It's best not to want anything from the kitchen when my father is cooking. He slams the cupboard doors and clangs the pots and stomps on the brown linoleum flowers underfoot. He fills up the whole room with a fug of irritability. If you go to the sink, it's bound to be just when he needs water. If you open the fridge, he'll trip over you. Wherever you stand, you'll surely be exactly where he's looking for the cheese grater. He'll growl at you as you scurry away.
To be fair, in our house, there's no consensus on where the cheese grater is kept. It might be on the counter by the cookie jar or it might be in the warming oven or in the upper pantry cupboard or in the lower pantry cupboard or in the cupboard under the lazy susan along with the onions and the molasses and the vinegar. Looking for it is irritating. But my father's mood goes beyond that. He's cranky whether or not there's cheese in a recipe.
On this particular night, he's frying haddock, with mashed potatoes and yellow beans on the side. My sister Emily comes into the kitchen just as the food is being dished out onto mismatched plates. I don't feel like fish, she says, I'll make something.
Fine, my father grits out as he slaps down a spoon into the smooth potatoes. Fine, don't eat it.
There's a flash of suppressed rage that lingers like the smell of burning electrical wires that you get when your computer's power cord burns. A spark and an acrid scent. Anger is like that, in our house.
My father storms out of the kitchen and down the stairs, just as the rest of us sit down to supper. My sisters and I look at each other across his abandoned mound of mashed potatoes.
I just wanted a sandwich instead of fish, says Emily.
It's okay, says Joanne, he's always cranky when he's hungry.
Call him back, says my mother.
I say nothing, but I think about how it's always been this way. My father igniting in anger for reasons no one can understand or predict. A misplaced can of corned beef, a toy left on the floor where he'll step on it, a daughter who disagrees: sometimes this rolls off him and sometimes it provokes him to snap and roar and sulk. Anger is an uncertain thing to live with, when you never know the triggers.
If you don't eat the fish, you don't appreciate his work. If you don't appreciate his work, you don't love him.
I think about myself and my sisters, how we struggle with workplace anxiety and abusive exes and social phobias and dreary depressions. None of us function quite right.
As a boy his own father beat him with a leather belt. In anger, not just as a stern disciplinarian following the parenting wisdom of that by-gone age. In anger. In turn he never laid a blow on any of his daughters. Instead he taught us how to snare rabbits and hunt for shed snake skins, how to shoot a bow and arrow, how to throw a punch properly, how to count the rings of a tree to tell its age.
He can't teach us how to untangle the mess each generation makes of the next.
Almost imperceptible witticisms
- Week 2: The Missing Stair