“A cook she certainly was, in the very bone and centre of her soul. Not a chicken or turkey or duck in the barn-yard but looked grave when they saw her approaching, and seemed evidently to be reflecting on their latter end; and certain it was that she was always meditating on trussing, stuffing and roasting, to a degree that was calculated to inspire terror in any reflecting fowl living.”
~ a description of Aunt Chloe from Uncle Tom’s Cabin
by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
When I first read “A Room in the Past,” by Ted Kooser, I was immediately transported to my grandma’s kitchen. I spent a lot of my childhood there, and for the most part, it was a place of good food, comfort, and an endless supply of creamsicles. Except for one time.
When I was 5 or 6, my brother and I bought two chicks from the carnival. We kept them at Grandma’s house, because she had a big back yard. They were so cute and fuzzy, peep peeping amongst the rows of lettuce, green onions and cabbage, or resting in the shade of giant vanda orchids. Sometimes, Uncle serenaded them with his ukulele.
Every day after school, we ran over to Grandma’s to feed and visit our chicks, who grew so fast. But once they lost their yellow fuzz and turned into white feathered teenagers, they didn’t seem half as interesting. I’m glad I didn’t name either of them, because one afternoon Grandma decided she wanted to make fried chicken.
I won’t go into the gory details, but let’s just say that after I witnessed chicken murder, I could not, would not, eat fried chicken for a long time. It’s a good thing this chicken trauma was soon replaced by many other positive memories — Grandma mixing huge batches of kimchee in big metal tubs, or marinating mountains of beef short ribs in her special sauce. I listened to my aunts gossip, covered my ears at endless complaining, and tried to figure out why Uncle never ever spoke again after he returned from the war.
Grandma’s kitchen — the linoleum floors, the 50’s style chrome and oil cloth dinette set, the 100-lb bag of rice leaning against the wall, was her illustrious domain. Happy memories, yes, but sad because after all those years of being there with her, I still don’t know who she really was. Like the narrator says in Kooser’s poem, “she moved through this life like a ghost.”
Here is a photo of her at my first birthday party. She’s the one on the left, eating. Next to her is my other grandma and grandpa, and the other kids are my cousins.
This poem makes me want to bring Grandma back by writing down all the things I know about her — that she liked Popeye, soap operas, and owls; that she had 12 children and a cuckoo clock, but couldn’t read or write. Can I make her real, so she won’t be forever enshrouded in “housedresses of mist,” or “blue aprons of rain?” Maybe I can begin to understand how an otherwise loving and indulgent person could have cooked our chicks, or why she had to leave us behind.
A ROOM IN THE PAST (from One World at a Time, 1985)
by Ted Kooser
It’s a kitchen. Its curtains fill
with a morning light so bright
you can’t see beyond its windows
into the afternoon. A kitchen
falling through time with its things
in their places . . .
Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at The Simple and the Ordinary.
** Next week, I’ll be hosting a very special Poetry Friday, in honor of Bob Dylan. I hope you’ll join us by posting your favorite Dylan lyric, with some thoughts about his work. If you’re not into him, any other lyric or poem is perfectly cool! You can find a comprehensive list of his songs at BobDylan.com.