By Pearl Campbell
It was fascinating, the way she cut those onions. I moved a little closer and mouthed, “Wow, what a great trick.” She didn’t even have look. Her hands worked the knife and the vegetables as if they were directing themselves, with no need of mind or eyes. Chop, chop, she was humming to the rhythm and her gaze was far away. No onion tears, just a sweet content in her eyes as they rested on the blue calm of the lake which filled the window view.
She was a true heroin in my eyes, my Nana. To be able to perform such a fete without even looking got my awe any day. “How come you don’t cut yourself?” I wanted to know. This was likely the fiftieth question I had asked in the last quarter of an hour, but there’s a lot you’ve got to find out when you’re eight years old.
She turned and appraised me with a half smile. “When you get to my age, you don’t even have to think about it,” she said.
I decided then and there that growing old didn’t seem such a bad idea. If I ended up anything like my Nana, I would even look forward to it. And then kerwoosh, (well it sounded something like that anyway) she tossed the onions into the pan and I clapped my hands in glee and inhaled the aroma.
My grandparent’s kitchen – I shall never forget its atmosphere. I may have only been eight, more years ago than I would like to count, but the memory is as vivid as if it was … well, as if I was going there right now. I can still smell the soup simmering in the large pot. I can still see her preparing the meal and hear the regular call to my grandfather, “Keep that fire going now, we want the kitchen to stay warm.”
And it was warm but not only in the temperature sense. The warmth nestled in the very vibes of the air – happiness, security. It pervaded because she was there. If it wasn’t one of the three main meals keeping her busy, there was always a fruit loaf to bake or a new healthy dessert recipe to try. Or she’d sit at the small round table and write letters to friends, gazing at the lake now and then for her inspiration, and likely motivation.
Perched on my stool, watching her through those childhood eyes, I learned that the kitchen is more than just a room. It’s significance goes beyond a feeding facility. Her’s had a heart beat. Though she may not have been young, there was more than the local coffee house.
It was there in that kitchen where she welcomed friends and those who were lonely. A herb tea mad in a pottery tea pot and ‘something nourishing to eat’ were the items on her menu during visiting hours… though there never seemed to be a closings time. But it wasn’t just for the home made food they came. It was the listening ear she offered and the well chosen words of counsel. Her kitchen was not only a place to feed the hungry; it was a psychiatry office with a stool for a couch.
It was never a place of drudgery for Nana. Certainly, she often worked hard and there would be piles of dishes, pots boiling over, steam and a little bit of sweat. But the mundane chores couldn’t dampen her pleasure of serving others. It’s been said that the only way to true happiness is by helping others – this worked for her. Her smile told everyone so. So did the songs which she hummed and sometimes belted forth, so loud you’d wonder how such a small woman could summon such decibels. I’ve heard her sing Amazing Grace at phenomenal volume. Shoulders straight, hands clasped, she’d let it fly.
Looking back, I’ve wondered whether she ever felt less than a successful woman when the liberation movement swept the world. There she was, a housewife, and to add to the stereotype – a seamstress. That doesn’t spell ‘ultimate fulfilment’ in feminist language. But I only know what I saw and I never saw anything other than a fulfilled woman.
The tasks she accomplished everyday were not demeaning to her intelligence as far as she was concerned and her opinion was the one that counted. She didn’t need liberating because she never considered herself repressed. In fact she loved the kitchen. And so simply, that’s why we did too.
The announcement of an intended visit to our grandparents would ignite in us children an excitement much too wild to suppress. “Yippee!” we’d yell and dance around the house. “We’re going to see them, Yeh!”
“I’ve got the window seat,” one of us would yell.
“No way, you had it last time.” Inevitably a rip roaring argument would ensue but as it was a regular part of the hysteria no one really minded. We were off to see Nana and Granddad and nothing could dampen our spirits, not even when the arguing sometimes turned to thumping.
We’d arrive at their house after a day’s long trip and leap out of the car, scattering peanuts and pillows on to the driveway. It was a race to the front door. Up the wooden steps, through the overhanging ferns, up and up, panting and running until we reached the front door and there they were, waiting for us.
“How’s my best mates?”
Granddad would boom, squeezing each one of us in a hug that never failed to squash out spare breath.
hen we’d head straight for the kitchen, six children, a set of parents and two more in their golden age, with arms around one another and as many of us as they could capture. Through the door the glowing, waiting kitchen would open its arms to us and we’d crowd around the oven, guessing its contents and hinting vocally of the hunger that gnawed in our stomachs.
It was never a disappointment. Always the room gave the promise of a wonderful meal, the chance to boast to a doting grandparent. Always it lived up to the excitement.
But we weren’t the only ones who were big fans of their kitchen. It attracted many other pilgrims who knocked on the front door and ended up staying for days. Granddad was very adept at pulling people in from the doorstep, dragging them into the kitchen, sitting them down at the table, and stuffing them full. He was a food man. ‘Tucker’ he called it. “What you need is some good tucker,” he’d say, pulling out the contents of the refrigerator at remarkable speed and lining them up on the bench.
There was a fierce, unspoken competition between my grandparents as to who was the master chef. Granddad considered himself quite the man for the job. He’d hold up a slab of meat. “Hunted this myself, you’ll never taste anything like it.” He’d thrust it into the oven like he was scoring a goal, then begin a boisterous and dramatic commentary on the items of food the guest would be served, “See this honey here? He’d hold it up and beam proudly. “Comes from my own bees, greatest in the country.”
Their kitchen was there for others – always open. They liked it full, so full it was. There are many who have its memories like I do, many who have learned the meaning of happiness through watching them give. They too must have learned that a kitchen is more than toast and pots and pans. And some days I’m sure that they, like me, can’t help longing for hot soup and a little golden haired woman who made afternoons of staring out a kitchen window the most cherished moments of a life time.
Pearl Campbell is a freelance writer, residing in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.
September 1992, No. 39