San Francisco, March, 1970
Our new house is taking over my life. This is the first time I’ve had neither a mother to do all the domestic stuff nor a roommate to agree that if mushrooms grow behind the toilet and clothes strangle each other on our bedroom floors, who cares? Since we moved from the flat in San Francisco’s Mission District to this bungalow in Sunset Park, just Val and me, with nobody crashing in the spare bedroom and no random pot smokers dropping by, the house has been calling to me.
Like, look at me! The window overlooking the back yard? What if bright curtains framed my sparkly clean face instead of years of smoke and grime hiding the inner me? And over here! The scarred oak table covered with roaches, dirty dishes and yellowing pages of the Rolling Stone? What if my surface told glowing stories of my rich history instead of sad tales of neglect and carelessness? Everywhere I look, something is reaching out, entreating, and I am beginning to listen, to nod in assent, to roll up my sleeves and make lists.
You see my problem. I am becoming my mother.
Here, in San Francisco, living with a dealer of all things high and mighty…well, not all things…mostly pot, hash, and of late, even coke, the latter bordering on bad karma if you ask me, which no one has…but anyway, here in this supposed den of iniquity, this apparent lair of sex, drugs and rock and roll, I am becoming my mother! Albeit one with bell bottoms with bare feet instead of capri pants and spotless white tennies; one who lines her shelves with old left-behind double-pages of R. Crumb Mr. Natural comics (that fit freaking perfectly) instead of shiny red-and-white checked liner paper bought specially for the purpose.
Back in the Mission District, I was an intrepid explorer of new worlds: long walks down Market Street zigging and zagging through all the nine-to-five people (the ones that Val disparages as imprisoned in grim, pointless lives by the capitalistic system); trippy treks to Golden Gate Park while the San Francisco sun darted in and out of low flying clouds. But now, if I go outside, it’s to the laundromat or grocery store. Yes, the grocery store.
Oh, my God, I’m going to the grocery store the freaking grocery store to buy food that I will have to cook! Yes, me cooking. Another dreaded first, all my fears and loathings coming home to roost, all those phobias instilled in me by my mother with her teaching regimen of banging pans, deep sighs and undisguised disgust with my relentless failures: “No, not that pan! This one! Can’t you do anything right? I don’t have all day to stand around waiting, for God’s sake!”
To this day, I can’t hear a clanging pan without wanting to curl up into the fetal position and cover my ears. To this day, I have a strong and abiding understanding of my own absolute incompetence in the kitchen. Well, maybe not absolute. I do know how to open cans and boxes, heat things up, boil water for tea; and thus far these skills have been more than enough to get me through life. And I don’t particularly want to change. Fixing up the house is one thing but cooking is a whole other can of worms.
But Val has suggested that I buy food and cook it since it’s out of the way now for friends to pick us up for, say, dinner at the local Chinese restaurant that we so loved. I am only beginning to realize just how much I loved that restaurant with its big curtained booths and silent waiters setting delicate dishes of pineapple chicken and sticky rice in front of me. We need to eat at home now, Val says, at least until he gets a car, which he’s thinking about since we actually have a garage, but until then, we’re stranded. Apparently if I don’t cook, we don’t eat. So this morning he stuffed a wad of twenty dollar bills in my hand, and said, “Buy whatever we need, Babe. Stuff for breakfast, you dig; and, like, something for dinner? Maybe you could, I don’t know, broil a steak, or make some chicken or something?”
After this astounding speech, I stared at him like he’d started speaking Martian, but he didn’t notice, having turned away to go weigh and bag up some more of his latest shipment of marijuana. So he goes back to work and I’m to go to the store. That is, after I clean up the morning dishes from our toast and peanut butter breakfast.
I have landed in the Bermuda Triangle between stove, refrigerator and sink that women disappear into never to be seen again as individuals in their own right. And I am now on my way to market, to market, to buy not a fat pig but a fowl because pork is totally out of the question, as is steak. Me cooking steak with its arcane complexities of rare, well and medium? And broiling? On/in what part of the stove does one broil something? Did my mother ever broil? I remember things being fried or baked or dropped into casseroles along with noodles or potatoes and the ubiquitous mushroom soup. But broiling? Never.
I am reminded of the time when my mother literally shoved me out of the house to go make friends in that long ago New Jersey suburb where we’d moved from the Midwest, back when I was so lonely I thought I would die and in fact wanted to die to the point where I was pleading nightly alone in my teary bed to my brother who had died when he was five and I was four to come and get me please oh please because I’m so alone so alone, but he never came. My mother was thinking no doubt I can’t stand another minute of this girl moping around the house or hiding in her room like the world is ending, which for me it had, having left my childhood friends to enter a world of seventh grade Jersey-girl cliques, me with all the wrong clothes and creep shoes, and then I had to get glasses. But my mother’s pushy impatience actually bore fruit that time because there I was, walking the plank down the street to where a bunch of neighborhood kids were playing when all at once my wandering eyes revealed two girls my age coming my way, calling out, “Hi, what’s your name?” and lo and behold! I had friends, wonderful friends who went to Catholic School instead of the public school I was attending, and there were even a couple of boys who went to a Jewish school which was even more strange and exotic to my Midwestern eyes – who knew that there were different schools for every religion, religions that weren’t even Protestant!
But now, instead of fine new friends awaiting me at the end of the road, there is a dead, plucked bird. And then, and then, there is the incomprehensible task of rendering this naked, slimy pink thing into something edible. And hovering over all of this is the apparition of a lifetime of slaving over a hot stove. Of becoming my mother forever.
I walk down the street and every step I take is a step down, down, down into hell, into Hades…me, the doomed Persephone, sinking into the arms of eternal twilight, into the heart of darkness…why am I not running for my life instead of trudging to the store where everyone will stare and wonder who is this person with the pile of wrinkled twenties and buckskin jacket and embroidered jeans before they quickly put on their smarmy smiles and spout cheerful things from big red mouths spilling torrents of small talk which will make my face freeze into a grinning rictus while my mouth moves up and down like Charley McCarthy the clacking talking dummy…
Oh, for God’s sake, what is wrong with me? Why am I so weird about going to the stupid store? It’s just a store! I used to work at a store! I can handle this.
Sometimes I hate being me. It’s so ridiculously complicated. Why can’t I just snap out of it like my mother was always telling me to do?
The door whines crankily as I walk in. It’s a small but crowded place with shelves towering up to the ceiling lit with flickering fluorescent bulbs that make your skin look transparent. The wooden floor creaks and cries out to the person behind the counter, an elderly man who looks Chinese but who takes no notice of the intruder who is ruining his quiet contemplation; he doesn’t even look up from the papers that he’s staring at. I am emboldened to pick up a worn woven basket with a wire handle out of a stack of them seemingly set out for use by customers – no huge metal carts here! – and walk among shelves neatly packed with food stuffs where I begin to make selections, dropping them into said basket: Grape Nuts, oatmeal, popcorn, sugar, bread, honey, a couple of potatoes from a bin, a package of frozen vegetables, and butter and milk from the glass-doored cold section.
I am buoyed by the familiarity of all these items until I get a glimpse of the meat counter where behind the sparkling glass lie legs and shanks and hunks of beef and pork glistening with ivory bones and red veins and next to them several chickens some with their heads still on for God’s sake in a row with plucked and pocky wings poised to go nowhere. Nowhere, however, do I see chicken parts, oh, God, God, God, what on earth will I do with a whole chicken? Will I have to ask Counterman to cut it up for me? And will he do that or will he just look at me in undisguised disgust and go back to his reading of symbols and signs that beckon him to a place mysteriously beautiful yet forever unreachable to me? Will I change my mind and get pork chops after all? I know my mother used to just fry them…but, no; wait, here is another small refrigerated unit that contains packages of chicken already cut up into pieces!
Hallelujah! I am saved!
As he takes my wrinkled money, Counterman lifts his eyes and gives me a stiff tight smile, like he is more afraid of small talk than I am, which makes me feel oddly pleased, even confident. He gives me my change, not counting it out like I used to do when I worked at the big Red Owl grocery store in Minnesota, but instead handing me a neat pile of coins and bills all at once. In fact, he never says a word the entire time. It appears he doesn’t care who I am and what I’m doing here, unlike someone from the Midwest who would be sizing me up and slotting me into tight cubbyholes all the while chatting and smiling, trying to wheedle something gossip-worthy out of me – oh, you should have seen the girl who came into the store today…well, all her money was just a mess I mean how does money get so wrinkled there must be something wrong there and you should’ve seen her jeans with all the weird designs on them you know that crazy hippy stuff and she would hardly say a word like she’s just so above it all so above all us mere mortals working for our daily bread down here…
No, none of that. I thank him, he nods graciously, gracefully and I notice a small smile not on his mouth but in his eyes – I feel, in fact, like somehow he’s my friend; like we have met on some unspoken level and recognize each other as allies. Which is kind of pathetic, really – my only friend so far in San Francisco being someone I’ve known for thirty seconds who hasn’t spoken a syllable. As I walk out of the store, I hear him say, “Please. Come again. Thank you.”
Which makes me feel inordinately happy.
“I will,” I say. “Thank you very much.” I feel like I should bow, maybe, but I don’t. I instead close the door carefully and take the bag of food and walk back up the street, very proud of myself because I did it! I went to the store and bought stuff! With my new friend’s help, of course.
Back at “home” I put everything away in newly cleaned, R. Crumb-lined cupboards. Tomorrow I will cook but today Val has left me a note saying he’ll be out and about until late, so tonight I’m looking forward to eating Grape-Nuts and toast, or maybe I’ll make a big bowl of popcorn for dinner while I read my latest book, Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein, where I’m kind of falling in love with the protagonist, the man from Mars, Michael Valentine who is teaching me how to grok things, which is, from what I understand, to feel them on some kind of elemental level, to know their very essence, to recognize them in your soul.
Like the way I felt when Counterman smiled. Like we grokked each other.
The next morning I swallow some peyote buttons that Val has scored, righteous stuff, he says, a totally mellow high where you can just float along and do whatever you usually do – you can have a normal day, only you’ll be high on peyote. Peyote is a natural substance, so it’s on my list of acceptable drugs to try – I don’t do anything man-made, like evil speed or downs – and this particular batch is supposed to be gentle without the bad effects which sometimes plague peyote-users like vomiting and retching. It lives up to its reputation in my case and after Val leaves for his daily rounds I go about my own gag-free day which involves – what else? – housework! As I’m scrubbing the kitchen floor, back and forth, back and forth, I begin to feel like I’m the ocean making waves on a beach…suds and water, suds and water, back and forth, back and forth as the peyote moves through my system in a tuneful, soothing way.
I feel the rooms in the house welcoming me, this human presence who has concerned herself about them, engaging as she does in activities that are making them come alive, making them shine, making them reveal their true selves. The house was dour and dark when we first arrived, now all the rooms are full of light and vibrating pleasantly, humming a low happy tune. We are, in fact, grokking each other, the house and I.
The kitchen floor is old linoleum in a starry blue pattern and after it is clean, I take out down the newly washed round braided rug of ruddy reds and browns and ambers and blacks which I had earlier dragged to the laundromat down the street. When I place the rug back on the kitchen floor, it pulses like an earth-colored planet in a luminous blue sky.
I sweep up all the dead roach bodies in the remaining still-to-be-cleaned cupboards and shelves, bring them into the back yard and send them flying into the scrappy yard where mother earth will welcome them back into her bosom. This act pleases me a great deal. I spend some time – who knows how much, since time seems quite elastic – scraping up years of goop on the shelves to reveal the naked wood below, a growing expanse of gold exposed after the dark sticky stuff is scraped away. None of this detritus seems nasty or awful to me, it just seems like the inevitable products of planet earth where stuff piles up on top of other stuff. I wash all the random silverware, rubbing it shiny with Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap, and then comes another first, the big moment, the moment of truth, the moment when I will become all those things I never wanted to be, the moment when I will become a housewife for real, albeit one inhabiting a life of chipped china and peyote instead of Melmac and coffee cake:
I bake a chicken.
I’ve found an old pan that seems the right size, which I carefully scrub. Then I wash the pale limbs of the bird and place them reverently into the pan, dotting the pocky flesh with bits of butter because it seems right. I manage to figure out how to turn on the oven, which is electric, thank God, since I don’t think I could deal with gas…no one I know has ever had a gas stove…they seem to be from another planet with their alien, eerie blue flames instead of the nicely reddening coils of the electric stove. I slide the pan onto the rack and next to it I place two large washed potatoes which I’ve pricked a few times so they don’t blow up. Amazing what I seem to know without knowing that I know it, like I’m reaching inside into some dark hidden woman-place that instinctively knows how to be a housewife, which is both creepy and reassuring.
During the next hour, the house fills up with the most delicious smell, I can’t believe it. Shortly thereafter Val comes home and I serve him a meal made by my own hands, chicken brown and crispy, potatoes covered with melting butter and a pile of colorful (formerly frozen) vegetables. And milk.
The peyote has made me not hungry, so I don’t eat much, but I watch Val enjoy the food I have fixed. As I wash the dishes, feeling the warmth of the water as it slides over the silky plates, I think about the meal that I had just made, a milestone in my life. It seems like such a rich thing, this cooking and eating business. To take a once-living thing, actually several once-living things, as the potato and other vegetables also had life, and turn them into sustenance: life giving unto life, well, it comes to me that I need to thank the various foods for their ultimate sacrifices. I think of the word sacred and how it comes from sacrifice. I think what a profoundly generous and meaningful thing to do, to die so that we might live as I dry the dishes and put them into their newly cleaned shelf-homes.
Then I think about doing this every day, even several times a day, week after week, month after month, year after year…and it begins to seem more monstrous than miraculous, this cooking stuff that eats up your life in big chunks and leaves little time for anything else, except somehow you’ll have to squeeze in cleaning house, washing clothes, ironing same, taking care of the kids and a zillion other chores that come with women’ s territory…putting up the tepees; chewing the deer hide; rendering the fat for pemmican; spinning the wool; weaving the fabric; churning the butter; carrying the water, pounding the wheat from the chaff, baking the bread…images of women’s work through the ages float through my head like sugar-plums visions gone bad.
I think of my mother. I think of the banging pans, the sighs, the impatience in the kitchen. And I begin to forgive.