My mother called me this afternoon as she was leaving her work in Nashville; she wanted to know if I thought steamed vegetables and rice sounded good for dinner. I replied with a warm "yeah, that sounds great" and we hung up and I returned to my house work.
When she walked through the kitchen door about an hour later after a stop at Publix (where she experienced for the first time and excitedly told me about the artificial thunder and lightning that occurs just before the produce is misted by the little sprinkler fixtures there), she laid on the kitchen counter a bag full of fresh vegetables- three squash, three heads of broccoli, one red bell pepper and one yellow, and a few good potatoes. I was a bit taken back since, in today's society, one typically thinks of steamed vegetables coming in a pre-packaged bag that you can pop in the microwave. I was pleasantly surprised to see the array of color. We weren't planning on eating right away, so I went to my room and submersed myself in one of the books I've been reading lately, The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac.
After a while, she hollered for me to come help fix dinner, so I finished the chapter I was on and shuffled into the kitchen where she already had out a large cutting board and was slicing up the potatoes and placing them strategically into the steamer on the stove. I too got out a cutting board and positioned myself at the opposite counter where I neatly trimmed each squash into little yellow circles and threw them in the pot (much to my mother's dismay, for her strategy was to space out the vegetables for optimum steaming).
We talked a long while as we finished preparing all the food. Mostly about my Buddhist belief in observation and analysis, but we eventually dropped the subject. She began to tell me about a book on tape she'd been listening to on her way to and from work each day. It was about a little girl whose mother had secluded herself from life by reading books all day after her father had left them. The little girl, named Lilian, began to use food as a way to bring her mother out of her "funk". She said that she felt in food what others feel in words and written language. She related the smell of spices and the fragrance of coffees and teas to memories in her life and to certain emotions and human behaviors. She began to use cooking as a way to stir up life in her mother.
As my mother told me about the book, I said I wouldn't mind if she wanted to put it on, so she told me to bring it in from her car. I did, and we stood leaning against the counter tops listening while we waited for our own dinner to finish cooking. The style of writing reminded me much of James Joyce's in his short story The Dead. There wasn't much of a plot, as Lilian was mostly trying different recipes, but the writing itself seemed to woo your imagination. It was the attention to detail that brought the story to life.
The buzzer on our stove went off and we silently moved the pots over to our dinner table where the plates and forks were already set. We habitually took our seats, paying no notice to the actual movement of muscle, as both our minds were lost in the story being told to us by a female narrator we'd never met. We dished out the rice, poured on top the mixture of steamed squash, potatoes, peppers, and broccoli, and sat staring out the dining room window at the pale blue and pink sky.
It was when we finished our supper that I had a sudden recollection of my childhood. We both sat there, plates clean, glasses almost full, eyes glazed over, and I recalled nights long ago when my family would sit together at the dinner table and listen to late-night stories on the radio - often Adventures in Odyssey or some other family-oriented show. I maintained attention to Lilian's story, but thought also of those nights when we'd cook a big family dinner and then stay huddled round our dishes as the food in the pots got cold. Those days seem lost now.
We finished the chapters of the book on tape that dealt with Lilian's story (which ended happily as the mother began to take notice of her daughter and climb slowly out of her reclusive state). I put my dishes into the dishwasher and grabbed an apple, announcing that I was going outside for a bit.
Even the night air reminded me of when I was child and I would walk outside to see my father working on the old Buick or repairing a lawn mower. He was always outside. And something about cool, clear evenings reminds me of him. I walked into the back yard and squatted beside the maple tree. Took a bite out of my apple and savored the crisp crunch. My little lion man snuck up beside me and wrapped his tail around my leg and I scratched his head and rubbed his neck. The moon hung lonely in the clear blue sky right above our field, one half perfectly visible, like the stones that shimmer in the bottom of a clean clear creek in the summer, and the other half was hidden, like a ghost in the daylight. I looked up at it and thought of what a perfect night it had been. I wasn't sure if I should call it nostalgic or promising. Either way, I was thankful for the peace I felt. That was a change, and I felt that a lot more would be changing in my near future.