When we were kids, Mom ran her kitchen like the galley on a ship crewed by perpetually hungry sailors. On her way back from shopping the car horn was her call to arms; the back bumper would scrap bottom as she bounced her station wagon into the driveway, horn blaring. Dad would muster the troops for one of two jobs Mom sort of trusted us to do right. He’d march us down to the open tailgate and expedite the transport of the sacks, cartons, boxes and bundles of raw food up the steps, through the back door and into the pantry. We stacked and stored it in accordance to Mom’s elegant but simple organization system, based on her knowledge of library science.
She’d get her kitchen up to full sweat, four burners blazing, grill sizzling, both ovens fired up, a light dusting of flour on everything, the special exhaust fan Dad installed pumping tantalizing smells across the whole neighborhood. The eye of this aromatic hurricane was the swinging kitchen door; out of it came an endless bounty, satiating the appetites of her husband and three children, their various friends and relations, dinner guests, stray puppies, and anyone else who happened to be nearby when she rang the dinner bell.
Our other job was cleaning up. I was the youngest and took my place in line as soon as I proved I could carry a dish without dropping it. Dad managed KP like he did a job on one of his construction sites, while Mom sat out on the screened in porch and smoked one of the three cigarettes she allowed herself and drank a martini so dry it absorbed any tears that may have fallen. The sweet reek of her Virginia Slims and the sharp, chlorine smell of Comet is mingled in my memory; the sounds of my older sisters splashing each other with soapy water when Dad wasn’t looking; the darkness inside the cabinets where I’d try to hide.
Denise moved out first; she went to college in Chicago only to cycle briefly back into the house post-graduation but left for good when she married Bard—I know, but that’s his name—and moved to California. Lindsey wasn’t far behind; she married a local boy and had two kids by the time Denise finished school. Mom helped raise my nieces until Lindsey joined the Army and her little family became military nomads. The day after I moved out, Dad said Mom stopped making everything from scratch and the kitchen rarely got up to full sweat unless we were in town for the holidays.
I’d been away from home for years when Dad passed. Mom was there with him at the end and I thought—we all thought—that part of her went with him in his moment of transition; after all, someone had to cook for him.
“You don’t just get over it,” Mom told me one night, on the screened-in porch. The curling smoke from her cigarette revealed invisible currents swirling around us. Her hospital bracelet was still around her wrist. “Your father passed on years ago and I can’t stop talking to him. He’s with me here, and here,” she said and pressed her long fingers against her chest and forehead, then smiled and in that smile I glimpsed Virginia, before she was Mrs. Carraway, before Denise and Lindsey and me and even Dad; the girl I’d only seen in scrapbook pictures; the girl from Floydada, Texas in her 4H jacket waving a string of trophy ribbons, a smile like pure lightening igniting her face.
After she’d gone to bed that night I sat in the kitchen. The light above the stove barely pushed back the darkness. Everything in here felt alien and yet familiar; the same space but somehow sterile, a museum kitchen missing all the essential smells and sounds that without my memories wouldn’t exist at all.
Denise answered on the second ring.
“You said you’d call when you got there.”
“I know, but it was impossible; this is the first I’ve had a chance to catch my breath.”
“Is she home? How is she? What did Dr. Li say?”
I sat back in the dining room chair. “She’s sleeping downstairs. The ever inscrutable Dr. Li say, ‘Mother in good health and will live long time, dragon sign very strong, you treat her nice or I judo chop your neck!’”
“Oh for God’s sake, David, grow up.”
“I don’t know, Denise, that was pretty much what I got out of it. You come over and deal with Dr. Li and the health insurance customer service line and all the rest of this crap.”
“Just tell me what he said, minus your infantile racist stereotyping.”
“I’m serious, he said Mom is lucky to be as strong as she is; I think her ego is bruised more than her tailbone. Dr. Li says what you’d expect him to say: her mobility will continue to decline and she might fall again. But she’s still Mom; she got in an argument about politics with one of the nurses before I could get her out of there.”
Denise chuckled. “Did she win?”
“Snapped her like a toothpick. What do you expect? I was mortified and proud at the same time.”
“When are you leaving?”
“Sunday. I’ve got to get back to work; and Molly, if she’s still there. When are you flying out here?”
“The kids are out of school in two weeks; we’re coming through there on the way to Disney.”
“I heard from Lindsey.”
Denise paused. “I did too. She sounded… stressed.”
“She’s not on holiday in Afghanistan, Denise. I told her Mom fell, but I spared her the details over the phone. I’ll email her the grim details soon. She did say she was happy I could be here for her.”
“We all are, David.”
Six months later I pulled the rental car into the driveway of our old home. The air was cold and wet, an early snow covered the ground and flakes scattered under a flint sky as I shut the car door and started toward the front porch.
My nose twitched. A strong whiff of something smoky and meaty was in the air. I stopped and looked around; the street was quiet and still, the inside of a gently shaken snow globe. But then a rush of smells; eggs and grease, ham and bacon, coffee and biscuits and hash browns; I stood motionless, dazed by memories that bloomed under the influence of the intoxicating smell of breakfast coming from Mom’s steaming kitchen vent.
I walked around the house to the back and up the three red concrete steps. The screen door creaked; the kitchen door glass was slightly fogged. I knocked on the glass and tried the knob; the door swung open, so I stepped in and kicked off my shoes. I could see the kitchen was in full sweat, as it were; though I didn’t see Mom anywhere. But then I heard her laughter coming from the other side of the kitchen door.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get you some more,” her voice rang out, confident and proud. “There’s always more, Jacob. I’ll be right back—more tea, anyone? No?” she said over her shoulder as she walked through the swinging door, a red kerchief holding up her spackled hair, the old apron wrapped around her thin body, a plate full of uneaten breakfast in her hand. She saw me and froze and for a moment I thought she was going to fall over, like those sheep that go rigid when startled.
“Hi Mom!” I glanced at the pots and pans simmering on the stove. “Sorry, I didn’t know you had company—sure smells good though. Smells like chicory, is that French Market coffee, remember how Dad always hated that stuff? ‘Leave it to the Cajuns to tart up my coffee with nuts’…” I trailed off, Mom’s eyes were wide. “Mom? It’s me… David?”
“David.” She blinked. “Of course, you said you were coming on the phone. But you can’t stay here.”
“Because Jacob Valverde is in your old room; you know, since this isn’t your home,” she paused, “anymore.”
“Right, of course, Mom. But who is Jacob Valverde? When did he move into the house? Is he paying rent? Are you being taken advantage here? Why didn’t you tell me about this when he moved in?”
“Excuse me,” Mom moved past me and dumped the plate into the sink, flipped on the disposal and jammed the food into the whirling maw with a fork. She rinsed off the plate, dried it with one of her special kitchen towels, and loaded it up with eggs, ham, bacon—the works. “I was under the impression that this was my house. I’m perfectly capable of making decisions regarding my own house.”
“I never said that you weren’t—I’m just wondering what the hell is going on.” I got a cup down from the cupboard, filled it with coffee. “I’m thinking I need to meet this Jacob person.”
“Don’t you dare disturb their breakfast! You just have a sit, I’ll be right back,” she said. “Fix yourself a plate if you want.” She marched back through the swinging door. “Here you are, Jacob, just what the doctor ordered!”
There was real cream in a little ceramic cow on the table; I stirred in a few spoons and added a pinch of sugar. Curious now, I opened the fridge; it was packed with carefully packaged and dated leftovers. I sat back down in the same chair I’d sat in months before, the same chair I’d sat in forty years ago and watched Mom perform her daily food miracles.
Mom swung back into the kitchen, plates piled up on her arms like a veteran diner waitress. “Whew but they can sure put away some chow.” She scraped the food into the disposal and stacked the plates in the sink. “Jacob—he’s from Ohio—he’s got a hole in his stomach and a hollow leg; and Kaysa and Fabian—they’re Swedes here on work visas—I swear those two are just horses in human form.”
“So there are three people staying here?”
“Four. Linda is a little down on her luck and just needs a place to stay until she’s back on her feet. But breakfast is over and they’ve cleared out. Come sit with me on the porch, I need my morning smoke.”
The flower patterns on the vinyl cushions were faded yellow-white. My breath condensed in the air, mingled with the acrid smoke from her cigarette. A soft wet sizzle filled the heavy air.
“You hear that?” I asked Mom. “It’s so quiet I can hear the snow hitting the ground.”
Wrapped in a heavy shawl, she nodded and tapped a short column of ash onto the porch, then smeared it with her shoe. “You remember my friend Mrs. Paulson?”
“Sure I do. She lives down the street, I dated her daughter.”
“She died. Cancer. She was the last one of the old crew on the block. Two men moved into her house last month and I don’t think they’re roomies, David. You know what I mean.”
“I’m sure they’re perfectly nice. Sorry about Mrs. Paulson, she was a nice lady.”
Mom took one last drag and snuffed it in the ashtray at her elbow. “That’s what she wanted on her stone—‘Here Lies a Nice Lady’.”
I glanced at her and caught the hint of a smile. “Did you just make a joke, Mom?”
“Just a little one. Alright, come help me clean up; you do remember how to clean up, don’t you? Then I might take a little nap.”
I checked on Mom; her small body cocooned in her favorite blanket, her breathing steady. She turned slightly as I watched, burrowed into the folds. Her breathing deepened. I turned away and headed for the stairs.
Room promotions had been a big deal. The first door had been the Domain of Denise, became the Land of Lindsey, and was finally the Den of David. I stood in the hall at the top of the stairs, a stranger in the house of my youth and memory.
“Ah, hello?” I said and it came out like I was being strangled. “Jacob and uh… the others? My name is David Carraway, I’m Virginia Carraway’s son?” I waited. “Okay I’m just going to ah, look around—if you don’t mind?”
Only the creaking joists, adjusting to the weight of new snow, answered.
The door to my old room was cracked open; I leaned against it and peeked in. The bed was made; I stepped through the door. My old desk had been refinished; the stains and spills that gave it character varnished away. There were two framed photos on top of the dresser, a handsome, dark haired guy—vaguely familiar—and a portrait of an older woman. I opened the drawers from top to bottom; t-shirts, shorts, underwear, socks. In the closet where five pairs of worn jeans, five button down work shirts, two slacks, dress shirts, a tie. A suit. Sneakers and loafers on the shoe rack.
I sat down at the desk. There were no papers, nothing personal; pens and pencils in a brass holder, a drawer full of blank paper. And in the upper left hand drawer, a Bible. I pulled it out of the drawer and flipped through the gold-edged pages. On the flyleaf was a “Property of” stamp and there was his name, Jacob Valverde… written in Mom’s careful, perfect script.
I closed the Bible, put it back in the drawer, and went to inspect the rest of the rooms.
Mom was still sleeping so I turned on the TV in the living room, which was nothing but static. It took several minutes for me to realize Mom had ignored the upgrade to the digital TV signal; she still had the old rabbit ears with a bit of tinfoil wrapped around the top. I turned off the static and sat on the couch, which had served me well as a frontier fort, a Viking long ship, and a space shuttle when I was a kid and a bower of earthly delights when I discovered girls and Dad wasn’t around.
Dad’s chair, the leather worn in the seat, sat opposite. The seat of the oracle, my sisters called it. If he was sitting there—and there wasn’t a Red Wings game on TV—you could ask him anything. And what would I say tonight, if he were sitting there smelling like sweat and concrete dust, a Schlitz can in his hand? How to ask him about someone he’d once told me was the heartbeat of his life; how to say she’s not well, Dad, she’s going to need care and support and Denise is in California and Lindsey is somewhere in Afghanistan and my own marriage isn’t exactly the rock I’d want to run to for shelter.
I looked up from the chair; she stood in the entrance to the living room, clutching the picture of the dark haired boy—I recognized him now, a minor movie star—and the Bible. I stood up and I was boy learning to walk; as I crossed the room I matured; as I wrapped my arms around my mother and hugged her tight, I was a man again.
I whispered, “Dad says to give you this.”