We’re standing in the kitchen of my grandmother’s house. It is a room where I spent many formative hours as a child. Behind us is a circle of dark brown cabinets, swirled with the brushstrokes of the original stain, all of which have knobs with a bright orange flower in the center. The dishwasher with its large rectangular buttons sits unused. It’s broken and the dishes dry behind us in a mustard yellow Rubbermaid rack. The counter is crowded with blenders and coffee makers and other appliances, years before the notion of space saving installation. A terribly sad remnant that passes for a radio sits to the left of the stove top and a neighboring roll-top breadbox. It’s placed here where it gets the best reception it can hope for near all the metal and with the help of a bent up blue coat hanger. Bluegrass music and talk radio is usually coming out of this nostalgic contraption.
The oven has a large door, big enough to cook two small children and boasts a window to watch cookies and Shrinky Dinks with the light on. My grandmother had the same cooktop and range from my mother’s youth up until I was nearly 14. The same was true about the refrigerator. For years I imagined my grandmother as the Hungarian witch, able to keep appliances running until they didn’t match the décor. Some of the only things to come out of the refrigerator are endless bologna sandwiches with Plochman’s mustard and a never-ending surplus of milk, applesauce, and popsicles.
Behind my mother is one of my favorite cabinets. It looks small from the outside, but once you open it, a round three-tiered lazy susan spins around with spices and baking ingredients. A deep and endless door to magical cuisine. A Narnia portal with my grandmother as the White Witch. I would spin and spin this until glass bottles clicked and metal tin boxes tapped out code until they all crashed together like unwilling passengers on a tilt-a-whirl and toppled like bowling pins signaling my grandmother to come running with the spatula armed and prepared to swat us with it. It is the largest, most fearsome piece of plastic I know; mightier than the paddle, the switch, the belt strap, or the back hand combined. It’s called the “pancake turner” and in a German-Hungarian household, it is gainfully employed in the morning with buttermilk pancakes, potato pancakes in the evening, and ass-whupping any time it’s called upon.
My mother and father are standing together in the center of the photo. My sister is waist high and under the arm of my father, his hand pressing her against his hip, and I am on the opposite side, my mother’s hand around the little knob of my shoulder.
My father’s arm is draped over my mother like the back of a narrow armchair, his hand dangles and points to my head like an accusation. “You’re a smart little college-educated bitch, just like your mother.” He said this to me once. Around his wrist is a thick leather strap, like the strongman at the circus, but not black. Instead it is the color of honey, with a large watch face in the center.
It is the only picture, not taken professionally and posed uncomfortably at Olan Mills Studio where we are all arranged together. We are all wearing shirts in variations of blue and gray like a November Sky. We are all wearing blue jeans from stone to sky blue.
We are all smiling.