was the obvious humor and campiness, but beyond that there was something more, if you wanted it. Context made them mothers, whoever the actual sitters might have been. Which was funny, and also said something about projection and the gaze. It slightly unsettled motherhood: does it exist in the mother, or in the mothered; or is it somewhere in between? The diversity of the portraits, too, affected me; all those different faces, feels, artistic styles. As if to say that the state of motherhood is both unitary and infinitely varied, both soothingly abstract and jarringly, intensively particular. The installation welcomed and repelled sentimentality. It was a full-throated ode to moms, but it also slyly acknowledged the thing I know now: that Mama may not always look—or even feel—especially motherly.
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(Images from nathan a. via Foursquare, and eddienyc via Flickr)
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