Mothers, Children, and Off-Limits Kitchens

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When I picture my grandmother as a young girl, I see her hovering in the living room doorway at the house on Diamond Street. She is all skinny knees and sharp elbows, her hair window-framing her face like dark curtains yanked open to a whitewashed moon. In her gloved hands is a silver platter, trembling with teacups. It is 1929.

These pre-Depression afternoons are a precipice for my grandmother, although she does not know it. She spends her time in the yard with her cat Harvey twined around her shoulders, playing with her brothers, and sitting at the beach with her grandparents, her father, and her glamorous Aunt Nina, a former beauty queen with a green roadster and a closet of fur stoles. She is not allowed in the kitchen—except to serve scones and tea to her mother’s friends. It is the one thing she is tasked with, and, as I watch her there in the doorway, 11-years-old and unaware of the shadows flickering distantly in her future, I think that it must have felt terribly important to her, to perfectly pour a hot ribbon of tea so that it curled like a napping cat’s tail into the bottom of the cup.

As 1929 thundered into 1930, the household crashed down around her. Her father lost the business he had built for 20 years; the family was forced to move, many times, all across Philadelphia, never staying in one rented home for long. My great-grandfather finally found work as a janitor in a local high school.

By the time Pearl Harbor came blaring through the radio at 2 o’clock on a Sunday (I imagine they’d just been at church), she would surely have already been longing for the quiet routines of the vanished world of Diamond Street. But the war brought my grandmother three greater challenges than anything the Depression’s fickle wrath had handed down. In 1942, her mother Marie died suddenly, stricken with pneumonia. This was followed, in early 1943, by two telegrams, blue letters spelling out her brother Richard’s name and “North Africa” where he had been with the infantry since November. The first message said “wounded,” and the second said “killed.”

In between these family tragedies, she faced another obstacle alone: dinner. With her mother gone, it became her duty to cook for her father and twin brother, but, although she was nearing 24, she had never been taught how to cook; had, in fact, never even been permitted in the kitchen while meals were prepared. She did not know how or where to buy meat and produce. She did not know how to season or roast or bake. She was a broken link in an endless chain of mothers before her who had guided their daughters in the kitchen. She could pour tea like a lady, but she did not know how to boil water.

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