miscellaneous bits of kitchen debris

(written September 2008)
Today I remember my childhood kitchen. Probably a Saturday, mid morning in Lynn Valley on a rainy day. There was a large picture window behind the dining room table that mom would always open, inviting the perfume of the West Coast rainforest inside; its deep green and melancholy serving as the backdrop for the monotonous and thankless tasks of the day. A little bit of beauty for ashes.
These were days of hard work for my mom; days when even her elbows would inevitably run out of grease. We were too young then to identify the look of sheer exhaustion on the face of our over-worked mother. Of course, now I wish I could go back in time to alleviate it somehow, maybe just give her a hug, tell her she is enough as a mother, as a woman…then clean the oven for her.

I remember getting kitchen gravel stuck to the bottom of my cold little feet, after which mom would promptly sweep the floor. There was always this unforgettable scent of a mishmash of spices hanging in the air. To this day I revel in spices, and when I smell masala or cinnamon, onion salt or bay leaves, I am standing once again, three feet tall, in front of a large wood-paneled pantry door with its intriguing smells inviting me inside to investigate.

I remember my mom often had wrinkled and soft hands from washing many overwhelming piles of dishes. She and my dad fed a lot of mouths other than their children’s – hungry mouths, neglected mouths, the mouths of strangers that needed to be welcomed into a family. We always had guests at our table, young and old. I consider the hospitality of my parents a rich inheritance.

I remember mom’s distinctive washing style, the blue terry cloth dunked in soapy water, water that was always far too hot for my little-girl hands. That toleration for hot water was like a superpower to me, a necessary one that only moms possessed. After all, you cannot clean properly without hot water. I figured someday this superpower would  be bestowed on me as well, and it became a milestone to look forward to, not unlike enjoying the taste of wine or drinking black coffee with breakfast. I still can’t handle hot water to this day though. Wine and black coffee on the other hand…

After mom did the dishes it was time to tackle the countertops. She moved gracefully and fastidiously along, once in a while being interrupted by my sister and I bickering and needing her to put on her town sheriff hat, or my youngest sister moving in for a snuggle and asking for a snack. The best snack was a peeled and cut up apple. Mom would take a paring knife and move the apple round and round, the peel falling onto the cutting board – a spiralling work of art. She always took time to peel them for us. Always. There’s something so incredibly loving about that.

I learned to clean from my mother. I watched her carefully, closely, something we often do without realizing when we are children – something children often do without us realizing when we are adults. For instance, there were the globs of dried up raspberry jam around the toaster and the miscellaneous bits of kitchen debris trapped in the crevasses of the scarred wooden cutting board. She would always pay careful attention to these, getting every last crumb, seed, flake, and offending morsel, rinsing them all down the sink or into a pot of soapy water.

Counters are a kind of unofficial record keeping device, a possibly embarrassing indicator of when you last cleaned your kitchen. For instance, today when I was cleaning mine there were little flecks of parsley stuck on the cloth, and that would take me back to last Saturday evening when I made a beautiful Tuscan pasta with a parsley garnish. Right, four days ago. Phewf! That’s not so bad. I wonder how far our counters took mom back? Well, I hope she took it in stride.

I remember mom’s music was always playing. Joni Mitchell was a regular, singing out her poetry about painted ponies and cloud illusions, or Chelsea mornings when “the sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses“. I remember her singing along, and that sometimes, with certain songs, she would get tears in her eyes, brace herself on a counter or lean against the wall, and be still…but just for a moment. She always let things move her.

I don’t think she cried or stilled herself often enough. Sometimes I’m not sure I do either, although mom oftentimes reminds me that I should, knowing what happens to a woman when she continually neglects her heart – even just to get the cleaning done.

I am cleaning my own kitchen today, a simple act which has ushered me into this delicate and nostalgic moment, this memory of my kitchen origins. It’s mysterious and beautiful when we become enfolded by memories such as these, as if God is saying “Look, listen, remember, and be grateful”. I am so grateful for my mom, for her tireless acts of service toward her family. For teaching me how to thoroughly clean a kitchen. For showing me how to live, in the mess of life, with an open heart.

Spray with a good cleanser, dunk cloth in hot soapy water, make sure you get into the corners, wash down the cupboards, spot clean the coffee splashes on the coffee maker, the sticky collection on the toaster buttons, the streaking of dried liquid on the glass of the oven, and don’t forget about the miscellaneous bits of kitchen debris trapped in the crevasses of your scarred wooden cutting board.

Right, then. Away they go down the sink.

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