It was Sunday and I was getting ready to make some banana bread.
She called out from the bedroom, “I am going down to Century 21 to pickup some things.”
I rolled my eyes and took a deep breath to steady my response, “Okay but don’t spend a lot.”
Now in the kitchen looking at me with that smile of WTF, “I work, my money, I pay half the bills, and savings so shut up. Besides there is always a sale, so it is free.”
Pulling at my logic, “Its not free, even on sale, you pay something.”
Turning to head out she notes, “It is free especially if I buy two for the price of one. One is free.”
I can’t win, “Okay I am going to start the banana bread. You can have some when you come home. Bye.”
“Bye bye, la la la la” she sang as the door closed behind her.
It’s Sunday. My bike ride is done, her lattes were made and finished, the Sunday Times devoured, played with the dog, and now looking at Sunday recipes at rest on the stainless steel island.
I run my fingers over the listed ingredients to animate them. Make these black letters and words on white paper come to life. These words expressed in this order will fill the kitchen with the scent of warm embracing flavors and create a home, the home, our home, for us.
As a child Sunday meals anchored the family. That and going to church. We’d pile into the Ford dressed in our church outfits for the 10am service. My brother and I wearing ties, jackets, and feeling constrained. Dad in a suit. Mom in a dress and my sister wearing a print frock and hat. I was an acolyte for my teen years. An acolyte needed to be at St. Andrews early to put on the cassock, cotta, and light the candles.
The service ended at 11:30. And then we’d pile back into the Ford loosening our ties and the top button on the starchy white shirts poking and prodding each other with all the pent up energy of children held captive. We’d race into our rooms strip off the church clothes being yelled to to hang everything up.
Mom would do most of the work preparing the Sunday meals. We would be charged with setting the table, the dinning room table, not the kitchen table. Forks on the left. Napkins under the fork. Knife and spoon on the right. Water glasses and plates. There was always a table cloth. It felt elegant, stately, and formal as if we were dinning out within our own home. Afternoon sunlight came though the dining room window and the place settings cast shadows on the white table cloth in a still-life moment.
While dinner was being cooking the Sunday paper was consumed which included the comics in the Star Ledger for the kids. Mom and dad would fight over the Sunday Times Crossword puzzle.
The food was only part of this day. It was the act, the real life moment, of sitting and eating that made it Sunday. “Please pass the carrots. May I have some more chicken? Can we watch Disney tonight? May I be excused?” And then there was the instructional moments, “The fork in the left hand!” “Use your knife with your fork. “Sit up don’t slouch over the plate.” “Put your napkin on your lap. Chew with your mouth closed.” We were all there all present all engaged around a meal with each other.
During the teen years there was the sullen jealous arguing of siblings. The sharp retorts to imagined insults or hurts that fractured the meal which at times ended with “Leave the table and go to your room, now!”
The specifics of the meals were there but the memory has a larger life. It is the family gathered around the a table like an alter offering the warmth and comfort of a meal in a split level suburban home. Eight steps up to the living room, dinning room, kitchen, three bedrooms, and bath. Eight steps down to the rec room, spare room, utility room, door to patio and yard, the utility room, and garage. Sitting in a small subdivision in central New Jersey. NJ was a long way from the tenement in a Worcester neighborhood where the entire side of my mothers family lived. Sunday meals there were events of a magnitude that rivals King Arthurs Court. Extended family members grandmom’s, aunts, uncles, etc. sitting around the table talking and arguing about everything and anything. Politics, something called the stock market, work, and the crazy uncle who was not there. Mom, grand-mom, and aunts all jammed into an apartment kitchen cooking without a bump or foul. A ballet of food and fire.
This was as close as I got during those early years to imagine what it must have been like living in a village a hundred years earlier where everyone was family. This tenement in Worcester translated well to the split level in NJ. The warmth of the kitchen the food aroma, the chattering over dinner and the sense of family. Family is less about a birth order and more about environment. Sunday dinner was the environment that reinforced family.
She didn’t really have that family Sunday dinner environment. Loss of her dad when she was young. An older brother with issues. A mother who worked to keep a roof over the family. I think more importantly was the fact her mom was not a cook.
I wanted to return to those Sunday meals for me. It was less an active choice and more instinct or DNA. Since it was only her and me. Our Sunday meals did not begin as plan to make up for what wasn’t. It happened over time. Beginning in small cramped apartments and kitchens making something, eating together, sharing a bottle of wine, and steeling ourselves for the week to come. By the time we ended up here 28 years ago the Sunday meal was an event. She would set the table. On the Sundays she cooked I set the table and washed the pans etc.
She would select the dishes as carefully as she set type. Were the settings to be the midcentury Jetson looking dishes, her mothers traditional set, the Martha Stewart set in taupe, or the Fiestaware. Dishes were chosen according to the meal and the season or the date. Placemats matched and the silverware pulled along with water glasses and wine glasses. And of course linen napkins. It was Sunday, no paper napkins.
This preparing the table was independent of my youth yet resembled it so well. There is that part of us deep within the brain that seeks order, family, comfort, peace, etc. It was less about trying to give back what she lost as child but more that we as humans crave that prehistoric life around the campfire. In my mind I began to rationalize Sunday meals as returning to her what was lost.
Baking Banana Bread
Right now the table was waiting till she was back from Century 21. Make the banana bread.
I went to the pantry and pulled down the container of flour. Removed the cover and reached in for the scoop. Slowly sank the plastic scoop into the flour and watched small mist of flour plum up. I poured it into a one cup measuring cup. A knife was scraped over the top to ensure its level with the rim and emptied it into a bowl. I repeated it again and returned the flour to the pantry and took out the whole wheat flour. Measured 1/2 cup repeated the actions. Added 2 teaspoons of baking soda and 1 teaspoon of salt.
Two cups of sugar and two sticks of butter were placed in the bowl of mixer and turned to low. Slow steady turning of the paddle attachment pulling and pushing the butter and sugar together. The color and texture changed from white and yellow to golden softness shinning ice like.
To the mashed bananas four eggs were added and whisked. The gold of the yolks blend into he mashed grey bananas. The yellow swirled in a vortex and slowly disappeared into the bananas changing the grey to a yellow tinted gelatinous mass that would become banana bread.
The blender working the butter and sugar was waiting for the bananas and eggs. Once added the aroma of the ingredients filled the air and took on a firmer texture. Slowly the flour mix was added. The dry flour melded in to become a batter of grayness. Scrap the sides until the scars of dried flour was gone. I pour this into two loaf pans and place in the oven.
Forty minutes later I removed the loafs of banana bread and cooled on a wire rack. The house smelled like home. I sat on the chair and closed my eyes. I was startled awake by a dream of which I have no memory.
Where was she? The aroma of banana bread was there that was no dream. The mist of sleep evaporated from my mind. I remembered, she is not coming home. Donna died six years ago.