Monday, June 2, 2008

A life measured in Cuisinarts

As you may know, I'm currently enrolled in my second Gotham Writers' Workshop class; I started Memoir Writing at the end of April and I'm loving the experience! My latest homework piece is about something that happened just last week. It's a bit long, so I'll forgive you if you don't read to the end. But if you do find it interesting, know that I'm posting it here as a thank you gift for all who have encouraged me to write. The assignment was to write about a mundane task while thinking about something else...
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I hear the familiar rumble of the garage door opening as I place the food processor on the counter and plug it into the wall socket. The act sparks a memory, as it always does, of my first Cuisinart nearly thirty years ago at a time when such machines were the new, exotic tool-of-choice for a growing population of food-sophisticates. It was a gift for something I can’t recall: Mother’s Day, birthday, Another-day-of-being-in-love Day.

“I’ve wanted one for so long. I love it,” I gushed. “Maybe someday you’ll meet a man who’ll buy you one.” I made the ridiculous comment to my daughter who looked on dispassionately.

“I’ll buy my own,” she retorted, putting me in my place and glancing with scorn at the gifter, her soon-to-be stepfather. At nine years old, she was more of a feminist than I was!

That machine went on to prepare a huge number of meals, both festive and mundane. Years later I gave it to my daughter after repairing its burned out motor. The new Cuisinart I got to replace it didn’t log nearly as many hours. My marriage was deteriorating by then and I lost interest in cooking, perhaps as a symbolic reflection of the bigger picture. Later on, I was happy to leave that second machine behind in the detritus of divorce. I was looking forward to a new life, a new home, a new Cusinart; and this one I’d buy myself.

My daughter enters the kitchen from the garage and we hug. The potatoes are washed and cubed; the onion, egg, and flour are all laid out, ready to combine into my favorite comfort food. This daughter, now approaching twenty-five, is the product of that second marriage (and first Cuisinart). She has just flown in from the west coast and we will have a brief visit together before she heads off to visit her boyfriend in Pennsylvania.

“I’m making potato pancakes.”

“Latkes, yum. Do you have applesauce?”

“No, but there’s sour cream in the refrigerator.”

You wouldn’t know from the nonchalance of the conversation that we haven’t seen each other in six months. It’s always the same with this daughter: she walks in as if she’s never been away. Her life has taken its own direction, but her energy instantly fills the house. Even when she was in high school, when she and her friends drove themselves everywhere and every minute not studying was filled with social gatherings; even then, her essence warmed the house though her physical presence was often elsewhere.

“When I was in high school, I grated everything by hand," I mused. "That was the only way to do it then. The onions always made me cry, and little pieces of skin usually found their way into the batter. I’d try to grate down to the last little bit and my knuckles invariably got in the way.”

“Yewww.” Is she sympathizing with my long ago injury, or expressing vegetarian distaste?

By this time the pancakes are sizzling in the cast iron frying pan I’ve had forever. I stare across the table at her beautiful face and see my features accented by her father’s coloring: dark curly hair and dark, sparkling eyes. It’s an exotic combination that fooled people into thinking she looked like him, but I always knew better. When I got tired of verbally pointing out the similarities between us, I laid out proof in the form of a collage: three pictures, three toddlers – my daughter, my husband, and me – all around two years old and looking very much like siblings.

It took many years to unravel so much overlapping sameness into three such distinct lives. My husband and I had been together for nearly twenty-five years and my daughter was just starting high school when we finally decided to divorce. He wanted the house and I wanted my life, so I bought a nearby townhouse and set out to start over. My daughter devised a schedule where she would spend half of each week in either house, and insisted we adhere to it religiously. She and I fashioned my new house into a home together and refrained from introducing her father into it. It was the same when she was with him; she needed to keep us physically divided in order to process the emotional split, even though he and I remained co-parents and even friends.

Every stage of life has its own challenges and rewards, but that period when the separation was new and I wasn’t yet an empty-nester was and remains very special to me. My career blossomed, my relationships with both my daughters flourished, and my sense of independence became a source of joy for me as I set out to try new things. Life has become more difficult since then – no straight lines, I keep reminding myself, but sometimes I wonder if I can continue to remain up to the challenge.

“Thanks for the pancakes Mom. They were delicious.”

“Have a safe trip sweetie. Hugs to Luke,” I say. “I miss you already,” I think, as she drives off, leaving behind a swirl of years in her wake and tears welling up in my eyes.


Tamar E. Granor said...

Lovely story.

Ceil said...

Thanks Tamar. I'm enjoying the classes so much.

Funny too: the last time you and I saw each other we had a conversation about latkes!

Rick Schummer said...

I had potato pancakes about a week ago, with sour cream! Yum, and reading your story reminded me of some childhood memories of times my mom made the pancakes. Thanks.

Ceil said...

There's something about potato pancakes... They have the power to focus a lot of emotional energy!