*Putting in place, as in setting up, in a French kitchen
She speaks very loudly. My voice is soft, some even say soothing. If I should ask her why she is yelling, she shouts louder, boisterously insisting the volume of her voice is at an appropriate level. She gets easily frustrated with me if I tell her to hush, or comment about her tone whatsoever.
She is always eating leftovers. I will never eat such things. One or six days old, I consider the microwave a devil of neural disfigurement, packed with unnecessary calories. The smell of cold chicken cowers my skin into repulsed shivers, the tart staleness from an overnight’s rest stains the meat on my plate. I refuse to reheat my food. She has tried to force me, for years, every other night with last week’s rotisserie or pasta. “It’s still good!” she yells. I tell her to stop shouting. I am fine with a banana. She screams from the other room that she is not yelling, that I am ridiculous, that her food is delicious.
Indeed, she is a very good cook. Ingredients fly from the pantry into one large pot as she stirs and peppers, blends and pours. Her dishes seem a cacophony of mixed spices forced to combine; in the kitchen she is a conductor void of a baton. The countertop is her stage, each component of the recipe a vital part in her performance. She has her rituals, as all do, salt over the shoulder, a dishtowel folded close by. Always, she starts by allowing her sight to span the kitchen, inspecting to be sure she has all she needs, assuring herself it is okay to continue. In the kitchen my mother realizes that everything has its place. The blender sits near the sink, poultry on a steal cutting board far away from her vegetables, usually carrots or corn doctored with garlic or lime. She follows the steps, sticks to her traditions. She likes rich meals — velvety soups with dark red meat — yet somehow she is quite petite. I am taller, heavier. I can hold her tiny frame within one wrap of my arm. She is fragile. I am not.
I am also a decent cook, but quite different. I compare recipes, alternate ingredients. I enjoy lemon zest or rosemary, red wine or white. I enjoy cooking for people as a gift (or offering), the planning and executing of it. I stick to themes (Taco Tuesday, Friday Night Fajitas, May Day, or Sunday Morning), include the recipe in perfect penmanship with nutritional facts below. I believe it is important to know what we we eat. My mother mixes ketchup with eggs and braises beef in the broiler. She believes in her way.
I drink a cocktail when I am cooking. She gets drunk off the smell of vodka. Mostly, because I am cooking in her kitchen, I switch to water after one drink in order to not worry her. She is the type of woman who frets over habits like that. It is always nice when we invite company over for dinner, for then I can enjoy a few cocktails without her disapproving stare. Close friends and neighbors marvel at our relationship; she and I enjoy acting such parts. She has a book of all of her recipes, of my grandmother’s recipes, of her old friend’s sister’s way to make the best strudel. I never remember the meals I throw together, rice is easily substituted for spaghetti, duck reigns high over chops. In my pot it could have been red pepper or jalapeños. I can hardly keep track of the day. Sometimes I wake up in the half morning, eyes still shut with slumber, trying to remember the date, my duties, where exactly I was when I fell asleep. Within me there must exist a subconscious fear of the day fading for I am always checking the time, always scared it is too late. She is happy wheresoever she may be.
And yet, she often appears quite bored. There is a certain slouch about her, some discontent for life. She craves grandchildren, new furniture. Her life has been active — in order, a first generation Holocaust survivor, a widow, a newly-wed — these things she sometimes forgets. Once she was just another sixties girl in love with Davy Jones, placing freshly picked dandelions behind her ear, hair down to her knees. For her, the present that is lachrymose, almost impossible to conceive. In the keepsake she calls her mind, countries fade into cities, free spirits drift away. Her nose wrinkles when she tries to remember, the pain embedded on her face. I, on the other hand, have the memory of an elephant.
I savor my memories in the palate of my mind, remembering life in images, some exaggerated, some permanently embedded in my memory as if they were tattooed on my skull. The relief of a fire hydrant’s splash in the dog days of August, the pinching pleasure of sidewalk pebbles from the pavement beneath my bare feet. I picture my mother’s soft shadow against the window frame in the twilight that surrounds my childhood, and I think it must be love, because it is warm and orange and involves my mother. I see my father in a blue collared shirt stained with oil, his fingers musky with sweat. It is the scent of oil which brings the image of my father into my everyday, the sight of soft light, my mother. She has a complicated memory, her brain is troubled and tired. In a past life, I swear, she was a stoic.
We both often think about eating; when, what, where. She has passed down to me an insatiable thirst for food, a true appreciation for flavor. I managed a restaurant for six years; an Italian restaurant in particular, family-owned in the heart of a small neighborhood in Brooklyn. The Ecuadorians in the back were all brothers, I introduced them to Neruda. My boss shook hands with my lovers. My mother has told me that my father used to work at a White Castle on Linden Boulevard where he and his friends would smoke joints, and drink out of bottles, and ash their cigarettes between buns. Still (somehow), my mother loves those burgers. There are many restaurants we dined in together, though I have traveled more. In the same sense, there are many places she has been that I will never see.
If we are sitting together at the kitchen table, our afternoon coffee nestled warmly between our palms, and I ask her, “Do you remember that restaurant in Paris?” she will go on to mention a memory about the Louvre or the Tower instead. Her voice will grow excited, loud, controlled by memory’s hold, “those steel frames” she will say, “just bare, beautiful.” Maybe she will even smile before she drifts back into a soft recall. Depending on the day, I remind her that on those metal frames she forgot her fear of heights.
Again, I will ask her about the food. “Don’t you remember that restaurant, with the funny wall paper, on rue d‘Artois? Where the waiter was kind and the merlot was ripe and…” but she will stare back at me blankly as I entertain myself in a one-sided conversation regarding aubergine and pate, of being a mother and daughter on holiday, in France.
She returned to New York, then; I, to London. That is something I do so easily: leave her. Sometimes now, after I tell her my wish-lists of destinations (Egypt, Greece, a place hushed with forgiveness), she sighs under her breath. She does not like for me to be gone.
When I was a child she used to sit with me for hours, playing dolls, or coloring, teaching me how to tie the perfect knot. I remember her steadfast and shoulders straight returning home from meetings, or dinners, or writing workshops. Once or twice her poems were published, now she never reads. My nose is always burrowed between beige colored pages. She has forgotten what it means to write, it seems.
Sometimes I feel it is up to me to ensure her that she has led a life with purpose, that she still has some zest. Her parents came to New York shortly after the war, survivors of Auschwitz and Dachau respectively. They snuck out on a train and in on a boat, leaving reveries of blood and ash on the German road. My grandfather was a tailor, my grandmother a cook; he was deaf, she struggled with English. My mother pieced together her history in broken Yiddish; a dying language intertwining with their cruel past. Perhaps because of this she refuses to throw anything away. She hoards papers and costume clothing, birthday cards from my first year. She enjoys stews that use leftover vegetables and marrow. She cooks, as her mother would, brisket with glazed carrots and fresh prunes.
She hated the food in France. I adored it. One morning, she had me walk two miles off our course just so she could buy her morning coffee from some American chain restaurant. “It won’t be the same,” I argued. I had learned quickly that nothing was the same in Europe, that even if you were in the middle of a tourist hot spot in Paris, the coffee would either be too strong or too weak, the milk would be too creamy, the sugar not so sweet. But she never listens, her mind flooded with to-do lists and grief.
Every now and then I try to mention the comedy that escalated from her coffee/café adventure. I reenact how she struggled with the vendor, hand motioning and pointing, trying her hardest to obtain her simple request: a hot cup of coffee. Ten minutes and two mistakes later (and this is where we would laugh), she’d be handed a small, unsatisfactory dixie cup, less than a shot, not quite an espresso. She goes along well with my interpretation but assures me that I am mistaken. She says that from that morning she only remembers how she pushed between two robust women, who smelt of warm butter, was overcharged by some rude teenager, and how after a long walk through labyrinthine roads and curious bouts with unfamiliar food, she finally breathed a sigh of relief, when savoring her cup of coffee, and sat in the deceptive ease of an early morning lull with her youngest daughter, talking about nothing but what they may eat for lunch, deciding her day with the rest of the city, as the sun gleamed brightly in the corner, in a small café in Paris.
Abriana Jetté is a poet, essayist, and educator from Brooklyn, New York. She is the editor of the forthcoming anthology “Best Emerging Poets of 2013”, and teaches for St. John’s University and the City University of New York.