While I stand here cooking

Clearing the table to make space for dinner, I find a slim package, left there by mailbox-checking elves, addressed to me. Me? Not remembering what it could be. A book! “Tell Me A Riddle,” by Tillie Olsen. Thin volume, second-hand, slightly battered. Ah right. Ordered online after comment-chat with Ellen. “Ellen! Wonderful Ellen.”

Opening the first pages, as the rice simmers, and the onions glaze. Then smacking it face down open, on the counter. (“Never face down, the spines will break—” school librarian, third grade.) Add a splash of water. Sizzle and steam! Eyes weeping. Butchered onions, rebelliously emitting S-oxide from broken cells.

Now slicing courgettes lengthwise, then crosswise, the firm flesh in cheerful chunks. Non-resistant, perhaps delighted with their fate. Tumbling merrily, clattering thickly into the pan, before my zinging wedge of steel.

A slim enough volume to hold easily, comfortably in forked fingers: terra-cotta cover, garnet font.  An impressionistic woman on the front. Baking bread of the dead? No, it’s Degas. “I Stand Here Ironing.” I peer through tears, other hand on wooden spoon, directing an unseen dance of onion and courgette. Deciding to slog through the introduction. (May as well be thorough.) What a writer though! “This gal knows how to turn a word. Fuck. When you can write a preface like that!” Unexpected delight. Slogging turned to leaping, language forgotten in farseeing phrases. The courgettes becoming golden.

“As well as radiance, she gave me scruple.” “O Yes”! But then: “there was the oddest thing” – “there I am, pretending to be an adult, a father with his own” —

wait. A father? O, such harboured stereotypes. These old ships in my mind. She is not a she.

Who is he then? The writer of such undulating, prefacing, poetic prose? John Leonard. “First critic to review Toni Morrison.”

“Only in print does he light the night sky of my ignorance and intellectual lassitude with sizzles and bangs, and gorgeous blooms of fire.” (—Kurt Vonnegut)

(Unrelated:

    Another Leonard, Cohen  song
remembered,

                                                 fingers     on      the        piano.   My voice in       wavering      unsurety.        Opening

the window,      that the hills might hear,      if no one else.

I sleep
beneath the golden hill.”

“It is your               flesh

                   that     I    wear.”   )

Had I grown so middle-aged? To think only women could understand women so well? When once I believed men, and only men, could.

No matter. Book smashed face-down again. Squinting saltily, stingingly through chopped tomatoes, pausing to wipe lachrymosed lashes with back of wrist. To splash more water in the eyes. “Hey sailor, what ship.”

“Who took my onion goggles!” (called through ceiling)

“It wasn’t me!” (responding through floor)

“Someone keeps taking them!”

“I didn’t do it!”

“It was probably Z!”

“It wasn’t ME!” (screamed).

“Soon time for dinner! Devices off!”

“It’s not fair!”

“Why should we!”

“If you want to use them again tomorrow.”

“We never get to do anything fun!”

Can of beans. Rinsed in sieve; the shining garnets. Chopping rosemary, fragrant breath of garden. Something noble and pure in each tiny shiny evergreen blade. Survived my neglectful tending, thriving relentless in the sun near the mailbox. It was T who’d planted it? I like to believe so; romantic idea. All that is strong and good in our home originating with him.

Z’s half-eaten apple on the counter. I take a bite, exiting the frivolous lie, or incomplete half-truth. Enjoying the fresh sweetness, it won’t go to waste—

(Unrelated: 

“Mama, why is it called Adam’s apple?”

Attempted: “In the garden of Eden —”

Maybe in the myth, the truth got stuck, was hard to swallow, made life real, creating death —

“Ouch! Mama he’s kicking me!”

“Because HE won’t stop staring at me!”

“Knock it off or we’ll get in an accident! I’m trying to drive!”)

I add tomato purée. Salt, pepper, herbes de provence.

But this book! On the ends of forked-again fingers, I finally devour something worth feeding on. Everything inside it I ever wanted or needed to know. I eat it savoringly but ravenously; a devoted cannibal. The meal is ephemeral: what took seasons, background centuries to create, consumed in small sessions of a single summer’s day. Near a stove, then (guiltily) in a hammock, then (with still-starved eyes) near a night-light.

“I hate rice!”

“I hate this life.”

“Tomorrow it’s burritos, with the leftovers.”

“Oh. Yes!”

But the sudden pleasure of them, around the table, happy; T closing his eyes, savouring, mmm. Such a moment! There and this way, I shall remember you, when I am old.

 

 

====

Notes/credits:

  • “Tell Me A Riddle” by Tillie Olsen — a novella-length book (115 pages) of four short stories (I Stand Here Ironing; Hey Sailor, What ship?; O Yes; and Tell Me A Riddle). Gratitude to fellow blogger Ellen Hawley (of “Notes from the UK”), who mentioned it in a comment thread on one of my recent posts (“A woman of hope”). This is going on my top-favourites bookshelf. It has sliced through my layers and changed my chemistry.
  • The lyrics of Nick Cave’s rendition of the Leonard Cohen song “Avalanche,” mentioned by blogging plumber/poet Ivor20 in the comment thread of In Mind and Out‘s latest poem, “Sunday hues.”
  • Also from this, read this morning, via Geist’s Erasure Poetry Contest: an excerpt from A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James De Mille, published by Harper & Brothers in 1888. Something about cannibalism.
  • Images of Tillie Olsen gathered from DuckDuckGo.

 

Nadine inhales & exhales words & images from current vantage point in Zone of Emptiness, France. Thank you for reading. ❤︎

 

42 thoughts on “While I stand here cooking

  1. Ah Nadine, have just finished the Tillie Olsen book. I have just finished ‘Tell Me a Riddle’. I cannot remember the last time a story made me cry! Each story was beautifully written/crafted. Thank you for pointing me towards this short Masterpiece! Absolutely loved it! xoxo

    Like

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  3. I stumbled on this, clicking the link when you left a like on my blog because I heard the echo of Olsen’s title, realized I haven’t followed you and have been missing out. I’ll go hunt out the follow button and correct my mistake. This is a gorgeous piece of writing, and I’m so glad the book is in your hands.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ellen!! Hardly know what to say. I feel super honoured and ridiculously pleased right now, reading your comment, so I’ll just say, thank you. Also for the book recommendation… I truly loved it. Still think about it. Some other books are a chore to get through; this was anything but.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My God, Nadine! This is the best thing I’ve about the afterward of Toni Morrison’s death. You start off with a book, beautifully become descriptive of cooking, and give such a vivid scene that’s sets up for a resurrection of photographs arranged in linear rows to orate an ultimate story. I’m celebrating my ability to read this again!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Watt! What a compliment… made my heart sing and ache at same time. I’m grateful you’re here reading it once, let alone perhaps again. Can’t thank you enough…

      But here’s something terribly ignorant, on my part: I did not know about Toni Morrison’s passing, till reading your words! 😭 88 she was, I read now, and died peacefully, surrounded by loved ones; thank goodness for that. A brilliant life, fighting for peace justice; ending in a justly peaceful death…

      How NY Vulture quoted her, in their obit:
      “We die,” Morrison closed her Nobel Prize address. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Someone still has a grudge on the librarian! I wonder who that is? Maybe Nadine just made a in your face look to the librarian 😊😉😆😋🙇 And I love rice 🙄 Given that herb and spices combination, try out ginger spiced rice, it’s yummilious 😍😎😋

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahahaha! Love this Joseph. 😂👌But no! I loved her, the librarian! 😍 It’s just I’m an absent-minded multi-tasking onion-crying cook, at the best of times. Feeling guilty each time I put the book down wrongly (but each time, feeling that guilt a little too late to effect change, of course ;)). Ooh, ginger rice… 😗😋👍

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mmmm, so it is more of a guilty pleasure thingy? 🙄😄😏 A chef instructor told I to place my tongue at the roof of the mouth while chopping onions to avoid tearing, but I seem to always remember it at the end 🤔 May be I somehow secretly enjoy it 🙈🙈🙈😞🙃

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh thanks, delightful Liola! You brought a smile to my heart. This book is wonderful… got it for less than the price of a fancy coffee, and honestly it was one of the few actual and entire books my distracted mind has recently managed to read in its entirety, and not just because I felt I *should,* nor just because it was short, but because the words, so relatable, kept pulling me through. As the critics said about it, it’s a literary work of art. But it’s also page-turner accessible. And yes, what a beautiful woman she was. Inside and out. And still living, in her stories!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I ordered a copy on Amazon yesterday. It is a used copy (1964 edition I think ). The Seller said it is an old library book and that the cover is scruffy but it is in an acceptable condition and readable. I just liked the idea of the pages being turned over so many years. I am really looking forward to reading it!😊

        Liked by 1 person

            1. Somehow missed this, just seeing it now 🤗… I’m the same with the stacks of unfinished books Liola! (Arg. I might have to reinstate my book-buying ban. But no. 😁) I’m curious if you’ll end up racing through this one as I did. xoxo

              Liked by 1 person

                    1. Wow that was fast! 🤩 So happy you enjoyed it Liola and so grateful to you for sharing your impressions here, I really appreciate it. It truly did give different perspectives through recent generations and I love how there was a thread which wove the four stories and their characters together.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    2. Hi Nadine, sorry, I meant I had finished the Memoir I mentioned by Hunter Davies. I have started on the Tillie Olsen book, and will continue today. The first short story, While I Stand Here Ironing was just beautiful. Tillie Olsen is really a Master of the written word. I was 19 when I had my eldest, though did not have the hard life that Tillie had as I had lots of help from my Mum xoxo

                      Liked by 1 person

                    3. Oops, only read your last comment in my notifications list; should have looked back on the thread! 😆

                      Yes, I Stand Here Ironing is a masterpiece… we should all write one like that, but nonfiction, even if we keep it just for ourselves. Wow, you were a young mom… nice that your mom helped and that you recognize her help, this sounds like a lovely generational thread as well. xoxoxo

                      Liked by 1 person

                    4. No worries! I loved it and am looking forward to reading the rest! Now, that is how I would love to write! Yes, I was a young Mum! My Mum and Dad were there for me! My eldest will be 38 this month. I am also a Grandma with teenage grandchildren lol xoxo

                      Like

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