Once upon a time I was in the French Honor Society.
Oui, c'est vrai.
I was in high school. There was only one French teacher in our school, so I had Madame M—who was legitimately French and took her leçon de français tres seriously—for four straight years. When it came time for our small class to graduate, she invited us to her home for a traditional French soirée. She asked us each to bring a French dish. Because my mother was such a good cook, I signed her up to make coq au vin.
My mother was thrilled. (Not.)
I was a typical self-absorbed teenager. While my mother toiled away, perfecting the dish, I laid on the couch and effed off. I don't remember what we did in the early nineties, before cell phones and the Internet. I probably watched a movie on HBO or dialed someone on my push button house phone.
I do remember that I wasn't in the kitchen helping. I wasn't washing dishes. I wasn't measuring coq or vin or wiping my mother's brow as she cooked the family's dinner alongside my French dish. I probably went into the kitchen at some point and barked that I needed to leave pronto for Madame M's house because I do remember my mother racing around the kitchen like a mad woman.
I also remember standing in the driveway holding the hot dish, which was covered in tin foil, and waiting impatiently for my mother to throw me the car keys. Which she did and—did you see this coming?—when I raised my hand to catch them I dropped her gorgeous vat of coq au vin onto the pavement.
A small fleet of carrots and onions eddied around my feet.
That's as far as my memory goes.
It would have stayed there had I not stumbled upon a note my mother wrote to herself that night. I found the note wedged into a book years later, when I was in college. It was an angry note about the effort and time she'd put into making "the stupid coq au vin." How she didn't care about coq au vin. How she hated French cuisine. How thankless I was. And how the coq au vin met its fate, swirling down the driveway, hot liquid flowing in and around little sticks and dead leaves.
At the ripe age of 21, I kind of got it. Now that I'm 40, with three children, my heart hurts when I think of that note. I don't just get it, I live it. Motherhood is really just one big line of coq au vins. Sometimes it's a single serving, sometimes it's enough to feed a small army.
Most of the time, you make the coq au vin and do the dishes and then, five minutes later, someone wanders in and announces that he's hungry—just as you were about to sit down for the first time that day and eat a small bite of coq au vin, which you really, really fucking deserve.
I have to believe that all the coq au vins that await me won't be in vain. That all the uncelebrated labors of motherhood and the self-centered children whining for more will magically work themselves out in the end.
I have to.
I do remember something now, about that night. I remember showing up with a cheese and cracker plate decorated with miniature French flags and that Madame M clapped her hands in appreciation. And I remember thinking, Stupid woman, you should have seen my mother's coq au vin.