When I moved back to Memphis, in the spring of 1999, I brought along the man I met, through my sister, in Wyoming. Bernard was going to help me repair my white clapboard house so I could put it on the market and head back west, to the mountains, where I belonged.
My mother, who had served as leasing agent for the house while I was gone, helped us reclaim the yard and garden. We pulled ivy out of windows, dug out privet and pokeweed. On Sunday nights she invited us to join her for dinner on the terrace of the condo where she had lived since before I moved away. “Nothing fancy, and you don’t have to stay long. Just come eat,” she’d said. So we did.
Invariably Bernard would tinker with whatever needed fixing there — a dripping faucet in the hall bathroom, a kitchen disposal that just didn’t sound right when it was running.
True to her word, she didn’t prepare anything fancy for us to eat. Oven roasted pork tenderloin. Pan fried chicken paillards. I offered, for the millionth time, to buy her a new skillet, replacing the Revere Ware relic that had been without a proper handle since the 1970s. “This works just fine,” she insisted.
Two years later, after our son was born, after she’d pulled off what seemed a miraculous defeat of stage 4 colon cancer, my mother offered to keep the baby for us a few days each week so Bernard and I could go back to work. Other than the challenge of location (she lived 20 minutes away, in the opposite direction from my office), it was a perfect solution for all of us.
I had sold my one-woman PR/marketing business to a larger firm, based in Nashville, and I ran the Memphis office. Most of our work was in large, public campaigns, and one of my clients was new venture dedicated to early childhood systems — family policy, support for parents, accreditation for child care centers. We pulled together a summit on early brain development, produced TV ads around a theme of “First Years Last a Lifetime,” I amassed a huge stockpile of books and age-appropriate toys and whatnot.
When I handed my son to my mother in the mornings, I also handed her bag after bag of these developmental tools, so his brain would develop appropriately (if you’re not already laughing, reading this, then you should be — I was such an idiot).
Every afternoon, I would find those supplies still in their bags, shoved into a corner. My mother and my then-crawling son would be in the floor of her kitchen with some random assortment of kitchen things (a plastic measuring cup, the top to her double boiler) and water everywhere.
“Mama!” I exclaimed one day, weeks into this routine, “Don’t you know the first years last a lifetime, that early brain development is the most important time for the human brain, and that if we don’t give him what he needs now, he’ll never catch up?!”
“Oh, Jennifer,” she said, “I hope those people at Princeton never find out they let in a girl who had nothing but plastic measuring cups and water for toys when she was a child.”
She taught him how to play the piano, let him race his Hot Wheels into her front door. They walked to the pond, fed the ducks
When the children and I moved in with her, temporarily, two and a half years later, her kitchen had not changed in any way. My son, who was three by that time, showed his baby sister the ropes.
In her kitchen my mother taught me how to mother: The art of controlled choices (“Would you like grapes or apple for a snack?”), the irrelevance of fixable messes (“It’s just water; won’t hurt a thing.”), the melodic cacophony of pots and wooden spoons.’
After she died, we gathered in that tiny kitchen — my sister, our families, relatives, and friends — eating sliced ham, reminiscing about my mother’s particular style of cooking and entertaining. It was the smallest room in the house, and there were plenty of other, larger spaces. But that is where we who knew her best felt most comfortable, and comforted.
In the days that followed, my sister and I divvied up the dishes, platters, books, and mementos, marked the boxes with our names. Divide and multiply, that’s how I think of it.
When I moved into a family house of my own, I wanted the kitchen to be its heart, the way my growing up kitchen had been. I was determined to regain purchase, to establish my own family equilibrium. I would make it better, stronger, faster than what I had known growing up.
But the chasm between adolescence and adulthood had distorted my vision. Instead of the familiar wobbly chairs and gate-legged table, I wanted what glossy magazines said Living should look like. I watched HGTV and Food Network. I clipped pages from Veranda and studied IKEA hacks for having the perfect life. Pendant lights and seasonal ice buckets and one cleverly placed upholstered chair, that’s what our kitchen needed.
I was saved, perhaps, by circumstance. The hasty move into our unfinished house, the general tumult of having two small children, unpacking boxes, working full time, and grieving for my mother all conspired to get the better of me. Glossy perfection was unattainable long enough to become undesirable.
I have mismatched pots, mismatched chairs and chipped dishes, all the things I chastised my mother for having. In our first year in the new house, our children plastered Incredibles and smiley-face stickers across the top of my pristine, whitewashed pine table. Those stickers are still on the table, today. I still use the double boiler that was once my son’s toy to make custard, stirring and watching the back of the wooden spoon until the consistency is just right. My mother’s kitchen living now in my own.
This post is part of a series about our renovation of a house built in 1905 that we bought in 2003 from the woman who lived in it for 91 years. The first post in this series is “Jackie’s House.”