My daughter’s home economics teacher had no idea what havoc she had brought into my life. To Emily’s teacher, it was a great assignment–create individual, family cookbooks by assigning each student to bring in seven beloved family recipes.
Seven family recipes.
I do not own any family recipes. I don’t have a single recipe passed on from another generation. My family does not cook. We read. We eat, of course, but by the barest minimal effort. Following a recipe requires skills we do not possess.
Don’t assume my mother’s home lacked cookbooks. Classic texts from Betty Crocker and Fannie Farmer sat on our kitchen shelf. But to my mother, cookbooks were to be devoured like novels or travel guides. Leave a book and cook instead? Never.
My father, a Navy cook, was the closest we had to a chef. Growing up, Dad would occasionally make Sunday family dinners, mess-hall style. There was chicken-ala-king and something he affectionately called Gobbledygook. To this day, I can’t tell you what was in that dish, but I suspect it had something to do with mayonnaise.
When Emily’s teacher explained the assignment, I knew what she wanted–family specialties lovingly handwritten on 3-by-5 recipe cards, with cute flowers lining the border. These mythical cards would list ingredients in two neat columns, dutifully followed by a brief paragraph of instruction. The card might be a bit worn, but not tattered. Once used, it would return to its place of honor in the family recipe box.
In my family, cooking instructions come from the back of a frozen pizza box.
My daughter’s project was doomed.
It isn’t that we haven’t tried to make family cookbooks before. It’s just that they’re unmitigated disasters. In kindergarten, Emily’s class shared family recipes for a Mother’s Day gift. Her classmates submitted family favorites–granola goodies, tacos and chocolate-chip cookies. Emily’s offering–grapes.
The kindergarten cookbook fiasco shouldn’t have been a surprise. Not only did my mother lack a culinary interest, but my husband’s mother, a librarian, also preferred books over cooking.
My husband, George, was in the second grade, when he and his classmates created their cookbook and his mother did offer a recipe for pork chops. But while other mothers’ recipes were elaborate, long lists of ingredients and detailed instruction, George’s mom’s got to the point: “Put pork chops in a pan. Pour a can of tomato sauce over them. Put chopped up celery on top. Bake.”
Over the years, I’ve attempted to break this generational pattern. Others have come to my aid. At first, I was given individual recipes. Then I was given cookbooks such as The Absolute Beginners’ Guide to Cooking. After this proved useless, I was given prepared food in plastic containers. Now I get restaurant gift cards.
Yet, I do have one saving grace. I can make bread. It doesn’t happen often, but once or twice a year, I find the courage to bake. When I create a modest loaf, I feel victorious; I dare to believe that our family culinary failures can be reversed.
One morning this past summer, I attempted a loaf of monkey bread. I was baking solo, as Emily has little reason to show interest given my other culinary adventures.
From one of my many neglected cookbooks, I picked a simple recipe for a low-sugar, whole wheat monkey bread. As I was kneading away, Emily wandered by and asked what I was doing. When I told her, she balked at the idea of such fun-sounding bread consisting of whole grain.
A few days later, however, she suggested we make monkey bread again, but insisted we make it her way – with lots of sugar and refined, white flour. I was surprised, but figured Emily was motivated by the thought of the bread’s sugary icing. I agreed. We made the bread, but I didn’t think much more about it.
The other day, I nervously asked Emily if she had figured out any of the seven family recipes she needed to submit for her class project.
“Heating up sausage,” she said.
I wanted to point out that “heating up” wasn’t really a recipe, but I kept quiet. At least she could serve the warm pork with our fabulous family grapes.
But then she added, “I also want to put in the recipe for monkey bread, the good kind, not the kind with whole wheat.”
Really? I was surprised our brief cooking time had made that much of an impression. Yes, our monkey bread, complete with icky- sweet frosting, could become a recipe–a real, handwritten–on-a- card-with-love recipe.
One family recipe down, six to go.
I might just have to buy a pack of recipe cards yet.
Anne Shedden-Willis writes from Melbourne, Florida, where she lives in a three-generation and multiple-pet household. Her essays and fiction work have been published in several publications including the Christian Science Monitor, Centering Corporation Newsletter, and the Santa Fe Review. Her current goal is to complete enough short stories so she can say she has a collection.
She will remember a vast lake, with deep water, ringed by a wild wood. As we make our way back and forth across the pond,
her paddle barely dips below the water line,
the handle drags along the edge of the boat.
Sometimes she misses the water completely
as she oscillates between chatter
and mid-sentence stopping awe
when something splashes nearby.
I work to navigate us away from the shallows
while thinking of the immensity ahead for her,
hoping I will continue to be able sit behind
and watch her gasp in wonder of the sky, the breeze,
and small creatures that make the brush rustle.
Jamie Lynn Heller is a mother, wife, and high school counselor who gets up before the house starts to stir to write. Her chapbook, Domesticated, Poetry from around the House, was published with Finishing Line Press. She received a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2015 from The Little Balkans Review. She has pieces published or accepted at Prairie Schooner, Tule Review, The Main Street Rag, Noctua Review, Gargoyle, Iodine Poetry Journal, Earth’s Daughters, Flint Hills Review, I-70 review, The Mom Egg, Avocet, Storyteller Magazine, Little Balkans Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, Diversion Press, KC Voices Magazine Volume 8, KC Parent Magazine, The Whirlybird Anthology of Kansas City Writers, To the Stars Through Difficulties: A Kansas Regna in 150 Voices, Whispering Prairie Press Writing Contest Honorable Mention Poetry 2012, Kansas Voices Contest Honorable Mention Summer 2011, and Because I said so: Poems on the Happiness and Crappiness of Parenthood and others.
I saw Jacqueline right away. Under her lime green sunhat, my daughter was easy to spot. Standing at the far end of the play yard, her tiny clenched fists were pressed tight against her ears in a futile attempt to drown out the terrifying sound.
Garbage Day. My heart dropped to my stomach soon as I’d rounded Fuller Avenue, where the stalled traffic on the narrow block told me the garbage truck was up ahead, readying it’s groaning, grinding, gnashing maw while my unsuspecting progeny waited her turn for one of the push cars until I picked her up from noon dismissal.
Jacqueline was mostly easy-going. Barking dogs, stinging bees, dark closets and creaky night-time noises — my daughter shrugged them all off. But the sound of an approaching garbage truck drove my daughter to distraction, especially the voracious leviathan as it fed on the endless offerings provided by the nursery school and the apartments lining the rest of the block — the jarring clang as the forked claws grasped the enormous iron dumpster, hoisting it aloft with a fearsome screeching and straining then pouring the rattling, clattering contents down inside the beast’s belly for mashing and grinding while those mighty arms slammed the emptied bin back to the pavement. The play yard bordered the street, so for my daughter there was no escaping the din when the garbage truck came lumbering up Fuller during pickup.
I pulled into the school parking lot and didn’t bother locking my doors before I took off sprinting toward play yard where the behemoth’s growl reverberated over the cinder block enclosure. The cacophony was joined by the school’s clanking dumpster as the driver pushed it toward the idling beast. My daughter’s panic now my own, I knew any moment those steel-plated arms would lock on the dumpster. If only my own arms could hold Jacqueline she’d feel safe and protected when the hydraulic lift started in with its deafening whine. Could I make it in time? Yes, I could do it! I’d reach my girl!
My perception narrowed until there was only me, my daughter and the oblivious moving obstacles between us. Like a linebacker, I charged forward, right forearm extended and left elbow pressing my pendulous leather satchel tight against my ribs. I zigged around two boys who’d emerged from nowhere, bumbling toward the purple dinosaur rocker. I weaved around the pee-wee jungle gym, choosing the alleyway it formed along the side of the building. My path was wide open. I was going to make it!
I’d plowed past the end of the structure when without warning a nanny stopped directly in front of me and kneeled to tie her charge’s shoe. I hurdled over her but stumbled on her tote bag as I landed. “Sorry!” I called over my shoulder before weaving around a plastic push car where a heated argument had broken out between the vehicle’s occupant and three knee-high bystanders.
I’d narrowed the distance between me and Jacqueline to just a few yards, but a thicket of mothers had cropped up between us. I caught a few strands of their conversation — something about the park and a play date — before the sound of steel hitting iron drowned out their voices. “Jacqueline!” I shouted, but the brim of her hat blocked her view.
It was Lupé, the teacher’s aide my daughter spotted, and it was Lupé who scooped my daughter onto her hip. I felt Jacqueline’s relief along with an unwelcome pang of envy when Jacqueline buried her face in a shoulder that wasn’t mine. Over the sound of Jacqueline’s muffled tears and the packer blade smashing down the truck’s new load, I heard Lupé’s words of comfort to my daughter. “It’s okay, mija,” she said. “Everything’s okay.”
By the time Jacqueline was buckled into her carseat, her tears had dried, and the garbage truck had driven away. But my feelings of disappointment and inadequacy still rattled inside me.
“What’s the garbage truck saying when it makes that sound?” I found myself asking.
Jacqueline was unequivocal. “The truck’s crying for its mommy!”
Her answer surprised me. “Is that what you thought the truck is saying?” I said, sensing opportunity. “Oh no, that’s not what the truck’s saying! The truck’s saying, ‘Help! So heavy!’” I moaned the words for dramatic effect.
Jacqueline’s eyes softened, and I didn’t miss the smile that spread across her face.
It was Garbage Day, and I was redeemed.
Mara A. Cohen Marks’ essays have appeared in Alimentum, The Hairpin, Pentimento, Jewrotica and Medium. She has also authored numerous articles and op-eds that have appeared in outlets such as The Los Angeles Daily News, La Opinion, New American Media, Los Angeles Business Journal, and numerous peer-reviewed scholarly journals. Her daughter has conquered her fear of garbage trucks. Visit her at www.maracohenmarks.com, like her on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/mara.cohen.marks, and follow her on Twitter https://twitter.com/MaraCohenMarks.
Your little birthing signals were shy
compared to nature’s art exhibit:
the October opening reception
in celebration of fuchsia leaves.
Skinny-legged gossamer fairies
got up early to paint them
and to dance
on my grandma’s crazy quilt,
which covered you and me.
Born to be a woman of October,
of wisdom brought by seasons,
of beauty brought by contrast,
of wholeness brought by harvest,
the woman you now are.
Fuchsia leaves color-poke me
summoning the knowledge
you, my child, brought me long ago.
Fall shows us that life is full,
but can always gather more joy
to meniscus curve the rim.
Marilyn Zelke-Windau is a Wisconsin poet and a former elementary school art teacher. She enjoys painting with words. Her poems have appeared in many printed and online venues including Verse Wisconsin, Stoneboat, Fox Cry Review, Your Daily Poem, Midwest Prairie Review and several anthologies. Her chapbook Adventures in Paradise (Finishing Line Press) and a full length manuscript, Momentary Ordinary (Pebblebrook Press) were both published in 2014.