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Parsley, Sage, Dysfunction, and Thyme

September 24, 2008 by · 4 comments

Donna Ison

Photo: Victor Bezrukov

It was homemade spaghetti sauce that opened my eyes to the dysfunction that was my childhood—Molly Woodford’s mother’s marinara to be exact.

Molly Woodford was in my Brownie troupe. Her cocoa-colored uniform was always whistle clean and smelled of fabric softener. Mine was usually wrinkled and stained and smelled like whatever barnyard pet I’d last wallowed. Molly Woodford was a den leader’s dream—quiet and cooperative and sweet-natured and patient. Me—not so much.

Our homes also had diametrical dispositions, but not like you’d expect. It was Molly’s place that was messy—not dirty, just messy. On the coffee table, poetry books and magazines lived harmoniously alongside a pipe with tobacco spilling from the bowl, a well-worn baseball glove, and a hairbrush with golden strands still trapped in the bristles. At my house, there was a place for everything. And, unless you dared risk being frozen in mother’s artic gaze, everything must be in its place. Most items were entombed in plastic boxes with labels identifying their contents taped on the front and again on the lid. Every cabinet, closet, and shelf was heavy laden with these see-through coffins. I felt an odd kinship with their inanimate inmates.

On Molly’s mantle, there were real candles with blackened wicks and sloping wax tops
indicating they had actually been burned. The candles on the thick stone slab above our gas-log
fireplace were made from molded glass with little gold shavings scattered throughout and frivolous ribbons for wicks. They screamed, “Look, but don’t touch. And for God’s sake, don’t light.”

Molly’s refrigerator was bedecked with daisy-shaped magnets that held drawings of purple polka-dotted cows in orange pastures, jagged-edged recipes ripped from newspapers, report cards boasting mostly B’s, and Polaroid snapshots of Molly and her little brother, who I called Stupid Stevie. On our harvest gold refrigerator, there was just…well…refrigerator.

More photos of the family blanketed the cheery, sky blue foyer—candid color pics, artsy black and whites, and posed portraits from the studio downtown—all framed in sleek silver. My favorite shot showed a quartet of rosy-cheeked Woodfords snuggled together beneath a plaid wool blanket in a horse-drawn sleigh. In it, they all wore matching hand-knitted toboggans with a red reindeer design and pompons on the top, and were giving the camera a bemittened thumbs up—the universal sign for success. Snowflakes danced in front of the lens like tiny white ballerinas. As much as I longed to, I didn’t dare imagine myself in the photograph. With my raven hair and pale skin, I’d have stood out like a vampire in J. Crew ad.

Nothing was more disparate between Molly and me than our actual mothers. Mrs. Woodford had blonde hair cut like a pixie’s that always looked like it had just been fluffed by a plush, striped towel. Striped towels were not allowed in our bathroom. Only solid pink, to match the aloof swans that glided across the glass doors of the shower stall, were permitted.

Not that striped towels were needed. If my mother had real hair, as a child, I didn’t know it. She always wore a wig, but seldom the same one twice in a week. My mother had no loyalty, not to my father, and certainly not to her hair. She owned synthetic coiffures of all colors, heights, shapes, and curls which she wore recklessly, with no rhyme or reason. She had a brown bouffant one day, and then an auburn bob the next. For this reason, I was forever following strangers around in the grocery thinking they were my mother, until they turned and glared at me as if I were some Dickensian urchin just waiting for the perfect moment to pick their pocketbook.

Molly’s mom—let’s call her Elise, because that was her name—wore corduroys and monogrammed sweaters and deck shoes. The wholesome aroma of Dove soap and meadow wildflowers hung about her like a halo. My mother wore polyester pantsuits and high-heeled leather boots with big gold buckles in the shape of an A, for Etienne Aigner. She reeked of gaudy gardenia perfume, Aquanet, and cigarette smoke.

In my mind, one of the most enviable differences was that Elise Woodford cooked. Most of the time, my parent’s took me to Jerry’s Restaurant, through the drive-in window at KFC, or to The Steak House. Don’t let the uninspired name fool you. Despite being housed in the basement of a cinder block building, The Steak House was the most glamorous establishment in a fifty mile radius, except for the Mt. Sterling Country Club. Both of my uncles and their families belonged to “the club.” We did not belong—and everything that that entailed. My father, with his shoes encrusted with manure from the stockyards and short-sleeved dress shirts accessorized with a half-pint bottle of Maker’s Mark in the chest pocket, did not fit in with the men whose shoes had shiny cleats for gripping the green and whose 100% cotton shirts bore satisfied alligators lounging on the chest.

I tried to pretend that I didn’t care, and sometimes I didn’t.

Like on those nights when we dined at The Steak House. There, I was a princess. I could choose my own lobster from the big tank up front. The Shirley Temples, with extra maraschino cherries, flowed freely. And, a fat man named Winfred played the organ. At the beginning of the evening, my father would slip Winfred a twenty so he’d play my special request just as many times as I requested it. I always asked for the same song.

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, please.”
“But, honey, it’s July. Don’t you want to hear something else? What about ‘You are My Sunshine’ or ‘Glowworm’?” Winfred would ask.
“Nope. I want Rudolph.”
“Then Rudolph it is, little lady.”

On the nights that we didn’t eat out, my mom cooked a rotation of three meals. The first, steaks grilled medium-well, baked potatoes, corn from a can, and a green salad drowned in Thousand Island dressing. The second consisted of pork chops, baked potatoes, peas from a can, and a green salad drowned in Thousand Island dressing. The third number in her repertoire was fried chicken, baked potatoes, lima beans from a can…anyway, you get the picture.

Neither of my grandmothers could cook worth a fancy damn either. Both had their own perverse way of defiling a hot dog. Granny Ison would boil the poor wieners until the skin popped open and the flesh spilled out. When she was feeling frugal, she would boil the same batch for three consecutive days until the pan was filled with just an inch of stagnant water and pink particles of disintegrated dog. My Granny Howard, on the other hand, would boil them just until they were warm to the touch on the outside, which meant they were clammy cold on the inside. Then, she’d serve them with a pool of watery ketchup and stale saltine crackers.

Elise Woodford would never force feed her family a frigid frankfurter. She cooked—really cooked—using wooden spoons, and shiny silver strainers, and real vegetables that she washed under a steaming stream of water while she hummed. There’s just something more maternal about fresh produce.

The memory of the day that she made the life-altering spaghetti sauce will forever simmer in my soul. My eight-year-old eyes watched in rapt adoration as she covered the countertop with big, juicy tomatoes so eager to contribute that they were bursting at the seams. Alongside them, she lined up onions, and glossy green peppers, and odd little white bulbs that I later found out were garlic.

From a hook on the wall, she removed a massive wooden cutting board with rivulets of dark grain running through it, and then unsheathed a gleaming knife from an oak block. She slaughtered the rambunctious tomatoes with a series of swift blade strokes until they were reduced to big slobbery chunks, and then dropped them into the giant copper pot that was already sizzling with oil. When she added a sparkling gold broth, thick chicken-scented clouds rose from the pot and permeated my nostrils. Next, she diced the onions and peppers into perfectly uniform pieces.

I jumped up and shook my butt to the steady rhythm of the knife hitting the board. Molly’s mom giggled. Her laugh sounded like a unicorn’s whinny—or, at least, how I imagined a unicorn’s whinny would sound. Finally, she focused on the mysterious garlic. After separating out the cloves, she took the edge of the blade and smashed them so the skin fell away. Then, she sliced them papyrus-thin so that they looked like fingernails without the fingers.

But, it was when she threw open the cabinet door that my admiration turned to genuine awe. Elise Woodford was a wizard. There was no other explanation for the rows of apothecary bottles with their gold-embossed labels spelling out magic words in scrolling script.

“What that?” I asked, pointing at the wooden shelf with the butterfly carved into the top.
“It’s a spice rack.”
“Did you have it built?”
I wanted to add, “by elves” but thought better of it.

“No, I bought it.”
I crept in until I was close enough to read the loopy letters. Ooo—rrreee—gaaa—no, paars-leey, maaa—jooo-raaam—I sounded out the words in my head.
“Do all these bottles come with the rack?”

“Yes. And the spices that are in them,” she said, removing several of the jars and placing them of the marble countertop. I peered at the contents. One contained tiny, intact leaves that look like they’d been plucked from a fairy bush. Another had an orange powder the color of Doritos dust. Several held glistening green flakes. I marveled as she took a pinch of this, and a scoop of that, and a smidgen of something else, and tossed them into her tomatoey potion. I knew I was witnessing some kind of sorcery.

“What month is it, please?” I asked.
October, November, December…I counted the months on my fingers. Three months until Christmas.
“Can you please take me home now? I need to write a letter to Santa.”

My letters to Santa were elaborate construction paper productions with glittery pictures, promises, and haikus.

Big Christmas Wishes
Of pretty, prancing ponies
Come true for good girls.

“Right, now? It’s not even Halloween.”
“I know, but I want to make this letter really special. I’m going to ask Santa for a spice
rack. We don’t have one at my house.”

Molly’s mom gave the sauce a stir, swiped up a drop of spilled broth with a red and white checked dish clothe, and then came to sit by me.
“Sweetie, don’t waste that wish on Santa Claus. I’m sure your mother has spices. Haven’t you ever seen her use them when she cooks?”
“Mom doesn’t allow me to watch her cook. She says it makes her nervous.”
“Oh, well that explains it. Trust me, every household has spices.”

The next day, back at my own tidy, hollow house, I was determined to find the treasure trove. I waited until my mother was twenty minutes into practicing piano—the only two times when either my father and I could get by with anything were when my mother was in the midst of her two-hour ritual of applying make-up or when she was lost in the black and white keys of her prized piano. She was playing some song with lots of pedal and minor chords that reminded of me of the theme music from a Dracula film and underscored my daring mission perfectly.

I stepped into the doorway. Unlike my Granny Ison’s kitchen, which, despite her lousy cooking, was always filled with cousins, uncles, and neighbors, our kitchen seemed to relish solitude. I crept into the mausoleum, and looked around. Like the fridge, all horizontal surfaces were also bare. There was no whimsical jar in the shape of a bear guarding homemade oatmeal raisin cookies, no Rubbermaid mixer, and no coffeepot with decaf still left in the carafe—just a gigantic role of Bounty paper towels and the overpowering smell of Clorox bleach. Only the sunflowers on the wallpaper offered any levity.

Filled with a mixture of hope and fear, I inched open the menacing mahogany door to the nearest cabinet and peeked inside—nothing but plates and bowls. Disappointed, but not discouraged, I forged ahead. I ventured into a second dark wood vault. This one housed a Lazy Susan stacked with neat rows of cans. When I reached the third cabinet, I felt tingling sensation in my fingertips. Magic was close by.

I swung open the door. Sure enough, hanging inside, just as it had been at Molly’s house, was a spice rack. But, in the place of the quaint glass bottles were plastic, cylindrical containers with serious-looking labels covered in black block lettering and numbers with periods in the middle and abbreviations at the end. And in the place of mystical plants and powders were a plethora of pills as varied as my mother’s wigs—small blue tablets, peachy ovals, and two-toned capsules.

I read down the row of alphabetized bottles sounding out the words just as I had done with the spices: Diiil—lau—ded, Dex—aaa—drine, Klo—nooo—pin. There was also Librium, Percodan, Valium, and Vicadin, and others I couldn’t begin to pronounce.

No wonder my mother couldn’t cook.

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