It all started with my lap board, the one I use in the living room when I feel like a change of scenery with my lap top computer. I had bought the board when my husband was laid up with a broken leg. Now, several years later, its cushy bean bag pad had died, so even with meaty thighs it could grow uncomfortable after a couple of hours.
After several lively moments with peas eager to explore the world around them, I finally sealed them into my own bag of shifting pellets, complete with Velcro to attach it to the board.
I can leave a light burning in a room and run the washing machine without a full load, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw away the two 99 cent bags of peas that remained.
I went to my bookshelf and pulled out Mama’s old Woman’s Home Companion cookbook. I turned past the postscript that began, “As this book goes to press our country is at war” and went to the section for soups. There, after the recipe for Navy Bean soup with my mother’s notations in a well-formed hand of faded ink, was Split Pea Soup. Mama was a whiz with a ham bone, a necessity first as the wife of a grad student at
Princeton and then two
years later, a young Political Science professor at U Mass. Years later, she
told me she still couldn’t look a baked bean in the eye.
Just as with this cookbook, I still have my family with me in other forms. They’re here in the picture of my geologist grandfather's first oil well, my grandmother Walker’s small needle-pointed footstool, my father’s framed certificate for crossing the equator as a young officer on the U.S.S. Okaloosa in July of 1945.
Not only these small objects, but the larger ones, too, can summon up the people they once belonged to. The big desk where my grandfather would sit and read reports from the
fields takes up a good third of my office. It now looks across the room at my
grandmother’s tall secretary, the one that always sat at the end of their
living room and where she would write letters to her five sisters. The family
news would make the rounds, forwarded from person to person with a complete
disregard for the concept of privacy.
In my dining room is the hutch – or buffet, or breakfront, depending on what part of the country you’re from – that once again holds my grandmother’s sterling silver. As a little girl when I was at their house it was my job to open that same drawer and pull out these same knives and forks, including of course the long spoons for the summer iced tea garnished with fresh mint from the patch just outside the dining room’s French doors.
I prepared to start the soup and propped a big spoon across the cookbook to hold it open. I noticed a tiny rusted paper clip at the top of the page. When did my mother put it there? Was it left from the first time she tried the recipe and she just never bothered to take it off? I could imagine her finding it in my father’s desk, the one that wherever we lived always had a painting of an Oklahoma Indian hanging over it. I could imagine her setting the peas to soak overnight in the
Amherst kitchen so
cold that in the morning our beagle Watson would sit under the skirt of her
long red corduroy robe.
Over the years the paper clip had torn the page. It would probably damage it further if I left it there. I stood, my hand paused over it. It was only a paper clip. Finally I removed it, but when I dropped it into the trash it felt as though the threads connecting me to my own history were that much thinner.