Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Second Room

The Sun Kitchen

     As I sit with the remembered images of my family in Michigan, most of the time I find them in the kitchen, gathered at the table, playing a game or sharing Sunday breakfast.  The sun streams in from the eastern windows, filling the space with morning.

     I see Dad when he was living with cancer, playing Cribbage with my brothers and my husband.  Sometimes he's there alone, filling in a crossword puzzle, sipping hot black coffee.  

     I see me, sitting in the vinyl covered metal chair, trying to eat the bowl of egg drop soup that had become the source of my misery.  My father had taken a Chinese cooking class, sharing his new culinary skills with us; skillfully making broccoli dance with watercress in the wok, frying delicious wing dings and dropping eggs into a bubbling broth.  I enjoyed most of these delicacies, but something in my imagination prevented that soup from touching my lips.  It looked exactly like a bowl of snot.  It grew cold, and looked  even more like gelatinous mucous, with thick globs floating in a yellow sea.  It smelled funny.  It made me weak, but at the same time, stronger in determination.  If anyone wonders why I find it easy to sit in silent worship with Quakers, it's because I had been practicing my silent sitting at the dinner table for years.

    Have I mentioned that I was living in the south for eight years before I learned that the nickname of a female donkey is "Jenny?"  I sat at our kitchen table in front of my egg drop soup like my animal namesake.  The rule in our house was that we must finish our meal before asking to be excused.  It was a long evening of concentrated determination, a battle of wills between my father and I.  But something in me knew that eventually I would be excused and allowed to go to bed.  It felt like an eternity, a purgatory of wating for all those seconds to tick past.  Eight thirty finally came, and Dad gently called from the living room, "you're excused, Jenny, go to bed."

     The kitchen was often a place that I wanted to avoid, simply because so much work was always going on in there.  In the summer there were jars everywhere and piles of vegetables to can.  While this chore was done joyfully by my father, and cooperatively by my mother, it took weeks of snapping, scrubbing, washing and manipulating hot jars fresh out of the pressure cooker.  Every day there was an evening meal to prepare that normally included several vegetable side dishes, a main course of meat, casserole or soup, and on the weekends, a little dessert.  My mother was an excellent baker and a wonderful entertainer.  Our large extended family often gathered for holidays in our home, where all the counters and tables were filled to the far corners with plates of cookies, pies, cake, jello salads, potato salad, ham or turkey, breads, chips, fresh vegetables to dip, olives and pickles or some wonderfully tasty invention.  I learned how to make all of these dishes from observation, but mostly from putting on an apron and standing for hours at the counter with ingredients in the midst of transformation, or at the hot steaming sink, washing endless dishes.

    So I had mixed feelings about the kitchen.  In my room, I might smell something fantastic like hot pancakes and bacon on the first day of summer vacation.  Then, with the promise of an entire three months of sunshine and green grass underneath my bare feet, the kitchen would be my first happy place to start the day.  Sometimes our kitchen would be a long corridor to navigate, stealthily through the obstacle of this question, "Jenny, will you help with..."   Groaning inside at the thought of the book and the tree that had to wait for my return, I hung my head and said, "yes, Mom."  I was not a cheerful worker.  I acted like I was a prisoner in a work camp instead of a child who had abundance.

   In my teen years, I lamented that in our town there were no fast food restaurants.  Everything we ate was grown in our garden or made from scratch, aside from bags of potato chips, crackers or pasta.  My parents were foodies before foodies were popular.  By the time I went away to college, I suffered from the loss of my parent's cooking.  The cafeteria food made me fat.  My first summer back home, I nearly cried at the taste of a cucumber.

     The kitchen was also a place where my father patiently tried to teach me simple algebra.  Poor Dad!  My brain rejected the use of letters in place of numbers like my taste buds rejected the swirly whites and yolk floating in egg drop soup.  I was a hopeless reader of books, a dreamer with a craving for escape.

     My grandparents sat with us in the kitchen, around our table, often.  Card games with my parents would go into the early hours of the next day.   I have this precious memory of my grandfather, hunching up his shoulder before slapping down his winning card.  My dad was the toughest gamer to beat.  So when victory came to any other player, the hooting and the hollering were heard through the whole house.

   I have a rich life of memories in that kitchen, where my mom still prepares beautiful meals for us when we gather.  Each time I return, stepping through the threshold and into the kitchen, I return to all of us, and feel each stage of my life well up inside.


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