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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 24-A: "A Spot At the Table"

Our kitchen table was the Formica sort from the late fifties, designed to hold up to the wear and tear of the baby boom. (It was the age of plastics that by then had transitioned from the war to the kitchen.) The smooth table surface had large flecks of white and gray with a broad green stripe from end to end and three-inch fluted aluminum that wrapped around the edge—except where the leaf went in. The 12 inch leaf had no fluted edge, leaving a gap that looked out of place for the many years that it was permanently “in place” to give us elbow room.

I said “smooth surface” and it was with one exception: in front of Mom’s place, to the right of where she put her glass, and smaller than a saucer, were pieces of broken Formica that had been glued back in place (but not very well). It was a blemish in a house grown accustomed to blemishes and in a family inclined to overlook them—especially when they pertained to Mom. This was true of the scabs on her arms from “picking” and in a similar sense, it was true of the table scar near her plate, which we did not talk about.

But now, these four decades later, I suppose there’s no harm in telling how it got there.

The table had come from my Grandma K’s house. Earlier that year in 1970, Grandma had moved from her bungalow on Griswold Street in Port Huron to her daughter's house in Indiana. Her couch and kitchen appliances were given to my parents. (By then the Firestone fridge I’ve written about before was nearly 20 years old. It still worked fine but was not as large as Grandma K’s General Electric, which came with a matching stove. Likewise Grandma's kitchen table was bigger and had that needed leaf. Mom loved all three kitchen pieces. They were a step up from what she had (which was not true for the other aunts who encouraged Dad to take them when Grandma sold her house).

One early afternoon not long after the table arrived, Mom was cooking supper as usual in that "frantic" one-hour window just before Dad came home from work at 5:30. (It was in that hour that Mom typically noticed she still had two hours worth of stuff to do.) She stepped outside to pull the laundry off the clotheslines that stretched from post to post along our neighbor's fence. As was often true, Mom's next-door-best-friend, Kay, was just across the fence pulling down her own laundry, and she and Mom got talking.

Most moms by nature are what we now call “multi-taskers,” capable of doing a dozen things at once. Mom was sort of a “multi-tasker” in that she was able to start many tasks in a given hour, but sometimes—especially if there was someone nearby—the “multi” part faded into the pleasant task of talking, Mom's favorite pastime. "Pastime" is an understatement. To Mom, the minute hand on a clock spun like the finger-flicked arrow of a game board whenever conversation was involved.

I don’t know how long she was talking over the fence, but it was long enough to prompt Kay to sniff the air and say, “Do you smell scorched potatoes?”

“Jupiter!” Mom yelled, dropping the basket of sheets as she ran into the house. Inside the tiny kitchen, the lid was tap dancing on top of her biggest pot, which by then was a small volcano of starchy white froth running down to the red-hot element below. Mom grabbed to hot-pads and moved the mess from the stove to the kitchen table.

“It’s alright, Kay,” Mom laughed out the back door.

And without thinking she stepped back into the yard to pick up her toppled basket. It was not alright, but Mom was trying to save face with her friend, who was an excellent cook and never scorched her potatoes. Then just as Mom was about to say “They’re not burnt too bad,” a loud bang rang out from the kitchen behind her.

I was in the basement at the time, and it sounded like someone shot the pistol Dad sometimes used for target practice in the woods. I ran up the stairs just behind Mom who had again dropped her basket outside the back door.

“What was that?” She screamed.

“What’s that smell?” I asked with a grimace.

“Oh, that’s just the potatoes—the potatoes!” she screamed, lifting the pot.

And there it was: a big black hole in the Formica where the surface had literally blown up. The pot was so hot it took only a few seconds to "fry" and expand the Formica so quickly that the thin veneer exploded into fragments exposing the wood surface below.

“Mom, you can’t put something that hot on the table,” I said, as if it were something I had learned long before that moment. “Why didn’t you put it in the sink?”

[She turned to the sink full of the Tupperware tumblers and green Melmac plates from lunch. (We had six Tupperware tumblers in various pale opaque hues, each assigned to one person in the family. Jim still drank from a tippy cup.) She had moved the dishes to peel the potatoes but then put them back in the sink. We had no dishwasher. None of the houses I knew had dishwashers. The plates would go from the sink back to the supper table in about an hour.]

“I didn't think, Tom. But if I had put the pot in the sink, I’da melted my Tupperware!”

“Better to melt your Tupperware than to blow up Grandma’s table.” I said, displaying the kind of after-the-fact logic that men (and fourteen-year-old boys) use to imply that they never make a mistake in a crisis.

And then I added just what my jittery mother did not need to hear: “What’s Dad going to say?”

Before she could answer, Kay came running in the front door without knocking.

“My Gosh, Bev, what exploded?” Unlike some of the other Italian women in our neighborhood, Kay had no accent but a warm and ever-recognizable nasality in her inflections.

“Look, Kay, look!” Mom burst into tears, “I ruined my new table!”

“My Gosh, Bev. How’dja do that?”

“The potatoes…” she sobbed.

Kay looked to me for translation, and I obliged with a sigh: “She put the pot from the burner on the table.”

"Geez, Bev, you can’t do that."

"I didn't think," Mom repeated.

"Don’s gunna kill ya.” Kay said, meaning no harm.

["Gunna kill ya" was an expression used often in friendly settings throughout the latter part of the 20th Century. It was a time when very few cases of such killings had ever actually happened and the hyperbole was clearly understood. The expression in its harmless sense became less common in the post-Menendez-OJ-Postal-road rage-Columbine era of the 1990s when people began to mean it.]

"I know Orly would kill me," she added. [Orly was short for Orlando.]

“I know. We just got it from his mother a few months ago. What’ll I do.”

“I don’t mean just the table, “ Kay clarified, “I mean the burnt potatoes. Orly would kill me if I did that. Where’s the switch to the fan?”

The switch to the fan was in fact exactly where it was in her house. It was the same place in every house in our neighborhood, all built by the same contractor at about the same time. The greasy, dusty fan cut into the ceiling over the stove was turned on by the second switch deep behind the left side of the fridge.

“There. That’ll get the smell out," Kay said, waving the air toward the clickity fan. "Tom, go pitch these potatoes in the garbage can. Put ‘em in this sack so your Dad doesn’t see ‘em.”

She reached into the narrow broom closet by the stairs where Mom had countless brown paper bags folded and tucked behind the waste basket. “Take 'em clear out to the garbage can, Tom. Now, let’s get boiling some more potatoes. What are you doing, Bev?”

Mom was on her hands and knees on the tile floor.

“I’m looking for the pieces to glue back in place.”

“Well, there’s a big one over there by the wall, but are you sure you can glue it?”

“I’ll have to try.”Mom said, letting out a deep breath.

“Well, you and Tom do that. I’ll take the potatoes over to my place an peel ‘em and boil ‘em. You want me to mash 'em?"

"Kay, you don't have to do this."

"Uh, uh..." Kay warned.

"Yes. We're having hamburgers and gravy. Don like's 'em mashed."

"And you laugh at my Italian meals," Kay joked (having heard the story about hamberger gravy many times) "Just give me the dish you serve them in.”

Mom laughed, “I mash 'em and serve them from the pot except on Sundays.”

“Well, not tonight you don’t. You don't want that pot on the table when you tell Don ‘bout how that hole got there.”

“No. You're right,” Mom said, reaching up in the far cupboard for her red Pyrex bowl. “Here. This will work. Thanks, Kay. You’re a life saver!”

“That’s what neighbors are for, Bev. Have Tom help you with that glue. Hope it works.”

She was stepping out the front door just as I came in the back with the empty pot.

"The bottom has black spots," I said, "I'll try to get 'em with an S.O.S pad."

Mom did not hear me. She was sitting at the table with four fragments in her hand turning them this way and that as if finishing a jigsaw puzzle.

“There. How's that look?" She said with unconvincing hope.

I looked at the little puzzle. The pieces were all there, but they were also yellowed from the heat, a fact I decided not to point out at the time.

"Tom, go down to your Dad’s work bench and bring up the Elmer’s Glue, and then go next door and help Kay peel the potatoes.”

I didn't mind going next door. Our neighbors had a daughter, Pam, who was like a sister to me, a sister I sometimes had a crush on. But that is another chapter called "Don't Walk Around in Your Underwear When Your Mom Forgets to Tell You that the Girl Next Door is in the House." That chapter is still to come in this story.

Chapter 24-B resumes at the kitchen table months after the day Mom blew it up. That night, by the way, went surprisingly well thanks to a well-placed saucer during the meal, and Mom's gentle telling of the news AFTER Dad had a good meal in his stomach. No 24-B resumes at that table the night Dave and I rode to Metro Beach, the Monday before Dad replaces the ruined transmission in the car, two weeks before Kathy leaves for college... that is where our story will resume.


Anonymous quilly said...

I once used one of Gram's favorite dishes as a mold for a decoupage coaster -- which is likely still adhered to the dish and sitting in one of the cupboards at Gram's old house. It is quite easy to do foolish things without thinking - -even when one isn't in a panic.

14/5/09 12:40 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I remember the decoupage era--we were all gluing pictures to everything. My Grandma Spencer (not the one in this chapter) glued each of our school pictures to a rock and had them on top of her piano. How lovely!

You may have noticed that this chapter paid homage to the common plastics we used in the kitchen back then. I had forgotten about Melmac and now I'm wondering if there are still some pieces of it in Dad's barn.

14/5/09 5:29 AM  
Blogger Donnetta Lee said...

Oh, Tom, I am laughing a little. This made me remember when I was 19 and first married. We lived in a tiny little apartment with a tiny little kitchen. I was trying to make coffee in a brand new coffee pot that was a dripulator (sp?). Heated the pot up with no water (don't ask) and when I realized what I had done, took it off the stove and sat it down and the linoleum counter top. Burned a big old black ring right into the counter. Course, when we moved, we forfeited the deposit. Oh, well. D

14/5/09 7:52 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Donnetta Lee,
It's been a while. I feel like I need to say that my laptop (with all my blog bookmarks) has been down for over two months and I've fallen behind in my blog reading (and writing, too, for that matter).

Formica is pretty tough stuff but it is not "heat proof."

Poor Mom. She felt so bad about it, but we lived with that table "scar" for several years. As you can probably guess, the title takes a turn in part B.

14/5/09 10:14 PM  
Blogger the walking man said...

It is the scars that represent a life lived well. Personally I wouldn't have traded the scar for all the granite in the world.

15/5/09 5:58 AM  
Blogger Nancy said...

Learning to live with my "scars" has been a lifelong process but as I age the scars fade making them easier to live with. I have always been a fixer and it sounds as if your Mom also had that character trait. She seemed to have handled the situation as best she could, solving the formica problem quickly and then moved on. Finding a saucer just the right size was a blessing indeed!

15/5/09 4:30 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

You are right. I don't know what happend to this table. It has not been in the homestead house for decades, but when I brought home that Duncan Phyfe, I had to choose: refinish the thing or leave it with the water stain (Mom's Poinsettia) and Dad's scratches from when he sharpend his chainsaws on it in the barn? I cleaned it up but left it just as it was.

You know that trip you asked about a while back? We leave in the morning. Southern accents here we come!

Mom was easily contented. None of the other "aunts" wanted that kitchen stuff. They had better things, but for Mom 10-year-old "used" was better than what we had. So she did feel bad about that spot. In time one of the glued in peices came loose and was lost which made it look even worse, but it was only about three years later that she got her new maple Ethan Allen dining room table (with 8 chairs), a very happy day for her, and yes a blessing indeed.

15/5/09 4:46 PM  

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