Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Cookie Refuge

Hair curled just so, red lipstick flawlessly applied and blotted. The smiling, unrecognizable face belongs to a woman in a Spring Green Kitty Foyle, collar carefully starched and pressed to perfection, skirt largely hidden behind a floral apron. The woman holds one hand on her hip, the other held up as if to balance an invisible tray. To her left, a new and overly-white range—both stove and oven—gleams with an impossible shine. "General Electric Speedster Range, for cool electric cooking. Talk about speed! One giant surface unit gets red hot in 20 seconds..."

My mother has spent her life hiding from this. She has never actually seen the advertisement (nine square inches in the lower left-hand corner of page 81, purchased by General Electric for the May 1959 issue of Good Housekeeping), but it does not matter. She knows that this, or something like this, is there. And she hides from it. Not in a way that can be pinpointed in moments, so that someone could watch how the chin meets the chest, to render her person somehow smaller and less obtrusive. This is a more gentle, constant bowing of the head—in passage from room to room, in transition from hour to hour. Nothing overt to those who are not watching. Simply a quiet sense of humiliation, tagging along behind her.

By the time I was born, hiding from such shame had become more concretely an escape—a liberation—from pots and pans. There was rebellion in the purchased or microwaved. As if it might allow her to sidestep whole worlds of ideas. Oppression and prejudice and expectation and years of struggle. Rejecting homemade as a path to rejecting marrying early and to staying away from mathematics and perhaps even schoolchildren proclaiming worthlessness. "Fatty Patty Four-Eyes".

We ate separately, quickly, often dumbly. Distracting ourselves from what might be missing in front of the television, staring and silent.

More the type to mold than to rebel, I too took on a combative stance. Or I tried. But too often I tripped over the wanted-but-unwanted. Beautiful and loving and lovable. It would be so easy to have just a taste of that, however it might constrict me. But then... Don't be like that.

It was years before I allowed myself to seriously contemplate the apron. I cooked infrequently, and told myself I didn't enjoy it. Over time, though, it became more confused. Convincing myself that it was unsafe and safe simultaneously: giving into what is easy—and wrong. Moving beyond the primitive association between self-worth and oven mitts. Or both.

* * *

So, then, here is my confession: I love to cook. I find it deeply satisfying. For many of the wrong reasons, and some of the right reasons. And even more than that, I love my mother's cooking. Sparse and imperfect, and I couldn't care less. I love it more. There is an immediate, absurdist attachment to contentment in the tastes and smells I associate with my childhood. Instant safety to be found in a chocolate chip cookie.

At Christmas, as an exception to the rule, my mother would almost always bake gingerbread. It's not a kind of gingerbread that I've seen anywhere else—harder than the cakes which often get the name gingerbread but softer than that which is typically used to make houses. And to me, it equates seamlessly with home.

Probably as a gift, my mother acquired a wonderful collection of gingerbread cookie cutters. One set to make houses and one for a sleigh pulled by a team of reindeer. In later years it was a tradition to invite friends over for a gingerbread house decorating party. Some years we made more than 30 houses. I don't think my mother had ever baked so much in her life.

I start with this not for any particularly profound reason, but simply because it's where I started. We'll see where I go.

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