I started making Rosie's Chicken Soup when I was about eight years old. It came about by necessity when my mother, an alcoholic with a pretty severe mood disorder, started to treat being at home as … an optional part of her routine.
My father had died not long before, sitting in his favourite chair with an empty bottle of pills beside him. Although they had been separated for years, his death broke something in my mum. Any hope I had that she would "fix herself" and take care of me – that she would become one of the mums who coached netball and picked me up on time and didn't drink lots of wine from a box in the fridge – disappeared into the ground with my dad. At eight, I knew better than to hope. Hope just meant anxious disappointment. You might get a warm, fuzzy feeling when she tucked you in at night, but that didn't mean she wouldn't be gone in the morning, leaving you and your older sister to decide who would go to school and who would stay home and look after the baby.
The times at home alone were unsettling, and often a little scary, but mostly they were just exasperating. A lot of work went into pretending we had a stable parenting situation. There were teachers to fool and neighbours to keep in the dark. But there were also logistics to be handled. Uniforms to be cleaned. Lunches to be packed. Nappies to be bought. And, of course, meals to be cooked.
That's how Rosie's Chicken Soup came to be.
It's a culinary masterpiece I developed for the nights when nobody came home. I realised that if I wanted dinner, I'd have to make it myself.
In a cooking trend that would follow me into adulthood, I kept things simple. The recipe is as follows: boil water in saucepan. Put pasta into saucepan (any pasta will do; I like spirals, but sometimes I go with spaghetti). Put powdered chicken stock into water. Wait for pasta to go soft. Pour entire contents into bowl. Eat.
I'm 30 now, and Rosie's Chicken Soup has been my go-to meal since those childhood nights spent alone. In every one of the countless homes and towns I lived in. In every foster home or family household I was placed with.
Through the 20-plus schools I ended up attending, through drama school and university, serious partners and my first job as a writer, Rosie's Chicken Soup was there. Even now, as a grown woman (arguably), living the professional life I always dreamed about, certainly able to afford to eat better than powdered chicken stock with water and pasta, I still come back to Rosie's Chicken Soup. It's my comfort food. It's reminds me of my childhood. It's my version of homely nostalgia.
"What on EARTH is that?" she screamed recently, looking into the gluggy, chicken flavoured abyss that was my saucepan on the stove.
My Mum is now sober. Sure, she's judging my most prized (and only) culinary offering, but she is sober. She has been since July last year. It is by far the longest period I've known her this way.
After years of rehab and programs and promises and failures, my sisters and I had mostly given up. I was permanently removed from her care when I was 14, and I've had rules in place since then: don't answer her calls after 5pm, only visit her during the day, don't get your hopes up.
Early last year, those rules were easy to follow. It was fairly certain she was going to die; she had been told if she kept going as she had, it was inevitable. She hadn't left the house for more than a few hours in years. As far as I could tell, her days involved waking up, drinking, sleeping a little, drinking, sleeping a little more, drinking, repeat. I was sure it was the end. She couldn't keep any food down. Her stomach and ankles were grotesquely swollen, while the rest of her body was freakishly thin. Her skin was grey and her eyes were … lifeless. I found her in bed one day, barely able to move, vomit on the floor next to her and urine through her sheets. She couldn't walk on her own, so I showered her and helped her dress. To me, that day was it; my mother was gone.
And then, maybe because she was closer to the end than she had ever been before, or maybe there was just a cliffhanger on TV that she really wanted to see, she decided to turn around and come back.
Just like that, my Mum came back.
She was hospitalised for six weeks, detoxing, recovering and slowly coming out of the fog she has been in since I was a child. Then one day, like something out of every dream I've been having since I was five years old, she stepped out of that hospital in July last year, and hasn't had a drink since.
She moved in with me a few months later, and since then, I've been watching her rediscover the world. She has gone from needing me to walk with her to the local shops, to catching the bus into the city by herself because she saw online that "Country Road is having a sale". She has a Fitbit, and an iPad. She loves podcasts and is obsessed with My Kitchen Rules.
And it's all just been so bizarre to me. I'm getting to know a person I remember only in fuzzy snippets. I'm seeing where I get my humour, silliness and charisma. I want to kill her when I have to explain 11 times how to forward an email. It infuriates me when she tells me just as I'm leaving the house that what I'm wearing doesn't suit me. And I will actually lose it next time she comes and opens my curtains when I'm still asleep at 10am.
At 30 years old, I have finally found myself one half of a proper mother-daughter relationship.
And yet. And yet. There is that hope thing eating away at me. I want to let this newfound reality envelop me like the warm hugs I always craved. I want to lose myself in it so, so much. But I have been training myself since I was eight not to hope. Hope is dangerous. Hope just leads to anxious disappointment. A warm hug will always turn cold.
When I explained to my Mum that saucepan on the stovetop was Rosie's Chicken Soup, she was horrified. Not because of the history that led to me teaching myself to make it, but because the soup itself does look kind of horrifying. She immediately decided to show me how it should be done. That night, while I watched TV in my room, I could hear her tinkering away in the kitchen, chopping vegetables, putting (to my complete shock) an entire chicken into a large pot that I didn't even know I owned. She spent hours cooking it, seasoning it, letting it simmer, getting it just right. Then she called me to the kitchen.
What a strange sound.
She scooped it proudly, lovingly, into bowls with a ladle, and we sat together, at the dining table, eating chicken soup the way it's meant to be made.
I liked it. I really, really liked it.
I know hope is dangerous. The eight-year-old inside of me is saying this won't last, that hope only leads to anxious disappointment.
But I think I'm going to let my Mum keep making me proper chicken soup for a while. Maybe this time, the warm hug won't turn cold.
Rosie Waterland is the author of The Anti-Cool Girl. Her new book, Every Lie I've Ever Told, is published in July by HarperCollins.