by Kathy Curto
A.J.’s long dark hair is piled high on top of her head in what looks like a cross between a ponytail and a bun. It’s loose and tousled but still off of her face. That’s where I told her it should be, because that’s what my mother always told me. My mother would stand with her wooden spoon in hand, pink lipstick gleaming with a Rhodaesque headscarf holding her own dark wavy hair back, and bark her regular kitchen orders: “We’re in the kitchen for Chrissakes! Get that hair up and off of your face!”
But those times are long gone, twenty-eight years ago now. And my mother is gone, too, except for times like these when I give the orders mothers give. Times like these when I tell my eleven-year-old daughter to put her hair up. It’s times like these that my mother comes back to me.
But now is time for making a meatloaf. AJ pushes her shirt sleeves up to her elbows, ties the string of her apron—actually, it’s my apron—in a knot behind her and digs her little girl hands deep into the mound of cold ground beef that sits in the center of the big glass bowl, waiting to be massaged. She mixes and churns, cold bits and clumps of meat cling to the valleys in between her little girl fingers and she takes short breaks only to add an egg or two, a handful of bread crumbs and crushed garlic. I am pleased that she is unfazed by the mess around her—the crumbs, the smeared egg whites, the flecks of meat. Being focused in the midst of a mess is a skill I’d like her to have. We both laugh when she tries to scratch her nose with the back of her wrist.
“It never fails,” I offer. “Itches always come when they’re hard to scratch.”
Still going strong, and showing no interest in my wisdom about itches, she kneads and kneads and kneads what will become her very first meatloaf.
She glides from the spice rack back to the bowl. She sprinkles in some dried basil. Not a measuring spoon in sight. It’s as if she’s been making meatloaf since the day she was born. After lifting the sticky meat from the bowl and placing it in the glass pan she begins to mold and sculpt, her demeanor becoming more intense and less playful.
She’s a cook and the look in her eyes, the blackest of olives those eyes are, tells me she wants a certain shape, a particular form. She cups her small hands along the sides of what looks to be developing into an egg-shaped loaf. She smoothes out the surface, squares the ends off and pushes the pan into the oven. The aroma of garlic seeps into our air.
My mother is back again. The smell of fresh garlic softening and warming in a hot oven brings her right back to me.
I pour myself a glass of wine, move closer to the scene and gaze toward my preteen daughter, enraptured by what I see: my green canvas apron stained with drops of olive oil and raw meat, blue jeans falling just below the subtle beginnings of a waist, toenails painted colors of the rainbow.
So after washing her hands and taking my Van Morrison out of the CD player to put her Gwen Stefani in, she asks, “Can I do the potatoes now?” She is ready to start on the next dish of the meal. Ready for what’s next. Anxious. Eager.
“Mashed or roasted? I ask.
“Mashed. Definitely mashed,” she says with undiminished stamina. She empties the plastic bag of potatoes into the sink. Brown specks of dirt and dust from the bottom of the bag fly up in the air, probably landing on the tips of her long eyelashes. She starts to peel the skin off with an old stainless potato peeler that was my father’s. He’s gone, too, my father. I still don’t know why he had a potato peeler in his drawer. I never saw him peel any kind of vegetable, ever. I remember throwing the shaky metal peeler into the cardboard box I was using that night a little over two years ago. It was the empty box I pulled from his garage to hold the items from his kitchen that I would be taking home with me.
We were going through his things. I announced to my sisters and my brother that I’d start in the kitchen. I needed to feel safe. Productive. Less guilty. The kitchen would help with that. Not much has changed. Still, when someone dies or gets sick my first impulse is to warm some olive oil in my cast iron pan, add a clove of chopped garlic and fry up what will become a tray of chicken cutlets. Or if I want to bring my mother back again, I’ll say, “This will pass. Come over and I’ll throw on a pot of coffee.”
AJ’s potatoes are peeled, boiled and mashed. She’s at a standstill having tasted them for the tenth time still not sure if they need more milk and maybe just one more dash of salt. Mashed potatoes are tricky.
She runs her pinky along the inside of the bowl and a small, lazy dollop of thick, milky white hangs from her fingertip. She pops it into her mouth looking like an old pro. The texture is cozy and the curve of her mouth tells me that the taste is pleasing to her.
I make the salad. I know it’s her least favorite part of the meal, probably because she’s too young to know how complicated salad can be.
The timer for the meatloaf buzzes so A.J. slips the oven mitts onto both hands and opens the oven door. We breathe in the smells-hearty and rich, full of spice. Home. I smell home. She lifts the pan out and places it on the stove using her knee to close the oven door.
I sit down on the wooden stool next to the kitchen counter. I sip my wine. I feel my parents move through me and then through her.
AJ’s cheeks are flushed now. The meal is almost ready to serve. Potatoes have already been spooned into the deep bowl and thin lines of smoke swirl from the top. A small dab of butter sits in the middle of the white fluff and melts into thin yellow streams. The gravy, the dinner rolls and the salad, everything is out on the table. Everything except the meat.
She slices into her very first meatloaf. Garlic again. Home again.
Kathy Curto is an Adjunct Professor at Montclair State University and St. Thomas Aquinas College and an Instructor at The Writing Institute/Sarah Lawrence College. Her essays have been featured on NPR and published in The Asbury Park Press, Italian Americana, VIA-Voices in Italian Americana, Lumina, The Mom Egg, Splash of Red and several Hudson Valley newspapers. In May 2012 she was one of the featured writers in the first NYC production of Listen to Your Mother. She lives in Cold Spring, New York with her husband and four children.