In a long-lost children’s movie I recall a scene wherein some bratty girl burst into tears at receiving the wrong dollhouse. She’s spoiled, is the takeaway, and were she a better little girl she’d be more grateful. That snub-nosed junior America blondie, crying amid hopefully shredded paper, ghosts vividly out of an otherwise forgotten film. Sometimes you just want something to be perfect. You want it really bad.
I met Sophia at Christmas dinner and I thought she was so pretty. I wasn’t supposed to think that, though, because I’d decided to hate her. Dad had phoned me at school to say he was engaged, and I didn’t even know he’d been seeing anyone. I said, “Dad, I’m not expecting you to ask my permission to live your life but I’ve worked hard to feel like we have a close and communicative father-daughter relationship and you just told me we don’t.” Communicative was my word of the year; I talked (to friends, therapists, my silent dad on the phone). I used to think I wanted to talk to my family about everything; and if there was a problem, it was only ever a linguistic one, I could explain the truth and they’d understand. We’d have conversations where I’d say, “Yes! We’re here, we’re on the same page! I want us to always remember this beautiful moment, let’s make a code-word, a code-word portal for right now, so later if it feels like we’re lost it, we can be reminded that we do get each other, we understand how one another feels and why!” It would be a moment of beaming pink-blue mountaintops and singing crystals, the exult of tunnelling out from the dark. But now I’m starting to feel like a mean little old man grumbling up the stairs to my apartment, wearing five shades of brown corduroy. All I have to throw into the interminable void is an acid grunt. It’s no use with you people. I went home for holidays not wanting holidays at all. Sophia was there in a skintight dress and I texted something rude to my friend about her looking like a sack of potatoes in lycra. I expected the odious camaraderie of dad-girlfriends past but she was actually quiet. I felt weird asking her questions, not knowing what qualified as too personal—who even are you and since when are you marrying my dad? Everything she cooked was amazing, and I focused on that, heaping seconds. Within the nervous pleasantness of strange company, we spoke only of the comforting tartness of barberries and how persimmons ripen sweetly when placed upside down.
Most kids have a shithead stage and I guess mine hit a little early. Armed with a scowl and a piss-poor attitude, I made it my business to bring some premium sulking to my primary school.
My fourth grade teacher’s name was Mrs. Longcross and I, probably unfairly, considered her to be a total hag. When the holidays came around in December, Mrs. Longcross recounted a story of her own grandmother (who based on timelines was a pterodactyl) making homemade cookies, and segued the anecdote into an assignment: we were to bring in a plateful of some food item our families traditionally prepared every year. Like most class assignments, I wasn’t having any of it. I got a D on a project on penguins in her class, so it’s safe to say I didn’t usually play along with Mrs. Longcross' bullshit. Anyway, this particular project wasn’t something I could have done even if I’d wanted to. I raised my hand.
“My family doesn’t have any traditions.”
“Yes they do,” Mrs. Longcross retorted, “Come on now, I can think of one tradition your family has, I’m thinking of it right now…”
She trailed off into an ellipsis intended to provoke my memory: “Oh, right, of course, my mom makes double chocolate chip cookies with crushed up peppermint bits!” I was supposed to say. Or, “We always make gingerbread men together as a family!” But we didn’t. Aside from occasionally assembling bakalar, a Croatian Christmas dish of potatoes and flaked dried cod (a reeking, arm-long, petrified fish bought in the weeks before Christmas and left on our kitchen counter staring blankly from its gummy, brown-M&M eyes) we genuinely didn’t have any family traditions.
“Your family makes lemon twist cookies every year.” Mrs. Longcross informed me.
Sitting there, with 18 pairs of kid-eyes dully surveying my reaction, it occurred to me that three years previous, while in her class, my older brother had too been taxed with providing an edible tradition. Rather than make a scene like I was in the process of doing, my brother just quietly slipped through the project, fabricating a history for whatever recipe was in that month’s Bon Appetit magazine, and now here I was reaping the consequences of his goddamn lie. I was experiencing the somewhat surreal sensation of being told by a non-family member with self-perceived authority (and a fair amount of pomposity) that my family had a tradition that she knew of but somehow must have slipped my mind. Would I have had the wherewithal at age nine to retort, “Bitch please, what do you know about my family?” but I didn’t, which was probably for the best, all things considered.
I can’t remember what meaningless cookies I brought into class after that, but I’m sure that as Mrs. Longcross smugly lifted one to her puckery, sea-anemone mouth I shot her death glares. I couldn’t articulate the obtuseness of generalizing familial experiences, but I had the sense even then doing so was in poor taste.
My mom tries to have family dinners, especially now that grandma is dead. She says she likes things like “good cozy winter dishes,” things like split pea soup made from dried peas she bought and rehydrated on her weekend, or seafood gratin loaded with expensive heaps of scallop and halibut and doused in a heavy sauce (shopping cart: three bricks of butter, bacon, two litres of heavy cream). This is comfort food, technically, but not any comfort food with which we have a particular relationship. The dishes are inconsistent, aside from their uniform richness and tendency to congeal as leftovers in our fridge forever (ending in a sickening slide down the sink). My mother easily succumbs to the emotional appeal of cookbooks, which, like spell books, promise a fantasy. Every recipe is a love potion. A potion for a relaxed, laugh-filled Christmas eve dinner after which her son would rise and give her a kiss on the cheek as he cleared her dish unprompted. A potion for a lively a spirited debate during which our family demonstrates how closely engaged we are with each other, as we joke and argue good-naturedly in turn. All the magic to conjure a situation which would look, from the perspective of someone peering in through the framed vignette of a windowpane, like familial love. This is not to say her goal is external recognition, my mother has never been the kind of woman who cared about what other people thought of us. As a family we exuded less of an “it’s us against them” type vibe and more of a “fuck them,” said with the sizzling indifference of the completely alone. Rather, the desire to achieve the ideal of family mealtimes was a personal barometer and a personal need. A need to prove to herself the capability of conjuring that nurturing cozy whiff of the hearty familial feeding, only made possible by a smiling woman in an apron, a woman who cooks. She wanted to be able to nourish, and feel nourished by her home, rather than only ever be drained by it.