“Grammy’s cookies come from big trays out of the oven!” Helen announced when she was just big enough to teeter next to the counter on a stool. “And she showed me why those bread things are called rolls…’cause you’re supposed to make dough and roll it out with a big wooden thing and then cut it into circles. Did anyone ever show you?”
“Of course,” I told her. I’d spent enough hours watching my Grammies bake that I decided it was called “from scratch” because of their fingernails scraping the counter top as they endlessly kneaded and squished and scratched the last morsels of dough out of the cookie bowl inches from my eager face. “But Grammies usually have more time—and a lot more space—for things like that.”
Time and space. Before the Big Move to a better kitchen and a simpler life, those were the elemental ingredients that forced me to defer to the Pillsbury Dough Boy and the Keebler Elves. On any given day, I’d have sworn I just didn’t have enough of either. Looking back on it now, though, I’m pretty sure I might have found the extra hours in my stay-at-home mom days to channel more Betty Crocker. But I still would’ve needed more space—lots more kitchen counter space.
Back in the days when “food processors” were out in the field, the coffee maker wore an apron and stood by the stove, and the microwave was still a Jane Jetson fantasy, my “roll model” cooks had miles more counter space. And while I needed half a drug store’s worth of inventory stretching from stove to sink, they got by with a jar of honey that doubled as cough medicine and a bottle of elixir for all other ailments not eased by chicken soup. Come cold and flu season, Nana didn’t have much of a choice. She kept her head bent to baking—making use of all that prime kitchen real estate—and hoped that hearty, homemade food got the family through till spring. I, on the other hand, had so many vials of medicine on my counter top by the end of March that God knows what I may have greased my cookie sheets with or substituted for vanilla extract in her old-fashioned recipes.
“Medicine time!” I’d announce, and two mouths would automatically appear for up-to-the-minute treatment of various symptoms. On good days, they’d get vitamin pills and whatever antibiotic was keeping their little bodies free from the latest viral attacks. On bad days, they’d get an antihistamine and/or a decongestant and/or an anti-diarrheal, salve for any topical reactions, and enough chewable fever reducer to keep them comfortable until the next round of antibiotics. Between bouts, when their facial openings were dry and their cheeks were glowing rather than “burning up” red, I’d begin to see the Formica near my sink and the light at the end of the tunnel. Slowly my optimism would build and, one by one, symptom by symptom, I’d remove the syrups and salves out of the mainstream and into temporary storage.
“All better,” I’d declare, whisking away the Pepto Bismol, the Robitussin and the Tylenol bottle that had given me arthritis in one hand. The girls would each suppress a cough and go on about their business of absorbing germs. They couldn’t understand why I’d bother to move the bottles, having a visceral wisdom about a fact I’d refuse to accept. They would need each and every one of those medicines soon, probably that very night when I’d have to thrash through the darkness of the hall closet, hoping the plastic bottle necks beneath my hands belonged to cold remedies rather than cleaning solvents. Within 24 hours, I’d have my over-the-counter prescriptions back within easy reach out in the kitchen.
At least the girls learned their colors while I dolled out relief. Red pills meant “stop my runny nose,” while the green stuff meant “go night-night and not wake up coughing.” And that pink medicine did not taste as pretty as it looked even though they sipped it out of an alligator spoon. Still, the rainbow was never quite long enough and, deep down, the girls knew that. Their little membranes were always one step ahead of any full alert, color-coded homeland security plan I devised.
“Ears feelin’ O.K.?” I remember asking Becky en route to Rangeley when she was about three. She nodded. “Coughing stopped? Nose better?” She moved her head up and down, up and down. Medical update positive. All secretions in check. My therapy was right on course, I thought, especially crucial since were were going “up to camp” for the weekend. Then she looked at me.
“Becky, what is that coming out of your eye?”
She shrugged and dug at her left tear duct.
“Yucky stuff,” she said after a brief observation.
Nasty infectious stuff, it was, untouched by pharmaceutical fluids already administered—not even that pink panacea we brought from home which was so expensive it should’ve been prescribed with smelling salts in case I passed out while reaching for my wallet. First thing Monday morning this yucky stuff required a detour to the drugstore for special ointment—a tiny tube that kept getting wedged between my stove and the edge of my counter. It was the one thing not in my northern arsenal against sneezing, coughing, stuffy head, drippy orifice attacks. Even though I had a “one butt” kitchen here back then, I backed up my line of defense until I needed a spreadsheet to track which half-congealed or partially disintegrated medicine was in which house at any given moment in time.
“Hey Mom, where do you keep the red pills now?” Helen asked shortly after we moved up here full time.
“In the bathroom drawer!” I announced proudly.
After a delightfully brief search there, she came back to the kitchen, pills in hand, wondering why no one ever told me I wasn’t supposed to keep Sudafed that expired in 1998. Her tone was reminiscent of her Grammy cookie questions 25 years ago, with only a tinge of sarcasm. I hadn’t rotated my inventory since consolidating houses, I told her. Plus, as long as we remembered to wash the Walmart guck off our hands after long runs to Rumford, her dad and I were making it through the winters just fine with my hodge-podge of under-the-counter stash.
And wouldn’t you know, now that I have gorgeous expanses of new counter top, the only family member who needs medicine within easy reach is one of the beagles! Twice a day I administer a plain white pill so tiny I have to be careful it gets in Toby’s mouth and not lost somewhere en-route.
I can’t tell you that all this space has turned me into Nana reincarnated in the kitchen yet. But it has given me room to spread my wings farther than ever before. I do make my own bread, sort of, out of a machine that moves off the counter only if I have to search for a dog pill underneath it. Tom now rolls out perfect homemade pizza dough like nobody’s business. And Helen, when she visits, makes great use of my uncluttered kitchen, showing us what she learned at culinary school. As for me, when no one is looking, I take a deep Rangeley cleansing breath, run my un-floured hands along my long, sleek counter top, and smile.