We are helping our parents to move house after forty years — New Jersey to North Carolina. We are down to the wire, the moving van scheduled for two days’ time after months of planning. My share in this project has been small: two flying visits. It has been easy for me, until today, when we sorted the kitchen.
Amy is asking, “keep or chuck?”, but every object has its story. My mother hesitates. She speaks softly. I am hearing for the first time that this bowl, with its discoloured glaze and chipped lip, belonged to my mother’s grandmother, and my mother ate green beans from that bowl when she was a child. The glass bowl with stripes belonged to the original mixer my mother got in Tripoli at the base Exchange when my father was stationed in Libya back in the fifties, long before this kitchen. The measuring spoons, no longer their original shape because I once used the tablespoon to open a tin of paint, were bought at Woolworth’s in a small town in Texas when my mother was a girl collecting things for her trousseau, longer ago still.
It’s not possible to rush this. These stories need to be told. I’m stunned that I’ve never heard them before, or if I have, that I don’t remember. My mother’s quiet voice is not insistent. She speaks without drama. Her stories are subtle. Sometimes they get lost in the noise, in the demands of others. A family.
I’ve had meals in that kitchen. I sat in that corner at the aquamarine formica table, long since gone, doing my homework, eating peanut butter sandwiches and Kraft macaroni and cheese. I was sitting there as a teenager when Nixon resigned in shame, and always associate Watergate with that kitchen table.
When my parents redesigned the kitchen to fit more with the turn-of-the-century house, they got rid of the aqua formica and replaced it with a robust butcher block: the Female Eunuch table, we girls called it, its sharp corners exactly the right height to catch every one of us in the pubic bone. It’s staying for the house staging, to cripple the next generation of women – or maybe they will be taller than we are.
A kitchen. The heart of the house. The place of labour, of needs satisfied or disappointed, of sharing and arguments. This room is the one I used most and I am not sure I want to part with it, not because it’s easy to work in, or because I love it, but because I’m not sure what I’ll do now to remember the details of those times – the details that make all the difference to memory. I’m glad I have photos that catch my family in the context of this space: serving up the pork roast, the tomatoes and corn, the most recent birthday cake…
I take home with me the wooden rolling pin with the red handles and the battered colander that are now back in fashion because they’re retro. And the dented angel food cake pan because it has those little feet, although I have a newer one in England and won’t get this one in my suitcase. These are my transitional objects. They will remind me of this house, and incongruously of the Vietnam War, Germaine Greer, oreos and milk, my own formative cooking sessions, shouting matches, pecan pies, and my mother’s hands.
My mother-in-law, Joy, has also begun to give me pieces of her batterie de cuisine: a sponge tin, a tart ring, the tin she used for Christmas cake. She tells me she’ll never use them again. She’s matter of fact, practical, glad to have found a home for them. I am touched, sad, glad to have them. I can’t let these moments pass so perfunctorily. Keep or chuck.
I want to honour all that cooking, all that time, all the effort: the planning, shopping, measuring, chopping, creaming, stirring, mixing, folding, browning, watching, turning out, cooling, tasting, serving, critiquing.
Do we appreciate enough? Of course we don’t. We are too busy getting on with it. It takes the big moments to make us stop.
How did we get here? How do we make sense of time?
I settle on gratitude. All the being taken care of. The immense effort it takes to satisfy our needs, and wants, so many of them met in the kitchen by those who cook. All those days, and meals, and washings up. The pleasures and fulfilment they represent, the endeavour and sacrifice.