For the past three months I have been photographing my mother through a window at her skilled nursing inpatient facility in Bloomington, Indiana, where she has been in isolation since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. A consistent aspect within these images is the depiction of food in my mom’s room. A frequent object is the Styrofoam cup with lid and straw, sometimes more than one. Processed foods, such as crackers and cookies, often make an appearance. I bring my mom, who I call Mamãe, a home-cooked meal from time to time, which she devours as best she can with the limited control of her hands. The images portray an extreme departure from the role food has played in my family, as a connector to my parents’ countries of origin (my mother is from Brazil and my father from Germany). My siblings and I grew up speaking a mix of languages and eating home-cooked meals with fresh ingredients. Mealtimes were shared together and our friends envied the “exotic” ingredients and recipes. Now that my mom no longer cooks, my parents eat institutional food served to them, uniform, sanitized, and soulless.
The contrast is stark and poignant. Cooking and raising her children had been my mom’s pride. She went to extremes to get ingredients that would ensure my brothers and I were exposed to the smells, tastes, textures, and colors native to their home countries. Not a simple feat in the 1960s and ’70s in the American Midwest. In contrast to immigrants who wanted to leave the past behind, my parents wanted to immerse us in a world that reflected who they were and where they came from. This included language, art, music, furniture, holiday traditions, and of course cuisine.
A favorite dish that I remember from my childhood home is feijoada. Mamãe could find most of the meats required to give it body and flavor locally, but she lamented that she could not get carne seca, an essential flavor-boosting element. But we relished the lavish combination of the black beans with meats, the rice spiced with garlic, the lushness of the greens sautéed to perfect tenderness and providing a colorful contrast to the sliced oranges accompanying the entirety of the melding ingredients. Through our home environment and the many overseas travels to see family, my parents were forging an identity for their children that was broad and inclusive and that made it clear that home was rooted not only in place but also in the experience of that which is sensed. We absorbed the tastes and smells that bound us to other continents, and they still keep us connected to an expansive sense of home and identity.
The most profound impact of COVID-19 is on these formative, familial relationships, reflected even more profoundly in what and how my parents now eat. After my mother was admitted to Meadowood, my father chose to move into the independent living area of the same facility so that the two of them could be together as much as possible. Before the outbreak, they played games, watched the news, talked, and ate. My mom’s suppressed appetite (she hates the food) allowed my father an extra meal and I argued with him that he should not touch it as the nurses needed to measure what was left! And my mom worries about his weight. Because we are now not permitted into her area of the facility, these concerns seem frivolous. Instead, we visit my mom through her tightly sealed window, phone in hand so that we can converse. And we watch her eat what she can manage to tolerate.
This series of images portrays the conditions of our visits (my dad and I at first went together, but now we must go separately) and the food ever present in her room. The window has become our means of contact, while also representing the barrier that divides us. The inner and outer worlds conjoin and collide, often in abstract and suggestive ways, with Mamãe depicted in her room with her things, and me and the outside world reflected in the window itself, visually projected onto her. Plastic food packaging on my mom’s table intersects with the fresh greenery and flowers outdoors, repeatedly intersected by the filth of the window screen. There is a flattening of space and time, and sometimes a confusion between what belongs to what space, as we attempt to maintain a sense of closeness and connection across a physical obstacle. We hope someday we can be together again in actual contact, but at my mom’s age of ninety-one, and no end in sight to the quarantine, that is an unknown.
This physical obstacle between me and my mom exists also as a barrier to that rich, laden, and sensual experience of food that has shaped who my mom is and the family she built. Institutional food, by contrast, is intended to serve a general set of the population at Meadowood. It is sterile and scientific to provide nutrition and balance, and to be efficient. Its packaging identifies it as safe, germ-free, and consistent. Spicing is minimal and, in my mother’s case, completely foreign to her Brazilian palate. All the excitement of eating is removed and the process becomes a lonely enterprise. Although many aspects of my mother’s abilities are diminished, her sense of smell has always been acute and remains intact. There’s nothing much to smell at mealtime and her sense of self is altered; lacking is that one essential bridge to ethnicity my parents so treasured and nurtured.
And Mamãe is bored. Every time we speak, I ask, “what’s up?” To which she always replies in Portuguese, “muita galinha, pouco ovo.” Not much happening here. The chickens, galinhas, are prepped and primed, but lay no eggs. It’s one of many sayings I remember from my childhood, and it is the one that’s stuck with her now.