In the sixties, when I was six or seven, Dad worked at night by candlelight to paint a picture of our cabin, which he’d built by hand using a team of horses and mechanical tools. He didn’t paint people, just the corner you could call our kitchen — the logs in the fireplace luminous with orange and yellow flickerings and shadowed in deep blues, the old wood-burning range an altar of black granite and glinting nickel. Even the crude washstand piled with dishes, pans, and homemade wooden bowls and spoons became profound in Dad’s painting. The broad colors he used to streak the oval mirror looked to me like something grand and unknowable — perhaps falling stars reflected from the window.
Late one night, I lay on my cot across the room. I heard Mother stir, alone in the bed. Opening my eyes, I silently watched Dad. He wasn’t painting, just squinting into the kitchen corner as if to make out some object in the distance. He looked for a long time. I wondered what he saw, and in the candlelight I felt his terrible, urgent energy and his restless yearning to see deeper, truer.
After awhile Dad turned away a moment, took a gulp of coffee, lit his pipe, and returned to pacing the floor, looking.
My mother isn’t in the painting, yet I think of it now as a painting of her. That’s her warmth in the radiant light, her love in the mirror’s reflection. When I look at the painting I can see her thrusting a stick of wood into the range and quickly clanging the door shut against the smoke. She squeezes hot, sour-smelling juice from boiled chokecherries and throws the pits outside for the chipmunks. She carries in bowls of fresh-picked yellow squash and cherry tomatoes from her garden. She pulls hot bread from the oven. She stands at the range and silently pours wax into cardboard molds, making candles.
The ruffled muslin curtains filter the sun. A green plant hangs from a hook in the ceiling. The wide countertops between the yellow refrigerator and the yellow stove are lined with appliances, apothecary jars of dried beans and pasta, canisters of flour and sugar, a wine rack, spices — warm reminders of years of savory cooking. The heavy, round pine table bears scars — a cigarette burn, an impression of someone’s handwriting — now polished to permanence. The glowing copper pots and molds speak of loving hands, and an amber lamp on one counter accents the coziness. The aroma of baking chocolate lingers.
This is the room where I have dispensed hot milk, weak tea, and chicken soup as needed. The best letters have been composed in this kitchen while stirring gravy. The worst thing happened here. My husband died in this kitchen.
Elizabeth F. Cleveland
The ample old ladies who filled the kitchen in the basement of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Church cooked for all the church’s weddings and funerals. The women all had names that were variations on Anna — Anna May, Annie Holma, Little Anna — and they followed unwritten recipes for pirogi and halupkies and all my favorite sweets.
Right outside the kitchen door was a rack of spices for sale that I figured were shipped directly from the old country and blessed by the pope. Once I stole a bottle with a vanilla bean in it and asked my nana to make one of her delicious coconut cakes. She asked me if I’d paid for the bean. I lied and said I’d put the money in the honor box. She made the cake and let me eat as much as I wanted, and I got the biggest bellyache I’d ever had.
Not long ago, I visited Nana in the nursing home where she’s been in a coma for the past six years. Afterward, I went to St. Nicholas for Sunday morning services. None of the Annas I’d known were there; I guessed that they were homebound or, like Nana, in nursing homes, or even long dead. The priest I’d known was gone too. My attention drifted because I couldn’t remember enough Ukrainian to get me through Mass, so I snuck out into the kitchen. There were the same potholders hanging from the stove, the same refrigerator, and the same green Formica countertops I’d sat on so many times.
Even the spices, which I still believed were packed and blessed by the pope, were displayed on the same rack, just as I remembered. I picked up a bottle containing a vanilla bean and read where it came from: Allentown, Pennsylvania. Without hesitating, I put the bottle in my bag.
I drove back to the nursing home. Holding the vanilla bean under my nana’s nose, I told her that the ladies in the kitchen needed her to bake a coconut cake for the picnic. She didn’t stir. I left and pitched the vanilla bean out my car window, not caring if I got pulled over for littering. No cop gives a ticket to a woman with tears in her eyes.
Kari M. Elsts
When I was six my father died, leaving my mother with seven children to raise. Somehow she managed to earn enough money from babysitting to keep us fed and clothed. But she wasn’t much of a housekeeper, and as a teenager I was ashamed of our untidy house, especially the kitchen.
Dishes were always piled in the sink and on the counter, the top of the fridge was cluttered, and the floor was filthy. Then there were my mother’s clippings. She wasn’t a big reader, her main source of information being Reader’s Digest and women’s magazines. But if she was inspired by something she read, she’d cut it out and tape it to the kitchen cupboard, creating a haphazard collage. The clippings might stay there for years. The new ones were bright white, the tape invisible against the white cupboards. But the old ones were faded, the tape yellow and curled at the edges. One quick read through my mother’s kitchen and you knew the thoughts that guided her life. Sadly, the only clipping I can remember is one that said, “Worry is like a rocking chair — it keeps you busy but it don’t get you nowhere.” It’s funny because Mom was an incessant worrier (and with good cause). Maybe that’s why she needed the constant reminder.
I saw the kitchen with new eyes years later when my sister-in-law’s brother (a college student and the son of an economist) read my mother’s cupboards in fascinated admiration, commenting that it was the most interesting kitchen he had ever been in. And after earning my own college degree at the age of forty-two, I now realize that with a different set of opportunities my mother might have gone to college and studied philosophy.
I’m not embarrassed anymore when I think about her clippings. In fact, while I haven’t begun to decorate my kitchen cupboards, my fridge always displays at least six or seven hand-copied quotations — to the dismay of my husband and teenage sons.
Carrboro, North Carolina
I have always fantasized about having a kitchen as grand as the ones in magazine and television ads. It’s sunlit and all white, of course. The cabinets are made of the finest wood, with glass doors that show off the color-coordinated earthenware and china inside. Gleaming copper pots hang over the island-style range, waiting to produce the next gourmet feast. There’s a dishwasher that can judge how dirty the dishes are and a refrigerator that can talk, reminding me, “The door is ajar.” The spice collection is so complete it covers an entire wall. The countertops are beautifully bare except for a few crystal vases full of fresh-cut flowers.
There I stand in my kitchen, one the great chefs of the world would envy. It’s perfect — except that I can’t cook.
I spent my childhood in the farm kitchens of my grandmothers, mother, and aunts, who taught me about life and how to be a woman. In my youth, the farm kitchen was the central stage for women. They would disappear from it only to sleep, tend their gardens, visit friends, and, once a week, go to church, where male preachers told them they would be handmaidens to men in the afterlife, too. When they returned to their farmhouse kitchens, however, they mocked the patriarchs and wielded their own power and influence. There they served as doctor, nurse, minister, psychiatrist, housekeeper, teacher, cook, and storyteller.
Every day the air was scented with a rhubarb pie baking in the oven, huckleberries simmering on the stove, freshly baked bread set out to cool, or sizzling bacon reaching upstairs to wake you. Each week, the clothes were smeared with soap, rubbed up and down on the washboard, rinsed, and put into a huge copper tub to boil. On Saturday nights, another tub of hot water was prepared in which we children were scrubbed unmercifully. And during the summer, the women boiled Mason jars and filled them with the bounty from their gardens, proud of the rows of canned fruits and vegetables that lined their cellar shelves.
The kitchen was also where these women socialized their girl children. They taught me how to read using the letters in the Charter Oak label on the stove, how to dip a ripe peach in boiling water and slide the skin off with one or two deft strokes, and how to peel an apple so that the skin comes off in one spiraling piece.
Once, as I was shelling peas for my grandmother at her kitchen table, she said, “Carlysle used to sit there and shell peas for me.”
“Who’s Carlysle?” I asked.
“My son. He was five when he died.”
Surprised that I’d never heard of him, wondering if there were others, I asked, “How many children did you have?”
“Eight,” she answered. “Mary and Abel, my twins, died at birth.”
I imagine that the dead babies were brought into the kitchen to be washed for burial.
I think back on these memories now from my quiet kitchen, where the only sound comes from the beep of the microwave or the buzz of the blender. My children are grown, and I am nearing the end of my allotted time here. Yet I still feel reverent in this room. I have an herb window over the sink in which I place treasures: a flying crane, dried baby’s breath in a blue honey pot, a figurine child looking into a candle flame, an African violet, a cactus garden, a piece of bark covered with moss, and feathers, seashells, and stones. My kitchen window is an altar to my life and to all of the women who taught me how to live it.
Long Beach, California
The kitchen was the place where my mother cooked the meals we ate in the living room in front of the TV.
As a child, whenever I did something to anger my father, he paddled me and then refused to allow me to have meals with the family. Instead, he sent me to the kitchen and told Annie, our cook, to give me milk toast.
I hated that soggy concoction, but I loved the warmth of the kitchen and I loved Annie. Heavyset, her eyes bright and dancing, her metal-rimmed glasses sliding forward on her nose, Annie wore flowered aprons made of feed bags. I’d climb on her lap and nestle in her large bosom, and when I wouldn’t eat the milk toast, she always found something delicious to give me.
I’d watch Annie make our wonderful meals. For turkey stuffing, she broke dried bread into small pieces, diced onions and celery, and cooked it all in a large frying pan filled with hot, bubbly butter. She rolled out smooth layers of dough to make the crust for the tallest lemon pie I ever ate. But my favorite dish was cold, smooth, rich rice pudding served with hot jelly sauce.
In the evenings, Annie would pour over the Sears Roebuck catalog, pointing now and then to a pretty dress she dreamed of being able to afford.
To earn extra money, Annie raised chickens. Ready-to-hatch eggs were put into our kitchen stove, her incubator. I remember her reaching into the warm oven, her apron overflowing with damp, peeping, yellow chicks. She raised the chickens in our back yard henhouse and sold them to the grocery store across the street.
When her daughter visited, it was a happy occasion for both of them. Laden with gifts, tall, stylish Anita burst into the kitchen and gave Annie a long hug. I often wished they could have visited together in our living room, but color lines were rigid and I didn’t know how to break them.
Annie never went to school and couldn’t read or write. When I asked her how much salt or other ingredient she used in a recipe, she showed me how much she would hold in her hand, her palm wide open or tightly closed. I still find myself cooking like her, using my cupped hand instead of a measuring spoon.
My father never knew that sending me to the kitchen was not punishment. I felt loved and cared for by Annie. In the kitchen I learned more than I ever could have learned in our dining room.
De Witt, New York
I spent most of my pregnancy in the kitchen. I took refuge there from the baby’s father when we’d come to harsh words or blows. There was no TV or radio in the room, not even a table or chairs, just the appliances he had bought me, the gadgets and tools I’d been acquiring since high school, and my coffee cup collection. I’d sit on the floor in the corner, sometimes on the phone in tears, sometimes in stunned, silent pain, staring vacantly for hours.
As my belly grew, the baby’s father came home only to shower and change. It hurt, when I walked into the bathroom and bedroom, to smell him and find his clothes on the floor. I stopped sleeping in our bed.
But the kitchen was still mine. I worked there to preserve my sanity. I strung red peppers and hung them to dry. I cooked enough food for fifteen people and fed my neighbors. I hung metal baskets for potatoes, onions, and fruit and filled jars with honey and homemade sauces. I stuffed the freezer with neatly labeled meals.
In the days after my son was born, my friends and family brought baby clothes and gifts of food, and my son’s father attempted to make peace with me. The truce lasted forty-eight hours.
Again I ended up in the kitchen in tears. My mother came, and I left with nothing except my son and the clothes I was wearing. Two weeks later, my son’s father had vacated our house, and I went back to pack my belongings.
I felt like I’d been robbed. He had left my food out to spoil. My glasses were broken in the sink. Garbage was all over the floor. And all my cups were gone — the one my mother gave me when I was sixteen; the one a friend brought back for me from his trip to Las Vegas; even the ones I’d bought myself just two weeks earlier. Gone.
That was three months ago, and though my bruises have healed, I still don’t know what I’m going to say when my son asks about his father. I’ve got some time to think about it though.
My mom bought me a mug for Mother’s Day, and I plan to start looking for a new house soon, one with a kitchen roomy enough for lots of coffee mugs, dried peppers, freshly baked bread, and chocolate chip cookies. And I want one of those double-doored refrigerators on which I’ll display all the crayon drawings I’m bound to get.
Every kitchen sink should have a window over it. Mine looks out on a bird feeder and a patch of woods and part of my barn, where the animals have gathered to escape the heat. If the boys are jumping on the trampoline in the field, I can just see them out of a corner of the window.
I wasn’t always a dishwasher. In high school I did anything to avoid the task, and in college I told my girlfriends and roommates that I was allergic to dishwater. Seriously.
I am loading the dishwasher like prayer.
I have left politics for husbandry. The kitchen is a sanctuary where I stand and take care of things after the boys are in bed, after I stop taking phone calls, after the animals are fed and the tools put up and the briefcase closed with a snap. It is my time to contemplate my life as I wash and put things away, clean the table, sweep the floor, wipe the counters, and water the plants.
The more fully I embrace a task the more full it becomes. Lord, I say, pot in hand, hunkered over the kitchen sink, make all my motions prayerful.
Carrboro, North Carolina
I grew up in a middle-class, Catholic family. Mom stayed home, and Dad was a thirty-year man at one of the town’s largest companies.
One night, my brother, sisters, and I were upstairs getting ready for bed. My parents were expecting company: one of my father’s self-righteous and dogmatic Catholic groups. My mother was not happy about this invasion. She had no use for my father’s religious friends and felt burdened by the work that went into playing hostess.
I don’t know how the argument started, but we heard the voices downstairs and were quick to recognize the angry tone. Then a heavy thump echoed all the way up the stairs. We’d never heard a sound quite like it. It wasn’t a cupboard slamming shut or a backhand slap. Curiosity overcoming fear, we ran downstairs.
The kitchen lights were dim, but the small stove light revealed our mother sitting on the floor, her legs sticking straight out as she leaned awkwardly against the stove, holding her face and head. We stood in silence, not taking our eyes off her. Tears were running down her face. My father loomed in the darkness, but we ignored him and watched Mom struggle to get up using the stove’s door handle for balance. In a deadly tone that I’d never heard before, she said, “If you ever hit me again, I’ll kill you.”
One of us asked about all the people coming over. What would she say?
“I’ll tell them this good Catholic man just gave me a black eye. That should surprise them all.”
But we knew. We all knew. Mother wouldn’t tell. None of us would. Pretending everything was fine was what we all grew up doing. It was a way to control the uncontrollable.
One Sunday, a day notorious in our house for extra doses of anger and violence, my mother was in the kitchen, my father was reading his newspaper, and I had barricaded myself in a back bedroom. No one else was home. Over the music from my radio rose the familiar voices, my mother’s shouts of rage, my father’s muffled, controlled insults. I turned down my radio to listen.
Then I heard a thud. I ran to the kitchen, knowing what I would find: dirty dishes in the sink, a chicken boiling on the stove, and my mother on the floor, this time lying with an area rug gathered in a knot around her feet.
My father’s face was gray and his eyes stared blankly, as if he too wondered what had happened. I watched as my mother held on to the sink and tried to regain her balance. There was an intensity in her eyes that was focused and frightening.
“I told you before that if you ever hit me again, I would kill you,” she said quietly. She walked through the house to the garage and came back with a croquet mallet.
I watched dully at first, vaguely worried about the chicken boiling dry. Then I moved quickly between my mother and father. My back to him, I looked at her and said, “Mom, give me the mallet. You can’t do this.”
She looked through me. “I told him what I would do if he touched me again. Get out of my way.”
“Mom, just give it to me. This isn’t going to help.” For a long moment, she stared at me. Finally, she dropped the mallet and just stood there, defeated.
I turned to my father. He looked old and pale. I said, “Get out of here, and as far as everyone in this house is concerned you can stay out.” To my amazement, he left without a word. It was the first and only time in my childhood that I’d felt in control.
My mother sat in silence for a while, the rug tangled underfoot, dirty dishes everywhere. Then she stood, and my helplessness returned as I watched her add water to the chicken, now nearly bone dry.
Later that evening, my father returned. My mother remained silent except for an occasional cupboard slamming or dirty fork clattering in the sink. Nobody talked about what had happened. Nobody ever did. We all sat down at the kitchen table and ate Sunday dinner.
My mother’s thirty-five-year-old kitchen linoleum was patterned in large, alternating squares of red and white, and Mom repeated the checkerboard design in the homemade curtains and tablecloth. The walls were paneled with golden pine that she rubbed down periodically with Murphy’s Oil Soap, and the two picture windows in the breakfast nook looked out on a lush Ohio lawn that sloped gently to our Amish neighbor’s dairy farm.
The week after my father died, we six siblings and our families stayed over to keep her company. My brother and his wife bought Mom new kitchen tiles, and some of us helped tear up the old linoleum and lay the new vinyl flooring. Mom was grateful; she planned to sell the house, and the kitchen needed sprucing up.
The kitchen seemed strangely bright with the new floor, cheerful white tiles with little peach flowers. But at night, when we sat at the table, the red-and-white checked curtains drawn over the picture windows, the room took on some of its old warmth.
Mom sold the house early that summer and is now ensconced in my sister’s home. Practical to her bones, she rarely talks about my father or the house she lived in for thirty years.
The kitchen in my sister’s house has white walls and a ceramic tile floor. My mother spent hours stripping the old veneer off the wood cabinets and revarnishing, but the wood was dry and didn’t take the finish well.
Havre de Grace, Maryland
I just sat down after working in the kitchen for forty-five minutes. I wasn’t cooking anything, just washing and putting away dishes, wiping counters, and sweeping crumbs into the wastebasket. This kitchen is clean.
I’m not obsessed. At least I don’t think I am. A twenty-seven-year-old, middle-class white man, I haven’t been programmed to detest grime but to achieve sexual and financial success. Why then do I love slipping plates into suds? What causes an absent smile of contentment to light up my face sometime between squeezing a ribbon of Joy into the water and setting the beaded plates and glasses in their wire rack to dry?
I think it comes from a need to reestablish myself in my home. I live with my parents, and usually the kitchen belongs to them. But now that they’re retired, they travel as often as they can, and then I’m here alone.
As soon as they’ve left for a trip, my response is always the same. I jar the quiet house with the gush of tap water and the grind of the disposal. I clean the kitchen and, through cleaning, make it mine.
The blessings of this ritual are efficiency and mindlessness. My brain disengages as cleanly as a car popped into neutral while my hands do their simple but satisfying work. And my thoughts leapfrog back and forth in time.
I remember the hot June afternoon I spent rinsing dozens of encrusted soda bottles my roommate left behind after I threw him out for sloppiness. I swirled hot water into each bottle, dumped the residue, and upended it to drain. When I finished, a fairy kingdom of clean glass surrounded me, turrets glinting in the sunlight.
I still recall my father, many years ago, sniffing the dishes I had just washed. He cupped a white cereal bowl to his big Czech schnoz and frowned. “You’re not using enough soap,” he told me. “Put more soap in the water.” Perplexingly, this is one of the few direct commands I can recall him giving, so these words have assumed a deeper significance. I search for hidden messages in them, an encoded philosophy; I expect meaning to unfold like the tools of a Swiss Army knife.
I also remember the time I snuck up on Mom and experimentally walloped her while she was frying hamburgers, and she turned on me, brandishing the smoking spatula. I recall my first successful pancake; our cats catching their tails on fire from stovetop burners; the way forks spark in a microwave.
By the time I drain the sink and wipe down the counters, refill the ice trays and mop the floor, the kitchen becomes my own. Straightening the other rooms of the house — the dull rigors of bed making or vacuuming — is simply work. But cleaning the kitchen offers endless potential for renewal. Ordering it orders me, and I am recreated — until my parents come home. Or until I move out, get my own kitchen, grow up.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
During our courtship, my husband and I must have abandoned at least a dozen romantic dinners. We were trying to get to know each other, so we’d prepare elaborate meals meant to be lingered over. But they never got eaten till hours later or even the next day.
We truly intended each time to be patient, polite, and conversational; kitchens are supposed to be good places for that. But the more we resisted, the more furious was the passion that hit us — sometimes before the main course, sometimes during the first glass of wine. We never once made it to dessert.
I think I come by this weakness for kitchen love honestly. My parents adored each other. Each evening after dark, my dad came in from the barns or fields dirty and greasy. He’d head for the kitchen to get a beer and to find his wife. Turning from the stove, she’d put her arms around his neck and he’d hug her tight. Then he would pat or squeeze her, or just rest his thick hands on her butt — nothing lewd and not for very long, just enough to settle the whole family into a peaceful evening.
Having four children surely must have stifled their kitchen romance, just as our four children have stifled ours. Yet I am still delighted by my passionate memories and still yearn to be hugged there — maybe because the kitchen is the very soul of our house. It’s the room where crayon drawings adorn the humming refrigerator, where we try to teach our children good manners, where we begin the day with greetings. We come home to share the day’s news there. We see the worst of each other there. We toil over making meals and washing dishes. We learn to be a family there, feeding the babies in their highchairs, helping with homework, balancing the checkbook.
To be lovingly embraced in the kitchen at the end of the day is thrilling. And to be totally undone there by unintentional passion is sustenance for a marriage and a joy forever.
Kay Rippelmeyer Tippy