Donna called out from the bedroom, "I am going down to Century 21 to pickup some things."
I rolled my eyes and took a breath, "Okay but don’t spend a lot."
Now in the kitchen Donna is looking at me with that smile of WTF, "I work, my money, I pay half the bills, and add to savings so shut up. Besides there is always a sale, so it is free."
Tugging at my logic, "Its not free, even on sale, you pay something."
Turning to head out she notes, "It is free, kind of 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 recipes resting on the stainless steel island.
I run my fingers over the listed ingredients to animate them. I conjure these black letters and words on white paper to come to life. These words 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 for church head to the 11am service. My brother and I in ties and jackets feeling constrained and starchy. Dad in a suit. Mom in a dress and my sister in print frock. Most of my teen years I was an acolyte so I needed to get St. Andrews early to put on the cassock and cotta to light the candles.
The service ended at 12:30. And then we’d pile into the Ford loosening our ties and the top button on the starchy white shirts. Driving home for the Sunday afternoon meal. We’d race into our rooms strip off the church clothes getting yelled at for not hanging everything up.
Mom would do most of the work but we would be charged with setting the table, the dinning room table not the kitchen table. Forks on the left. 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 settings cast shadows on the white table cloth in a still-life moment.
While dinner was being cooking the Sunday paper was read 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."
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. 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 Donna and me. Our Sunday meals did not begin as a 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 planned to set type. Was it 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 it as me returning to her what was lost.
Right now the table could wait till she was back from Century 21. Make the banana bread.
I went to the pantry and pulled out the container of flour. Removed the cover and reached in for the scoop. Slowly sank the plastic scoop into the flour and watched the puff of flour escape. Pouring it into a one cup measuring cup. I took a knife and scraped it 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 the butter and sugar together. The color and texture changed from white and yellow to golden softness.
Now for the fun part mashing six bananas. The bananas were lying in the bowl like small logs speckled and ripe. I picked up the potato masher with the red plastic handle which was given to me by my mom when I got my first apartment after college. It and the other utensils were from the 1950’s. They were classic and weighty. I slowly pushed down on the bananas and watched the fruit squish and rise up between the ends of the masher. The repeated mashing produced a grey colored wet paste similar to the mud at the edge of pond.
To the mashed bananas I added four eggs 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.
The blender was mixing the butter and sugar and I added the bananas and eggs. The aroma of the ingredients filled the air and the bowl took on a more formed shape. Now to add the flour mix. Slowly it 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 placed them 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. Startled awake by a dream which I have no memory.
Where was she? The aroma of banana bread was there that was no dream. The mist of sleep evaporated. I remembered she is not coming home. Donna died seven years ago.
It was still Sunday. It was still our home. There is no reason not to continue. I imagine she can smell the banana bread?