My mother, Ruth Schachter, in her garden a few years ago
I often joke with my mum that she’s the antithesis of a Jewish mother.
“You never write, you never call,” I’m wont to say affectionately during phone conversations I nearly always initiate from my home in Toronto to hers in Primrose Hill: the elegant, celebrity-studded, north-west London neighbourhood where she’s lived for almost 20 years.
“She’s my low-maintenance mum,” I’ve been known to quip when describing her to friends, a description that, when I elaborate, includes the following.
My mother Ruth Schachter (nee Nisse) is a holocaust refugee from Riga, Latvia. She is fluent in six languages and recently read Anna Karenina in the original, finds Goethe’s poetry a “soothing” accompaniment to her morning coffee and, a biologist with two science degrees, she recently explained cloning to my son-in-law.
At age 89, she has lived alone until recently (read on for more on that) since the death in 2001 of my dad Mel: a colourful, pudgy, rambunctious doctor/medical prof and researcher whose bigger-than-life presence is sorely missed.
The home she shared with him is the “garden flat” — i.e. bottom floor that once comprised servants’ quarters — of a giant Victorian home built in the 1860s. Her neighbours are the likes of David Walliams (brilliant British comedian of Little Britain and other fame), actress Sadie Frost (ex-wife of Jude Law), stage actor Derek Jacobi and Helena Bonham-Carter who needs no introduction.
Talking of the latter, my mum, who is dainty, diminutive and decidedly cute — bright blue eyes, white hair tied back in a French roll and a sweet demeanour that belies a steely will — has been known to receive Ms. Bonham Carter’s mail because of an almost identical address.
“I took a couple of letters to her,” mum recalls. “She came to the door and was quite charming,” quickly adding, “but her hair was decidedly dishevelled.”
One aspect of being low-maintenance is my mother’s fiercely independent, no-fuss attitude to her health. I only found out about cataract surgeries after the fact.
As for crises of other sorts, her response is bordering on secretive. The discovery that she had been the victim of what I called a “home invasion” (“Oh, you North Americans are so dramatic,” was her immediate comeback) only surfaced because I was at her home when the police called to invite her to inspect a line-up of suspects. At that point, I had to pry the story from her using all my sleuthing skills.
So when we finally heard about a medical emergency a couple of months ago, my brother Eric and I knew it was serious.
Again, we were not informed of this by mum but by friends in London who could not reach her. She had fallen on the bus, then returned home where she experienced a mini-stroke and lay on the floor all night with a paralyzed leg. A nasty ‘flu followed.
Long story short, Eric, who lives in Harlem, finally got through to some of our mum’s many friends who were worried sick. Her phone was off the hook and she was not answering the door.
Once in London, my trusty bro’ got to work nursing mum back to health with croissants, smoked salmon and the occasional glass of white wine. He made sure doctors were on the case, dealt with housekeeping issues and arranged for a young journalism grad called Rachael to live with her via an organization called Homeshare.
All this was in place and, although frail, mum was on the road to recovery when I arrived in mid-April. Walking was a problem; her energy level was down. No more volunteer teaching of young ‘uns twice a week at the local elementary school. Likewise for tutoring a young man in Russian, her weekly Italian class and trips to the Wigmore Hall.
But I knew there was hope when my mother’s famous Linzertorte was on the dining table in all its freshly baked, burnished brown, sugar-dusted glory. Touchingly, and in keeping with the one bond we have always had — food and cooking — it told me she was gaining strength and, most important, that she had baked it to welcome me, with love.
My 11-day stay was mostly taken up with practical matters: cleaning, cooking, attending to mum’s finances and resolving a scary plumbing crisis involving a collapsed drain that required much moolah and a total of five days to fix.
Although stressful, I sailed through much of this. To see my mother, Rachael and assorted friends enjoy my lemony, crisp-skinned roast chicken, luscious Stumpot (mashed potatoes mixed with steamed kale), onion-laden braised beef and big salads doused in sesame-spiked Asian dressing was food for my soul. The usual jetlag was minimal.
Each day, mum looked perkier — proof that TLC and home cooking are the best cures for all that ails.
The day I left, mum insisted on walking in the rain to my nearby hotel to say goodbye. We had coffee in my room. She thanked me for being such a help.
And just before I got into the cab, my mum turned to me with these words: “You know Marion, you’re a better cook than me.”
Here is the Linzertorte — my mother’s original recipe tweaked a bit by yours truly. It should be a rich, dark brown when baked so feel free to cook it a bit longer.
A classic linzertorte