Saturday, August 6, 2011

Indirect Objects

Olivia nipped another warm Tollhouse cookie from the sheet and made a pronouncement that had the ring of  undisputed fact, not mere opinion:  “The thing is,” she said, still chewing reflectively, “that they taste okay now, right from the oven, but these cookies taste the very best when I eat them out of the Green Tin.” 

Oh honey. I smiled to myself and kept my mouth shut, but I felt like I had just knocked back a straight shot of pure joy. I was happy because I had helped to conjure a sacred object for someone I love, right in my own sticky-countered, fingerprint-ridden kitchen. That sacred object had been produced from the ever-potent mix of food and love and tradition. The Green Tin, bought for fifty cents at a garage sale a few years ago, has been invested with the power to summon up safe and happy memories for my good pal Olivia Louise, every time she thinks about it. That’s what you get for fifty cents and a few billion homemade cookies.

We all swim in deep, unseen currents of feeling for the objects of our youth, and even deeper ones about the food we remember from those times. So it stands to reason that everyone can recall one or two kitchen objects that summon up memories of unending sweetness and eternal comfort. And if those pasts weren't necessarily so rosy, one treasured object can become a featured player in a Mental Movie of good moments, repeated on an endless loop that deletes any scenes of shouting, worry or pain.

 When my mother died, and we cleaned out her house, I remember that what I really wanted to take away with me was her set of metal measuring spoons. They were the same cheap set that everyone’s mom had back then, at least moms of a certain age who hadn’t gone all modern and opted for the avocado green plastic set, earned as a hostess gift from a Tupperware party. Even though the spoons were not at all unique, they were a sacred object for me. They reminded me of cooking with my mother, which I did not do often, but which seemed, in retrospect, to be some of the most important time we spent together.

Holding those spoons, standing in her kitchen, just weeks after her funeral, I could feel myself back in that same room a child. I was so small that I was standing on a stool so I could see over the counter. I could hear the whir of the motor of the Sunbeam MixMaster, and I could see those beaters spinning and clanking against the white mixing bowl.

In my memory, she has found the bottle of vanilla on the narrow rack of shelves that hang over the back of one kitchen door. And now she’s standing over me, measuring vanilla into the bowl and letting a little extra spill over the edge of the spoon. “Always be generous with the vanilla,” she tells me, “because a little extra won’t hurt anything. But measure the salt in the sink, because too much of that is awful.” Then she tells me, as she does every time we bake together, that women used to put vanilla behind their ears as perfume.

Forty years from now, I will repeat all this to my daughters, and the words will spill from my lips as if I just thought of them. But that isn’t what happens. In fact, they are magic words that have been living in a place where thought doesn’t go. They have been conjured by the sacred object – the cheap metal spoons I use when I bake, the ones that bring me back to my mother. 

The day I saw the Green Tin at a garage sale, I knew that it had potential. I’d had a similar as an object in my childhood, one with a lid that was blue on the outside and deep red on the inside; it was covered with thin line drawings of men singing in barbershop quartets. The tin only appeared at Christmas, when cookies were baked. Every year, my mother told me that my grandfather, whom I’d never met, had been a singer in a barbershop quartet, the Missouri Belles. She told me this until I stopped listening, and I’ve only just now remembered it.

But back to the garage sale. When I say that I knew the tin had potential, what I mean to say is that it possessed a sort of uselessness that  I immediately admired. It was clearly too big, especially for any one-batch, God-fearing, “not too much” Minnesotan cook. To fill this tin with cookies would mean a triple batch, maybe a quadruple one, and people don’t act like that here, a place in which “over the top” means “just an inch shy of the rim, and lukewarm, please.”

When I saw the tin, I knew it would take work, too much work, to fill it with the chocolate chip cookies that Olivia and her siblings love. But I could picture that tin being stacked on top of all the other luggage, ready for trips to their cabin. I could see it being carried into the house by members of my family, all of them grateful for the invitation to be in a lovely place with the people they cared for most. The tin, filled with cookies, would be a thank-you, an offering and a talisman.

I thought all of this as I handed over two quarters and strolled down the sidewalk, holding the tin wth two hands in front of me, as if I were in some Holy Ceremony for Baked Goods, and had somehow broken loose from the rest of the procession.  I went home and I started to bake. It was exactly as much trouble to fill that tin as I had expected, but that was okay. There was power in the effort, not just that first time, but all the other summer weekdays when I slid sheet after sheet into and out of the oven, preparing for a Friday night trip to the cabin that would include a seemingly endless supply of cookies.

My mother's birthday was this week, and if she were alive, she’d be 91 years old. She would have hated being 91. She would have hated to slow down and feel old and watch her friends die. It’s better, I know, that she just fell down in my garden 13 years ago, better that she said “I don’t feel good,” and died in my arms before either of us had a chance to think about what was happening.

I have some memories, and I have the measuring spoons, although I’ve lost a couple in the garbage disposal over the years (we were too poor for such a luxury, which is why she was able to hold onto hers until I inherited them).

And thinking of all that makes me think this:  Olivia is right. They are better from the tin. Right now, she doesn’t know why. But someday she will.

And I hope, when she does know, that she’ll think of me, maybe on my birthday, and wonder what I did to make those cookies taste so good.

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