Now We’re Cooking with Fire

A dash. Just a dash, she said.

A dash, a splash. A splash, a big mess.

The recipe was ruined but we laughed our way through it. I asked her, what’s the difference between a dash, a splash, a smidge, and a bit?

You’ll know when you’ve lived long enough, Grandma told me.

But I was talking about cooking.

She did everything by her own measurements, her own rules. She knew her best recipes by heart. The only problem was that she couldn’t teach them to anybody. She’d pour spices into the palm of her hand, scatter them like fairy dust, tossing out words like drop and sprinkling and expecting the likes of me to know just how much they meant.

She had her own rules in the kitchen, her own sayings. Now we’re cooking with fire, she said, just about every time we stuck something into the oven at last — me sweaty with foodstuff smeared on my face, her dusting her hands.

But it’s electricity, I’d say. And I thought it was cooking with gas.

What’s it matter? she’d say back. It’s as old as the hills, that quip. Old like me.

A quip, a quote, a rule. All of it was hers in the kitchen.


A splash, a dash. A dash of something, squirrel maybe, out in front of her car. A dash, a crash: an accident, one that anybody could have made, she said. But the month before, it had been something else. A scrape, just a scratch, a mailbox. The roads were icy. Nobody should’ve been out on those roads, she said, but I had to be. I only just nicked it. It’s just the sort of thing you can’t avoid.

And there were other things. A slip, a lapse. Scraped knees from the fieldstone stairs that led up from the kitchen herb garden. Our double-takes at family dinner, her baffled look and then her crossed arms, when we’d heard some other little slip.

You mean Jerry, Ma, said my dad, when she called him Greg.

That’s Kay, Ma, not Marie, said my uncle Greg. Can’t you tell your granddaughters apart? And for a while the meal was ruined, but we laughed our way through it.

She never did anything unless she could do it on her own terms. She wouldn’t see it the way her own grown sons wanted her to, for every reason you’d expect. I’m independent, she said, always have been. I can still make a soufflé. I can still touch my toes. Now which one of you ninnies can do that?

Well, what’s the difference between brain farts, senior moments, and full-blown dementia, my dad demanded?

I’ll know, she said, when I’ve lived long enough.

A clue, a dread, an inkling. When I came back from my semester abroad it hit me the hardest, because I’d been gone the longest, saw it the best. I saw it from my usual chair at her kitchen table as her hands hovered over bins and spice jars, two blue-veined bees bumbling in darkness from bloom to bloom, every flower seeming the same, not knowing where to land.

Let’s make something else, I said, hiding the recipe I’d brought back from Spain. Something you know by heart.

But by the time we stuck something into the oven at last, she was sweaty and smeared with foodstuff, while I slowly dusted my hands. The old-timey timer on the table ticked unbearably in the silence, like a bomb. So I declared, Now we’re cooking with fire.

What now?

Cooking with fire. You know. That thing you say.

It’s gas. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

But it’s your quip, I said. You always said —

What’s it matter? she said back.

A sigh, a squint, a silence. Whatever we wanted to broach with her, none of it was on the table in her kitchen.

I’d sprinkle hints in our conversations, between dishes and laughter, scattering them like fairy dust. One evening as we sat drinking gin on her back steps I asked her, do you ever think the others have a point, sometimes?

A bit. Just a bit, she said.


The call, the shock. The story, a big mess.

The house was probably ruined, but we made ourselves laugh our way through it. So what’s the difference between a metaphor, a moral, and a tragic irony, someone asked?

Just think, someone else said, she really was cooking with fire!

A dash, a smidge, a bit of things we could still salvage among the hosed-down wreckage, stinking of smoke. They told me she was still processing what had happened. When the firemen had gone to pull her out, we’ll know, she’d told them, when it’s gone long enough.

By which she must have meant whatever she’d been cooking.

I sat with her in the backyard as she rubbed the raw skin on her knee. A burn, a scald. She tossed out words like idiots and damn nosy neighbors and under control, expecting the likes of me to know just what to say.

But it was the electricity, I said. And maybe it’s time you didn’t live all alone.

Don’t give me that, she said back. It’s as old as the hills, that quip. And me, I’m not that old.

She knew her good reasons by heart. The problem was that she wouldn’t listen to anyone else’s. I held on to her and breathed in through her smoky sleeve: me sweaty with tears down my face, her dusting her hands.

A sign, a proof, a change. It was just the sort of thing we couldn’t avoid.

But she did everything in her own time. By a bit, a smidge. A choice. A first step.



Image: Photo by CA Creative on Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.

Tara Dugan
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