It was homemade spaghetti sauce that opened my eyes to the dysfunction that was my childhood—Molly Woodward’s mother’s marinara to be exact.
Molly Woodward was in my Brownie troop. Her cocoa-colored uniform was always whistle clean and smelled of fabric softener. Mine was usually wrinkled and stained and smelled like whatever barnyard pet I’d last wallowed. Molly was a den leader’s dream—quiet, cooperative, sweet-natured and patient. Me—not so much.
Our mothers were opposite, too. Molly’s mom—let’s call her Anne, because that was her name—wore corduroys and monogrammed sweaters and deck shoes. The wholesome aroma of Dove soap and meadow wildflowers hung about her like a halo. My mother wore polyester pantsuits and high-heeled leather boots with big gold buckles in the shape of an A, for Etienne Aigner. She reeked of gaudy gardenia perfume, Aquanet, and cigarette smoke.
But the most enviable difference between our mothers was that Anne Woodward cooked--rreally cooked. Most of the time, my parent’s took me to Jerry’s Restaurant, through the drive-in window at KFC, or to Winfred's Steak House and Lounge. On the nights that we didn’t eat out, my mom prepared a rotation of three meals, each including red meat grilled medium well, a canned vegetable, and Thousand Island dressing.
Neither of my grandmothers could cook worth a fancy damn either. Both had their own perverse way of defiling a hot dog. Granny Ison would boil the poor wieners until the skin popped open and the flesh spilled out. When she was feeling frugal, she would boil the same batch for three consecutive days until the pan was filled with just an inch of stagnant water and pink particles of disintegrated dog. My Granny Howard, on the other hand, would boil them just until they were warm to the touch on the outside, which meant they were clammy cold on the inside. Then, she’d serve them with a pool of watery ketchup and stale saltine crackers.
Anne Woodward would never force feed her family a frigid frankfurter. She cooked—really cooked—using wooden spoons, and shiny silver strainers, and real vegetables that she washed under a steaming stream of water while she hummed. There’s just something more maternal about fresh produce.
The memory of the day that she made the life-altering spaghetti sauce will forever simmer in my soul. My eight-year-old eyes watched in rapt adoration as she covered the counter top with big, juicy tomatoes so eager to contribute that they were bursting at the seams. Alongside them, she lined up onions, and glossy green peppers, and odd little white bulbs that I later found out were garlic.
From a hook on the wall, she removed a massive wooden cutting board with rivulets of dark grain running through it, and then unsheathed a gleaming knife from an oak block. She slaughtered the rambunctious tomatoes with a series of swift blade strokes until they were reduced to big slobbery chunks, and then dropped them into the giant copper pot that was already sizzling with oil. When she added a sparkling gold broth, thick chicken-scented clouds rose from the pot and permeated my nostrils. Next, she diced the onions and peppers into perfectly uniform pieces. I jumped up and shook my butt to the steady rhythm of the knife hitting the board. Molly’s mom giggled. Her laugh sounded like a unicorn’s whinny—or, at least, how I imagined a unicorn’s whinny would sound. Finally, she focused on the mysterious garlic. After separating out the cloves, she took the edge of the blade and smashed them so the skin fell away. Then, she sliced them papyrus-thin so that they looked like fingernails without the fingers.
But, it was when she threw open the cabinet door that my admiration turned to genuine awe. Anne Woodward was a wizard. There was no other explanation for the rows of apothecary bottles with their gold-embossed labels spelling out magic words in scrolling script.
“What's that?” I asked, pointing at the wooden shelf with the butterfly carved into the top.
“It’s a spice rack.”
“Did you have it built?”
I wanted to add, “by elves,” but thought better of it.
“No, I bought it.”
I crept in until I was close enough to read the loopy letters. Ooo—rrreee—gaaa—no, paars-leey, maaa—jooo-raaam—I sounded out the words in my head.
“Do all these bottles come with the rack?”
“Yes. And the spices that are in them,” she said, removing several of the jars and placing them on the marble countertop. I peered at the contents. One contained tiny, intact leaves that look like they’d been plucked from a fairy bush. Another had an orange powder the color of Doritos dust. Several held glistening green flakes. I marveled as she took a pinch of this, and a scoop of that, and a smidgen of something else, and tossed them into her tomatoey potion. I knew I was witnessing some kind of sorcery.
“What month is it, please?” I asked.
October, November, December...I counted the months on my fingers. Three months until Christmas.
“Can you please take me home now? I need to write a letter to Santa.”
My letters to Santa were elaborate construction paper productions with glittery pictures, promises, and haikus.
Big Christmas Wishes
Of pretty, prancing ponies
Come true for good girls.
“Right, now? It’s not even Halloween,” Anne Woodward exclaimed.
“I know, but I want to make this letter really special. I’m going to ask Santa for a spice rack. We don’t have one at my house.”
Molly’s mom gave the sauce a stir, swiped up a drop of spilled broth with a red and white checked dish cloth, and then came to sit by me.
“Sweetie, don’t waste that wish on Santa Claus. I’m sure your mother has spices. Haven’t you ever seen her use them when she cooks?”
“Mom doesn’t allow me to watch her cook. She says it makes her nervous.”
“Oh, well that explains it. Trust me, every household has spices.”
The next day, back at my own tidy, hollow house, I was determined to find the treasure trove. I waited until my mother was twenty minutes into practicing piano—the only two times when either my father and I could get by with anything were when my mother was in the midst of her two-hour ritual of applying make-up or when she was lost in the black and white keys of her beloved Steinway. She was playing some song with lots of pedal and minor chords that reminded of me of the theme music from a Dracula film and underscored my daring mission perfectly.
I crept into our mausoleum of a kitchen, and looked around. Like the fridge, all horizontal surfaces were also bare. There was no whimsical jars in the shape of a bear guarding homemade oatmeal raisin cookies, no KitchenAid mixer, and no coffeepot with decaf still left in the carafe—just a gigantic role of Bounty paper towels and the overpowering smell of Clorox bleach. Only the sunflowers on the wallpaper offered any levity.
Filled with a mixture of hope and fear, I inched open the menacing mahogany door to the nearest cabinet and peeked inside—nothing but plates and bowls. Disappointed, but not discouraged, I forged ahead. I ventured into a second dark wood vault. This one housed a Lazy Susan stacked with neat rows of cans. When I reached the third cabinet, I felt tingling sensation in my fingertips. Magic was close by.
I swung open the door. Sure enough, hanging inside, just as it had been at Molly’s house, was a spice rack. But, in the place of the quaint glass bottles were plastic, cylindrical containers with serious-looking labels covered in black block lettering and numbers with periods in the middle and abbreviations at the end. And in the place of mystical plants and powders were a plethora of pills as varied as my mother’s wigs—small blue tablets, peachy ovals, and two-toned capsules. I read down the row of alphabetized bottles sounding out the words just as I had done with the spices: Diiil—lau—ded, Dex—aaa—drine, Klo—nooo—pin. There was also Librium, Percodan, Valium, and Vicadin, and others I couldn’t begin to pronounce.
No wonder my mother couldn’t cook.
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