A woman’s work
The women in my family were born in kitchens. When my mother was born, my grandmother brought her home from the hospital the very next morning, set her baby in a basket on the counter and began cooking breakfast while my mother watched through blurry, blinking, infant eyes.
The women in my family lived in kitchens. My mother cooked three meals a day, 365 days a year—for 40 years. Cooking was physical, hard labor. Her eyes watered from chopping onions, her hands were weathered and tough from plunging into hot and cold water. Her hair was permanently tied back to stay out of her face, her forearms were scarred from nicks and burns, her muscles ached from the stirring, beating, kneading, frying, slicing, washing and constant movement.
But holiday dinners transformed the kitchen from a work camp of solitary confinement to a place of community, love and bonding. The women in my family emerged from their own kitchens to convene together as one. Cooking together sparked life in their hearts, which radiated throughout the room. They shed tears of laughter and joy as they gossiped and swapped stories of the past year over bowls of mashed potatoes and pans of cookies. Each pair of old, wrinkled hands grasped the hands of a little girl cousin or daughter or niece, showing her the old family recipes and guiding her inexperienced fingers through the steps of sprinkling spices, stirring stews and saying a prayer before shoving a dish into the oven. This is what the women in my family lived for—coming together to laugh and sing in the face of the fires and knives of the kitchen that tried, year after year, to suppress the happiness that overflowed in every bite of the Thanksgiving turkey, pie and stuffing.
I refused to be one of the women in my family. I ran far away to a place where there were no kitchens. I spent my days eating junk food in classrooms and laboratories and libraries. I convinced myself that a degree would be my ticket to a world without kitchens, and that I would do what no other women in my family were able to do.
Because the women in my family died in kitchens. My grandmother cooked for her family until the day she died. Her hands trembled with every movement and her eyes squinted to make out the letters on the bottles and boxes in the pantry. In her last days, I knelt by her bed, feeding her spoonfuls of soup that I had made from a can. She told me stories about the dreams of her youth, how her studies were interrupted every night by the ringing of the oven timer and how bosses let her go because they believed working women couldn’t make dinner for a husband and children and complete their duties at work. After my grandmother’s funeral, my mother returned home and wept in the kitchen as she began preparing food to feed the mourning relatives.
When I returned home from college for Thanksgiving dinner, I peered into the kitchen from the outside, wondering if I was welcome in the place I had vehemently rejected. The curious stares of generations of women asked me silently, “What’s it like out there?” My younger sister, her long hair tied back into a neat bun, pulled me in and handed me a bowl of carrots to peel. I fumbled clumsily with the knife, and when I saw my sister watching in amusement, I expected teasing and condescension. Instead, I was surprised to hear pride in her voice as she told me, “We always knew you would be the one to make it out. You weren’t made for a kitchen.”
During dinner, when it was my turn to say what I was thankful for, I teared up as I said, “I’m thankful for this food, and the kitchen it came from.”