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Cracks In The Kitchen by Phoebe DeSmet

A large kitchen looks out onto the backyard and on to a weather worn barn. It is 4 o’clock in the morning and the house is filled with the every-morning aromas of coffee brewing, bacon sizzling, and eggs basting in butter. A scent of baking powder biscuits rises in the large old wood-burning stove that stands on the inner wall. Today there is a special perfume more delicious than all the rest. It is apple butter time! I want to stand on a stool and sniff into the pot but Mom, really my grandmother, wont let me.

A rooster is crowing. It is still dark and the only warmth in the room emanates from the cook stove and from being with the only two people in the room other than myself, my paternal grandparents, they are lovingly known to me as Mom and Pop.

The table sits in front of a no-longer-used door. It is set with two pink floral print china plates and matching cups and saucers and large heavy silverware. The coffee cups have little cracks in the glazing and the silver is marked with tiny pocks from years of use. The door has a window from which I can barely make out the pasture beyond the dirt drive that leads to the barn. The barn is where Pop’s ’35 Ford is parked. The cows are not out yet but I hear the chicken squawking.

Mom is standing at the stove, stirring, turning, basting and whistling, “In the Sweet By and By.” She bustles back and forth between the pump, stove, counter and table. Mom’s a good bustler. She swishes. Good whistler too! Nobody cooks like she does especially when she makes doughnuts, potato soup and homemade bread, and peanut butter filled taffy.

Pop is dressed in his denim Oshkosh bib overalls and is standing at the old oak washstand shaving and washing up; these are his concessions toward cleanliness today. Mom calls him Pew because he bathes so infrequently. I call him Pew too but not because I object to his hygiene but because it sounds funny. I am three years old.

Mom is a large, heavy-set comfortable woman. Although she is only in her mid-fifties, she looks more like 70. Her white hair is parted in the middle and pulled back into a small bun, fastened at the nape of the neck. She wears a pink, cotton print housedress and a faded blue flowered apron. When she hugs me, I love the bouquet of lavender talcum, milk and lard I inhale through the lap of her apron but I almost smoother in it too. She wears black lace-up shoes and thick beige cotton stockings that cover over her varicose veins. She is always laughing. She makes me laugh. Mom is very pink like her gladiolas and my pink dresses. There is a sweet expression on her face, now and always in my mind. There is also softness there and a sparkle in her eyes that tell me I am special. What is best about her is her loving spirit which is as large as her open arms. Besides whistling she hums, hymns mostly, but also Mom’s Little Baby loves short’nin’, short’nin’, Mom’s little baby loves short’nin’ bread. I am her little baby. I have been since I was less than a year old. She loves playing the guitar and piano beating some batter or stirring up some sauce in time to her songs. But she loves me best of all and I know it.

Pop is also in his fifties and is as lean as Mom is wide. He’s of average height about 6 feet tall but to me he’s as big as our house. He is a very special man, as quiet and unassuming as Mom is gregarious, bossy and even theatrical. Pop possesses the strength of the oaks that populate our acreage. He loves to entertain me, to play jokes on me and to play his violin. Sometimes he and I sit on the back stoop and share an apple. He uses his black handled pocket-knife to peel round and round, ending up with one snake-like coil which he lets me drop into the slop bucket for the hogs.

When the breakfast is on, we all sit. I still eat in my highchair, mainly to keep me from being underfoot. Mom asks the Lord’s blessing on this food and to strengthen our bodies. Then she sets off a string of petitions for family members, brothers and sisters from Church that I just get fidgety. She has her eyes shut so I figure to take a bite of my bacon because waiting is hard.

When we are through eating and I have had my hot biscuit dripping with Mom’s butter and strawberry jam and Pop’s finishing his coffee, I know that our next stop is the barn to milk the cows. Mom tells me I’m not going anywhere until I drink my milk. I object strenuously to the thick layers of cream on top. Finally, she snatches up a spoon and stirs and stirs until the layers disappear. See? She says, They’re all gone fishing. I drink but they come back. She does it again and again, now I know they’re coming back. I will not have it and push it away. In the pushing, the glass hits the edge of the tray and flies off landing in pieces, splashing milk and broken glass all over Mom’s clean floor. She’s mad but trying to avoid stepping on the glass and on the ever widening pools of milk and in the confusion backs into the counter lined with rows and rows of canning jars which also go hurling through space and land on the floor too. Oh, horse feathers! I hear Mom say, “Now you’ve done it.” I knew I didn’t do that last part. I saw her sit down and start to cry. Mom is an easy crier, just for nothing, sometimes, even when she’s happy. Only, now I know she’s not happy.

Pop, in his usual mild-mannered way tells her to just sit still, he’ll take care of things. He starts cleaning and through my bleary eyes (‘cause now I’m crying too) I see him on the floor with rags and a bucket. Mom is the boss of the house, but at times like these, Pop seems to know what to do, just fine.

I think the storm is over and tell her that I’m sorry that I spilled the milk and could I go out now. “No, Little Crack, not ‘til you drink your milk. Mom uses ‘little crack’ the way some folks use ‘little bit’ or ‘little one.’ It is an affectionate nickname but I don’t like it. “I’m not a little crack,” I say and she says, “yes you are,” and pours me another glass of milk. This time I drink it down otherwise I would never have gotten out. She wiped my face and kisses me and tells me, “That’s a good Phoebe Lou.” Pop gets me out of the highchair and helps me with my bonnet and coat and hauls me outside like a sack of potatoes. I grab his finger and we head for the barn, walking across wet grass, breathing in the dew-dampened air.

Pop sits on his stool to milk the cows, a procedure I watch with great interest. Also I find it astounding that the cat likes to have milk squirted into her mouth. When the milking is done, Pop deposits me in the backyard by the sawhorse in the middle of the yard. Mom sends out my doll, teddy bear, koala bear and Donnie Duck that my daddy sent from Australia. Brownie, our big collie comes over to complete my menagerie. He’s a great pal and guard dog,

Pop goes to town for some errands and I’m left in the company of my sympathetic friends at the sawhorse. It really begins to eat at me, the business of ‘little crack’ and milk. I cannot stop brooding about it like an old hen. I talk to Brownie about crack and milk and being blamed for the jars. I have my arms around my dog but for an instant he becomes Mom and I am blaming him. Suddenly, I am pulling at his thick coat and we are on the ground. He resists my pull and I bite his paw. He jerks free and strikes back. There is hot breath over my face and sharp pain on the top of my head and my chin. It is a quick bite and he backs off then begins to lick my face. We have both gone too far.

I am lying on the cold ground, covered by stuffed animals that have toppled over on top of me. I am screaming. Brownie is suddenly nowhere to be seen but Mom is there. She carries me inside and deposits me in the front room. While she is washing my wounds and stinging my flesh with iodine to my screams, tears and protests, on the wall, I see the face of Jesus bought at the 5 and 10 cent store. It’s the kind of picture where the eyes follow you wherever you go. I see him looking straight at me. “I am sorry I didn’t drink my milk,” I say, hoping to appease any further pain. What I am really sorry for is biting Brownie and I want the hurt to stop.

Pop comes home and we are off to the local doctor who administers first aid and sends us to a hospital emergency room in Battle Creek for stitches. Lying in that white room in the hospital, in the white sheets, I must look as small as I am and Mom is scared. She is crying, a different kind of cry now, and she keeps patting my hand and calling me Baby and Precious. “My poor, poor baby,” she says.

Pop, the greatly imperturbable Irish-Italian is sitting in a corner chair, his brown felt hat in hand, wrinkling his face but giving me his calm, reassuring smile. The softness in his brown eyes tells me not to worry. Pop, I love you forever.

That evening, Mom and Pop and I are back in the kitchen, Mom’s apple butter temporarily set aside. We have chicken and homemade noodles, my favorite in the world. The day is ending much as it began, in the kitchen partaking of a meal and one another’s love. Aunt Dorothy sent some store bought milk and Mom flavored it with chocolate. She does not call me ‘little crack’ once. After dinner I am rocked to sleep in the rocker by the light of the kerosene lamp. Pop unlocks my arms from around Mom’s neck and carries me off to bed like a limp bag of flour.

It’s taking months for my head to heal and wounded heads can save a child from a powerful lot of scolding and bring a flurry of tasty treats her way.

After the initial painful ministrations and we are just down to soaking off the scab, things begin to return to normal.

Now that I have shown Mom for calling me ‘little crack’ and telling me the floating cream went fishing, I decide to drink my milk. I hold my breath and drink as fast as possible. She continues to call me Lou or Baby or Sugar or ‘little knot’ but when she calls me ‘little crack’ I pretend she is saying ‘quack’ and climb up to the attic to sulk. I ponder the cracks in the floor and stare out the window. I miss Brownie who is gone, I don’t even know where. I visualize his poor white paw and I cry. ‘Lady,’ another collie comes in his place, but it is not the same. I think maybe I am a little crack for what I did to Brownie. Something precious is cracked.

New friends are never quite the same as old ones, even when they are in the same old place, a fact to become even more apparent within the year.

My daddy, whom I have never known returns from World War II with his new wife to be my mother. A crack begins to grow in our kitchen. I am to live with my daddy, while in the time being, we all live on in the house with Mom and Pop. It is not the same at breakfast. There are five of us and I do not know to whom I belong. Mom and Pop and I are not the same but I know they love me. The other two, I do not know. They do not know me.

By the time I am almost four, the kitchen cracks in two and I move away. I am sent away with the strangers who rename me Julie Ann, and I do become a little crack. Like Brownie, I am gone. I do not exist. I eat store-bought bacon off plain white china in a small kitchen where there are three of us. Just not the old familiar three who partook of splendid fare and love. The old warm kitchen with its early morning bustle exists for me only in my mind. I hum the hymns, sing the ditties, rock myself to sleep and cry secret tears. It was my fault about Brownie. But to lose the two people I love best in the world? Is this what come of spilled milk, broken jars, stubborn little girls and little cracks?

Originally Posted (Jul 01, 2002)

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