… doing mundane things when recent days have been… otherworldly.
I don’t know how much time my grandfather spent in the kitchen. I don’t know what sorts of distractions he sought in sad times. In fact I might venture to guess that he didn’t seek distractions, choosing instead to confront the problem head-on.
Though, now that I think about it, grief isn’t necessarily a problem remedied by action or confrontation. In general, it’s overcome with time and patience. In my family, it’s addressed collectively and vocally, with stories, gestures, looks, and old photos, repeating who is related to who, who married so-and-so, whose cousin defended who on the playground. Paesani, cumpari, cugini, fratelli. Retelling, again and again, even in the same night, these little tidbits that, as of now, can only be carried on once committed to our memory. Rote anecdotalization by chant. Catalano, Caponigri, Scarpelli, Falcone, DeMarco, Falbo, Zumpano. Accent the penultimate syllable. Pictured: Great-grandpa Charlie on the moon with two lady friends. Pictured: Great-grandpa Charlie with Great-grandma Rose. Fast-forward: On Christmas Eve, we realize Rose’s wedding ring is sitting on the third finger on my left hand. Pictured: Great-grandma Marietta with sister, Adalina, and Adalina’s husband Nick. Fast-forward, though not too far: Nick and Marietta pass away. Adalina marries Marietta’s husband Carmen, Nick’s brother. Fast-forward, decades now: Grandma Dalina gives us long-john donuts and cold milk in her kitchen off Harlem. She has a small, yappy dog named Queenie. She is my grandfather’s stepmother and sings songs that even we small kids recognize, though we’re not sure from where.
Every time we relive and retell these stories over and over and work them, painting, moving backward into the stories we learn from the very old pictures, we rejoin and fortify this line. Every time we repeat them, like prayers, around a table, we build and rebuild this memorial. We can’t not do it; we’re in the pictures. My cheekbones, my sister’s mouth, my brother’s eyes.
Coming back to my apartment last Sunday, these pictures just behind my eyelids, I thought of two steel pots: One from Grandma Eleanor, one from Great-grandma Dalina. Grief, in my apartment, is to be faced, apparently, armed with broth. Two kinds. And cannolis.
I remembered the first time I made chicken stock on my own, needing something new and constructive to do as I went into mild panic mode in a new, utterly disorganized, underdecorated apartment. The one thing I knew was the kitchen, and the one thing I knew would set me at ease was a straightforward job like stock. Unwrapping, untying, dismantling, sorting, stirring, then letting the pot drive on its own while I figured out where the hell to put the couch. It was 80 degrees at night and I stood in my quasi-galley kitchen making chicken stock.
Last Sunday, same apartment: Mentally numb though sort of throwing off sparks with anxious-exhausted energy, it was time once more to make Big Pots of Hot Stuff. Food. Stock. Whatever.
Pot 1: Chicken. Unwrapping, untying, dismantling, sorting.
Pot 2: Vegetable. Rinsing, peeling, chopping (crying), sorting.
Together: Stirring, smelling, walking away. Stirring, walking away. Smelling, watching, walking away. Tasting, seasoning, stirring, watching, pretending not to watch, watching, walking away.
(Let it be known: In good times and in bad, I tend to babysit my stockpots.)
The temperature outside hovered around 8 degrees, the windchill factor so indecent it does not bear repeating. I expected my windows would steam up, as this is what happens whenever anything spends more than five minutes on the stove. However, the appearance of steam-cicles streaming down my kitchen window, turning the Uptown skyline into a sort of ghoulish winter funhouse, was a strange surprise, and a surprising, if strange, comfort.