Mountaintop

Clarice “Claire” Mandel took out an actual sheet of paper.  In this day and age, notes were more often “keyed” than “written,” but she wanted the recipes to have authenticity.

Lilian, her mother, was looking through the cabinets searching for the right bowls, skillets and pans.  Claire didn’t cook, but owned enough cookware to start a catering company.  At only five feet, Lilian was too short to reach even the second shelf of the custom cabinetry in Claire’s gourmet kitchen, so she was wielding a breakfast room chair in one hand as if taming a lion.

“Do you hear it?” Claire asked.  “It’s so quiet.”  She embraced the silence like an old friend she hadn’t seen for years.

“Empty house, empty heart,” her mother answered.

The statement was a dig.  Lilian was a widow who lived about an hour away.  She and her only daughter communicated often, especially in the decade since her husband had died, but she was nonetheless crippled by loneliness.

Although Claire had a million justifications why she didn’t see her mother more often, none of them were reasonable.  She had a husband, a kindergartner, a new, baby girl. Even a puppy that had been a bribe to win her son Woods over to the idea of being a big brother.  This was her family now.  This was who she had to focus on.  There were only so many hours in a day and she could see to only so many people.  The harsh reality of the situation left her mother feeling excluded.  Instead of a grandmother, she was a babysitter.  Instead of being the matriarch, she felt like an antique — dusted off and brought out on holidays and special occasions.

Lilian periodically expressed her frustrations, sometimes in a mature fashion, other times by passive-aggressively ceasing communication to see how long it would take Claire to call her.  Either method consistently left Claire feeling frustrated and Lilian feeling unappreciated.

Claire resolved that today would be the start of a new chapter.  Thanksgiving was her mother’s favorite holiday.  When Jacob had told her he’d volunteered to work, she was initially irate, but then realized it offered an opportunity.  She insisted he take the kids to the company’s daycare facility and arranged to have Lilian come over the night before so that they could spend all morning cooking.  Lilian was constantly reminding her that she could die at any moment. Claire used the sentiment to convince her mother to walk her through preparing the family’s traditional recipes, in order to ensure Lilian’s culinary legacy.

The turkey was roasting and they had moved on to making the cornbread dressing, the first step of which Claire understood to be cornbread.

“Where’s the baking powder?” Lilian asked.

“It’s on the second shelf in the cabinet by the microwave,” Claire answered.

“Of course it is,” Lilian sighed, swinging the chair toward the cabinet in one swoop as she climbed on top just as it hit the floor.  “Are you writing?  The first step is to dump some cornmeal in a bowl and then add about a tablespoon of baking powder and some salt and pepper.”

“How much cornmeal?” Claire asked, trying to be precise.

“It depends on how much cornbread you want.  Since we need a lot, you need … a lot,” Lilian said as she climbed off the chair and began pouring heaven knows how much cornmeal into a glass mixing bowl.

“Mama, just hold on,” Claire said as she grabbed the bowl and began emptying the contents into a copper dry-measure cup she had bought just for this occasion.

After two full measures, she held the cup eye-level and examined the excess.  She shook her head.  It was over two cups, but not quite two and a quarter.  “We’ll call it two cups.”

“Call it what you want, it’s going to change from meal to meal.  You don’t need this much unless you’re making it for Thanksgiving.”

“Thanksgiving’s the only time I make it.  It comes out too dry to have on its own.”

“Operator error,” Lilian said.  “If it’s too dry, it’s because you didn’t put enough oil or buttermilk in it.  The recipe is fine.”

“What recipe?  Without measurements it’s just an assortment of ingredients.” Claire’s frustration was building.

“Cooking isn’t a science.  It’s from the heart — you cook for your loved ones.  I’m surprised I haven’t lost my touch.  Cooking for one isn’t the same.”

Claire refrained from rolling her eyes.  “Two cups of cornmeal, one tablespoon baking powder, and then?” she asked, trying to stay on topic.

“Then you sprinkle plain flour on top.”

“Good Lord, mother.  How much flour?”

“I don’t know.” Lilian looked down at the mound of cornmeal in the bowl.  “It should be like snow on a mountaintop.”

This struck Claire to her core.  Life had pulled her in so many directions that any spark of creativity almost had been extinguished.  She had been an imaginative child, playful and carefree.  At some point she had gotten so busy she’d lost that part of herself.  Now, she never considered pretending the mound in front of her was anything other than what it was:  a step toward checking off a box on another holiday to-do list.

The thought was sobering.  So much so that she stepped out of the way and poured another Mimosa.  She could get away with a.m. drinking on a holiday.

She thought when she had Woods that he would help her see the world through a child’s perspective again, recapturing the joy and enthusiasm she’d once had.  But he was a boy – a rowdy one at that – and his father’s son.  Nothing about him reminded her of her childhood.  Then the baby came along.  But she’d just gotten pulled deeper into the hole.  Birthday parties weren’t exciting, special days. Instead, they were events she had to organize.  Holidays like this one didn’t mean turkey and family and football and watching movies until you fell asleep on the couch. They were just mile markers throughout a year, repeated over and over again until the torch was passed.

“How did you do it?  All those years?” she asked.

Lilian was whisking an undisclosed amount of buttermilk into the dry mixture with great fervor after having added an egg.  “Do what?”

“All of it.  How did you do all of it without losing yourself?”

“Losing myself?”  Lilian set down the bowl.  “I was my family.  That’s all that ever mattered.  I did everything because I loved you.  I wanted you to have those memories.  That’s who I was.”

Her use of the past tense was jarring.

For the first time in years, Claire heard her mother.  She understood not just her mother’s loneliness, but her resentment.  For the first time ever, she realized the legacy Lilian was actually leaving, and it wasn’t about recipes.

Family, all of their family, was their shared legacy.

Tears welled in Claire’s eyes.

“What’s the matter, Reecy?  You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m good,” Claire said, wiping her eyes.  “How much milk was that?

Her mother looked down at the bowl.  “I don’t know. Enough to make it like pancake batter.”

Claire pounded the rest of her Mimosa as she considered the fact that she didn’t know how to make pancakes, either.

Perhaps some things were better left unsaid.

© 2019 William Scott Causey

 

Reflection for Stories

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