He was tidying up the kitchen. My husband does this a lot, as he is an incurable “clean-nut”, and not only confesses to this truth, but proclaims it. And several-days-old pieces of fruit, deflating quietly in the water-blue glass fruit bowl that my mom had left behind, definitely met the criteria for tidy-able. I was standing with my back to him, stirring rigid pipes of rigatoni into a pot of steaming water on the stove. I heard the rounded glass legs of the bowl slide across the counter toward him.
“Don’t touch the bananas.”
I didn’t mean it to sound like a threat, but I guess that is how the words came out.
“But there’s bugs on ‘em. They’re drawin’ those little gnat-things. They’re rotten.”
“Then they’re just about right. I’ll bake the bread tonight.”
I followed my little brother, rubbered feet crunching on the greasy, brown-stained snow beneath that last school bus step. Even though it was barely past four o’clock, the weak winter sun was already paling, its glow fading like a candle’s flame when the pool of wax it has created begins to drown it. We made our way down the lane, turning between the
snowy pillars that the plowed piles had created on either side of our driveway.
The last few hundred yards were all uphill, and we hesitated momentarily to decide which side of the circular drive looked less slippery, less difficult to climb. Although it was cold, and the wind made my eyes water and my cheeks sting, I was sweating underneath my quilted coat by the time we made it to the top. The snug wool waistband of my plaid school uniform was making scratchy itches all around my waist. The porch light’s amber glow was already creating its own halo in the fast-gathering dark, and the thick, irregular gray fieldstone exterior of the house solidly framed a golden rectangle of light coming from the kitchen within. As I peeked beneath the crystalline valance of icicles suspended from its upper edge, I could see my mother, with oven-mitted hands, reaching into the oven.
Our house was humble, indeed. A tale was told, by my dad, that the man he bought it from had “converted” it into a house from an old chicken coop. It wasn’t hard to believe, the flat, sloping roof not standing very high off the ground, providing for interior ceiling heights that kept all but below-average height people ducking under doorjambs.
I suppose that’s why my dad, who was six-foot-two, always seemed to have a bit of a stoop in his walk, like a palm tree in a tropical breeze. Or perhaps it was that he stooped that way in order to stay closer to my mom, whose impressive lack of height placed the top of her head about level with his armpit.
My brother pulled open the screen door, letting it spring back and bump me on the shoulder as he burst through the heavy kitchen door.
“Knock that snow off before you come in here! And don’t drop your book bag there; take it in your room!”
Before she could finish her admonishing, my brother had plopped his grimy knapsack on the kitchen table, and, leaving a mud-stained footpath across the living room carpet, disappeared into the darkness at the back of the house.
She was lifting an age-darkened metal loaf pan from the oven. The aroma that filled the tiny house pulsated with as much warmth as the flickering logs in the stone fireplace behind her.
“Ooooh, you made banana bread! Can we have some now?”
Her response to my excitement was a smile that rose up through her face and twinkled out from water-blue eyes.
“Just one piece; we’re gonna be eating dinner soon. Go on now, get your coat and boots off.”
She poured strong, thick coffee from the silver aluminum pot that always occupied the left rear burner on the gas stove. Even though we were only kids, neither of my parents ever had any qualms about letting us drink coffee – it was the accepted beverage, if you weren’t drinking soda or juice. You see, the water in our house was all but undrinkable –
a sulphurous smell permeated the whole house, but we were oblivious to the odor. But when one of my friends came to visit, too young to know it wasn’t “nice” to comment on such matters, would blink hard and exclaim, ”Yuck! What IS that smell?”
It was then that we remembered that the water from our well was ‘different’. But that pungent and unpleasant odor, like some other things about our life in that stone-faced house, we as children didn’t notice, or didn’t suffer over, since Mom was always cooking up something that smelled really good.
She plunked down two ceramic cups on the white Formica table as I wiggled into the padded vinyl kitchen chair. My brother was already in his place, across from me, gazing off in that blank stare that sleepy children get, coming in from the cold to the intoxicating warmth of the house.
“You want butter on yours, don’t you? It’s best that way- especially when it’s good and hot!”
My mother loved to serve. She spent her entire life serving - supporting, nurturing, and generally being an oak tree in a family where the winds constantly swayed its weaker members. She was comfort, security, and strength – and she would serve it up daily, in Monday’s homemade pastina soup, in Friday’s pasta fajoli and fried fish, in Sunday’s rigatoni with meat sauce. You could depend on Mom, right down to what was for dinner on certain nights of the week. And then, every once in a while, she threw in a surprise – that little extra “oomph” that she felt we all needed at that particular point in time. Sometimes it was chocolate pudding, cooked long and slow on that gas-burning stovetop. Or brownies – the chewy kind, dark and crusty on the edges, ones that taste so good with ice-cold milk. But my favorite, the one that aches in my memory with the sharpest, most spicy-sweet pain, was her banana bread.
She sat at the kitchen table in her faded flowered housecoat, her thinned gray hair fuzzed around her head in a disheveled silver halo. Her water-blue eyes were hollow and glazed, and she gazed off into space with that half-asleep stare of one who is dying.
Words came hard when I was around her then; I never really knew what to say to draw her out of her safe place, not sure that it was good to even try. I felt selfish that I still wanted her to be my support, my strength, my oak tree. It was time for me now to be hers, and I was not doing a very good job.
“Mom, did you ever find the recipe for your banana bread?”
Her eyes shifted slowly to meet mine, and in that moment, I wasn’t really sure whether I saw gratitude for the memory, or resentment for the intrusion.
A week later, I kissed her cold cheek, just before they closed the lid forever on my childhood.
The recipe was written on a three-by-five index card, in her handwriting, under the category “Breads”, in a blue plastic recipe box in her kitchen cupboard. At first I didn’t really understand why she had kept it from me until after she was gone – I guess, perhaps, she was coveting her title until the very end. Even though the cancer and the treatments had sapped every ounce of her strength, it appeared she had been struggling
still to retain the privilege of providing comfort, that which she had lived her entire life to provide to us all - my brothers, my father, and me.
“You always have to use a silver fork. Otherwise, the banana mush will turn brown too fast, and the bread won’t be as good. And they have to be ripe, really ripe. They have to be almost rotten – a little past rotten is OK too, as long as the bugs haven’t gotten inside the skin yet.”
My mother never let the bugs get inside.
Whenever life started looking a little rotten, whenever the bugs threatened to get inside of us and break us down, she always took those rotten bananas and turned them into sweet smelling, cinnamony, warm and comforting banana bread.
And then she spread butter on it, and everything was suddenly...alright.