Kitchen 2: Memory’s Core
- 10 Depot Street, Manti, Utah
My grandmother could remove the peel from an apple in one piece. Over and over, her thumb and forefinger would push the blade to the perfect position, taking away what wasn’t the pie.
This story is an apple peeled, skin broken. I was eight when she fell and broke her hip in the hundred-year-old pink sandstone house her grandfather built. I’m not even sure that is the address, but it is the one in my memory. She was 77, born in 1897. She had been a widow for 10 years, and had had Type II diabetes since her thirties, so she came to live with us, much to the chagrin of my father – and my grandmother.
A tiny woman, barely 5-feet-tall, she had a little round Welsh nose and cheeks, and with the curmudgeonly attitude of a Scottish fisherman twice her size. By the time I was 8, I’d escort her each Saturday to get her short, soft, snow white hair ‘done’ at the Shadle Park Shopping Center Cut ‘n’ Curl. I’d sit in a chair swinging my legs and watch as the ladies washed and combed, gossiped while they settled her under a huge hairdryer like an egg poaching away.
“I remember when the first car came to my town,” she’d say. “We thought it was some kind of wagon.”
“I remember when I would go to dinner parties and the only thing I could eat was the lettuce under my cottage cheese salad,” she’d say.
Almost every summer, the seven of us (my brother Greg was on a mission, and my sister Susan had moved out) would pile into my father’s 1970 or so Oldsmobile Cutlass and drive from Spokane to see my grandmother in Manti, Utah. My father drove nonstop, as fast as he possibly could south through Oregon’s treeless east and over White Bird Pass, what I remember my father calling “the most treacherous pass in Idaho,” and down into Utah. We would inevitably almost run out of gas getting to the top, and more than once we cruised down that mountain on fumes, my father white knuckled and crumpled into a tense ball as we coasted into the first gas station for a hundred miles.
When he wasn’t around any other cars – according to him, all driven by assholes and seen as wrecks that would happen any second, I would sit in the back seat behind my father, and sometimes rub his shoulders while he sang and whistled old western songs for hours. I think he felt like a cowboy again, as he had felt as a child growing up in the dust and red hills of Salina, Utah.
As I walked out in the streets of Laredo,
As I walked out in Laredo one day,
I spied a poor cowboy all wrapped in white linen,
All wrapped in white linen and as cold as the clay.
Let’s just say my father had a penchant for the maudlin.
At night I tucked myself into the back window, as there were four kids in the back seat, and my mother, brother and father in the front. Staring up through the glass at a clear, starry sky, the radio set to whatever waves of country songs we were rolling through Spanish Fork and Santaquin, down through Fountain Green and Freedom. My father hunched over the wheel, singing softly:
Oh, Little Joe the Wrangler, he’s wrangle nevermore,
For his days with the remuda they are o’er.
It was long about last April he rode into our camp
Just a little Texas stray and all alone
Said he’d try to do the best he could if we’d only give him work
Though he didn’t know straight up about a cow
So the boss he cut him out a mount and kindly put him on
And we knew he liked our little stray somehow
Needless to say, things didn’t turn out so great for Little Joe.
There were six or seven long verses to that song, and my dad knew them all. The car rumbled and tossed beneath me, and I was six and not strapped into anything, but I felt safe, with my brothers snoring below me, my mother asleep and sometimes my father would whistle a verse in his trilling whistle just for effect.
Like I said, this story is an apple, cut into and peeled. The skin broken, browning, not perfect. Me at an age when I began to be self aware, and aware of death. These things take time.
Sometimes my father would stay in my grandmother’s house with us, but often he would fly off somewhere for work for long periods of time and we were left for most of the summer at alone to run around the town with our cousins and friends. We had a full summer schedule of playing hide and seek, searching for worms in the irrigation ditches for the older boys to fish with, having match fights after dark. You’d take a pack of matches and strike one and throw it at the same time. Once, my long blonde hair caught on fire and burned a good two-inch section out of it. I slunk home smelling of burnt hair, terrified I’d get in huge trouble. Luckily, that was a summer neither my father nor my mother were around.
Other than that, I’d spend they days with the older kids in the pool in the City Park across the street from my grandmother’s house, trying to avoid drowning.
Being the youngest, I was often left at home with just my grandmother, underfoot in the kitchen. A vast labyrinth of entrances and exits, her house was mysterious to me from top to bottom. Door beside door, some swinging, some with high knobs, led to room after room. Everything smelled musty.
From the kitchen alone, doorways led everywhere, one to a formal dining room, one to a long narrow hallway, one to the basement with a dirt-floored root cellar, and one to the backyard where a crabapple tree leaned over the back porch, dropping bright red apples in late summer; where a ramshackle washhouse was packed with obsolete household items, an old hand-crank washing machine and old working ironing machine, the kind you rolled tablecloths and sheets through.
With 13-foot ceilings, the kitchen was cold and bright in winter, and cool and dark in the heat of Utah summer, with a palpable cool breeze rising up from the unlit basement, where you could still find chunks of black rock in the original coal cellar and the root cellar, lined in wooden shelved, still housed the summer’s bounty, glowing in jars.
Even then I felt I was getting insight into another century. She’d shuffle around the kitchen or sit at the kitchen table and peel apples for apple sauce, or grind oats for cookies. I was my grandmother’s best audience for story after story of sleigh rides and dances, dresses and beaux.
“I remember when my sister was the town operator,” she’d say. “She used to listen in on everyone’s conversations.”
Although charmed by her tales, I started to see her as infantile, as a simple product of her times that had settled very comfortably into the life that was provided for her. She grew up in a relatively large house in a tiny town, in relative comfort. She married a plumber, who, despite his dirty hands and gruff demeanor (which everyone seemed to have in those days), provided well for their two children, one of whom, my uncle, ran off to Saudi Arabia in the 1940s to shoot gazelle, collect women and bum around Swiss Ski towns, never to return. No one ever talked about it. I never met him nor my grandfather, and it was just something no one ever talked about, and I got the impression the not talking about anything was what made him go.
“I remember when the rams got loose in town and we all had to climb trees to get away,” my grandmother would say. “I got cornered once and almost died.”
Not everyone’s grandmother is the essence of wisdom and charm. Of hazy romantic summer kitchens glowing with love and nurturing and lessons learned.
“I wasn’t supposed to have candy as a child. I remember when I thought lemon drops didn’t count as candy because they were sour,” she’d say. “I snuck them behind Mother’s back.”
“Come in if you’re white, stay out if you’re black,” she’d say.
Yes, she really said that.
This, through the crack in the door when I’d forgotten my key, coming home after third grade, back in Spokane. By this time, she was almost . We’d sit on her bed in the lavender bedroom and watch General Hospital, play gin rummy. She kept boxes of sugar cubes hidden in her drawers that smelled of old kid gloves, baby powder and musty apple cores.
And so after leaving a home her family had lived in for three generations, she did the only thing she could do, stuck in a small suburban house with seven grandchildren and a dour son-in-law.
She baked cookies.
She grumbled about being taken away from her home, she grumbled about being old and deaf, she grumbled about doing dishes, and she baked cookies. She ground her oats. She ground her raisins. I helped by cranking the long handle as she pushed the raisins into the top of the grinder. She chose the biggest, darkest chocolate chips she could find. She pickled and preserved – sweet grape jelly, tender half peaches, bread-and-butter pickles, sour dills.
After she moved in, I’d come home to the oatmeal cookies of the century, to the aromas of vinegar and apricots, strawberry jam and lemon curd. This must have coincided with my growing up, coming of age somehow, but that vinegar smell must have acted like Victorian smelling salts. It most certainly pulled my 8-year-old mind away and out of my imaginary backyard kitchens and into this real one. The clay-blood smell of mud and leaves masquerading as stew transmuted into the rich, deep scent of fresh peaches blanching in a huge pot on the real stove. The vinegar/chocolate scent of my EZ-Bake Crazy Cake transformed into the real blessings of a house redolent of vinegar, dill and garlic as cucumbers stewed in their jars.
And after she came, I was schooled in the art of remembering and of not forgetting. They are different; remembering is about recalling the past, peeling back layers of aroma and memory, becoming a child again:
“My sister played the organ for the silent films,” she’d say. “I can still see the lights flickering. She had so many beaux she couldn’t keep them all straight.”
Not forgetting is about the lack of the ability to forgive, eating the apple to the core and continuing to nibble on the bitter pith.
“Someone saw my father once after he left us,” she said. “Getting off a streetcar in Chicago.” That’s the first I’d heard of that.
“The crumb bum.”
After she came, summer nights were often spent in our house with all the windows and doors open because of the heat, the kitchen smelling like her old, huge, lost kitchen did, of stewing grape jelly or raspberry jam, dill, fennel and vinegar. And me – remembering and not forgetting both her memories and mine – I sat at my father’s feet as he watched Gunsmoke, listening to the gunshots and the cowboy music rise, and behind that, the thut, thut of wide-mouth Mason jar lids as they popped one by one, completing their final seal.
by Shannon Borg