Surfing channels the other night we got stuck on a home improvement show and before leaving TV behind for sleep we witnessed the woes of a family whose kitchen layout was so awful, their stove was crammed into an alcove by the back door. Lying in the dark coming out of dreams the next morning I was picturing my grandmother’s kitchen, trying to remember: where was the stove? I got it in place against the wall shared with the living room; next to it, the fridge. Then the doorway through to the front of the house; and I went around the room like that, filling it in, nailing it down. Like staking out a tent before you go inside.
As I worked my way around the walls things came back to me. I couldn’t actually see the stove, or its color—probably white, definitely electric—but I remembered that Grandma used to store crackers in the oven. Club crackers, my grandparents liked. I guess they stayed fresher behind the oven door and its seal.
Atop the fridge were two ceramic roosters—well, actually a rooster and a hen I think, one being large, the other small. I have them now; they have red-painted combs, gray and white feathers, ochre-colored feet standing in matching clumps of green. You should always have a rooster for your kitchen, I think I remember my grandmother explaining. Certainly no farm would be without one, and she did start life on a farm.
Passing the fridge and the doorway in my mind I turned to the north wall; up against it, the kitchen table. Very 1950s, it was chrome and cornflower blue formica and suddenly I was seeing the blue light in the kitchen, on a winter morning. From my highchair pulled up to the end of the table I could see out, see the snow drifted and heaped everywhere, piled on the sills of the screen porch beyond the back door. The light is sudden and fierce, almost scathing, bouncing off the snow and into the room.
Behind me in the corner there is some kind of electric roaster, a behemoth that sat on its own cabinet, the kind of kitchen fossil that I imagine a lot of women of my grandmother’s age had standing around. Above it, the black telephone, mounted on the wall. I remember my grandmother talking on the phone. My grandfather almost never did—his hearing was bad, and he was telephone-averse. But I can hear my grandmother’s voice, clear, echoing just slightly in the open room with all its hard surfaces, and I remember the lilt in her voice in just the single word, hello. When she answered the phone she did not ask a question: “Hello?” Who are you? Instead she sang, gently: “Hello!” I am here.
She was there, they were both there, as was I. As I work my way around the kitchen I take on this feeling of my grandparents and their lives, a slowness and a kind of solitude but also presence, intention. Without the distraction of electronics, email, smartphones, cable, so unlike my life today. I remember how my grandparents turned on the television to watch a particular “program,” as my grandmother called them, Lawrence Welk or the evening news. Grandma liked to watch a John Wayne western if one was on.
My circuit around the room takes me along the eastern wall, passing the door to the porch with that winter light streaming in like an ice-bright river and next to the door the sink, framed on both sides by cupboards, above and below. I can’t picture the curtains in the window over the faucet, but suddenly I see a pale green, the cupboard doors or the walls must have been painted that hue. Then I’m seeing wallpaper, a pattern comes almost into focus: neutral tones, flourishes and a spice grinder. I think it was on the wall over the table.
On the fourth and last wall, more cupboards and then the washing machine. This is a small house, my grandparents’ place, even though the kitchen feels large and open in my childhood memories. But there is no basement or utility room, so the washer is here and the dryer is in the attached garage, beyond the dining room. When it’s really cold outside Grandma will open the small closet next to the washer (I can see the door, it’s louvered), take out a Pendleton shirt hanging on a hook there, and put it on before she carries the clothes out to the dryer.
I feel how big the day was, opening up before us on a bright winter morning. I see my grandfather take up his coffee cup (and it was a cup, sitting on a saucer), I hear the sound of my grandmother’s chair scraping softly on the floor as she gets up to take dishes to the sink. They did not rush, or hurry. I realize that they were retired; but I believe their calm ways and measured pace had as much to do with who they were and the world they came up in as with circumstance.
Breakfast in the kitchen. I turn the memory over and over in my mind and study it like a small but endlessly faceted diamond, and in that expanse of time there is something vivid and real that I have trouble finding in my life today: that slow, deliberate act of living even in the smallest things, especially in the smallest things.