At Thanksgiving – I am more than thankful – I remember.
I remember my Mother. The way her hands moved over the raw turkey, salting and buttering under the skin. She was mindful about food and set in her ways about how this or that should be done, when it came to cooking. All ten of us kids were banished from the kitchen, but I would watch – from a distance – in wonder – at how she made things – all from scratch – all on more than a tight budget.
When I was old enough, which wasn’t very old – I was allowed into the kitchen – for a few minutes – to add butter, milk, salt and pepper to the potatoes – only in her way.
She’d mash with an old hand masher, thick grooved metal at the end and a wooden handle that used to be red, but was mostly worn down to the wood. I’d add things. In her way.
Butter first. She’d hand me a butter knife and put a stick of butter on the table, still cold in the wrapper. “We’ve got to add this butter while the potatoes are hot.” I’d slice off inch after inch of butter, unwrap and throw it into the pan – all as fast as I could. She’d mash and then stop to look into the pan. “More butter.” I’d slice, unwrap and throw in again. “See there, it’s not all white anymore.”
Then milk. She’d mash and I’d pour into the old battered, but still solid cooking pot. My small hands balancing the gallon jug of milk, one hand at the top, one at the bottom. “Not too much milk.” She’d mash and mash. “Potatoes should be creamy, not too thick, not too thin. Add some more milk.” Bang. She’d hit the side of the pan with the masher. The potatoes fell back with a thud. “More milk.” More mashing – Bang – the potatoes fall back – with a lightness.
Then pepper. “You should see the right amount of pepper all through the potatoes.” I’d shake and shake, the pepper never came out of the pepper shaker very fast. “See that’s right, now you can see pepper everywhere.”
Then salt to taste. I’d shake the not really white anymore, plastic Tupperware shaker with the broken lid, a few times. “Potatoes need a lot more salt than you think, Amy.” I’d shake and shake and laugh, so much shaking. She’d press on, now with more stirring than mashing, fluffing up the potatoes. She’d drop a finger into the pan and bring potatoes up to her mouth. The back of her hand would come into focus. Thin and thick at the same time, veins standing out, small brown spots, always tan, but not leathery. Their smell in my mind without ever smelling them, onions, salt, butter, flour – it’s as if she had been cooking her whole life.
“Mmmm, but not yet, more salt, a little more milk.” I’d pour and scramble to keep up. And then bang, bang, bang, the masher on the side of the pot, to shake off all the mashed potato stuck to the masher. With me standing on the chair next to the table – she’d hand over the masher. I’d scrape it clean with my hands, shoveling what was left into my mouth – jump down – turn on the sink – rinse the masher and throw it into the sink with another bang.
Mom would cover the potatoes still in their pot and I would go back to doing whatever it is we do on Thanksgiving, on a cold November day – hoping for snow, thinking about Christmas, fighting with each other, watching the black and white TV – In the middle of nowhere in Michigan.