Fiction Mondays – Betty Mae

I’m running late on my post because there was a local writers conference that I attended Friday and Saturday.  There are several new posts swirling in my nether regions that were, at least in part, inspired by the conference.  I attended a world building session and have a LOT to say about it- both the world building and the session.  I’m going to give it another few days before I write it to see if the heat will increase or abate.

I’ve decided (mostly) that if I make it to Monday and I still haven’t created any new content, I’ll push out a little fiction.   Most of what I post here will not have anything to do with the genre fiction I’m currently working on. Here’s a short piece I wrote as an exercise.

Betty Mae

Betty Mae was able to reach into a pot of boiling water and pull out an ear of corn. I never saw her do it, but in the sea of family stories, this one feels true to me.

The memories of my grandmother were always in the kitchen. Her fuzzy white slippers stood out against the yellow and brown linoleum. Housedress or polyester pants signified whether she was making breakfast or dinner. If her curly white hair was wreathed in steam, she was sterilizing jars for canning or scalding tomatoes so their skins would slip right off before she crushed them and packed the pulp into quart Bell jars. Puffs of steamy air would greet me as I entered from the front porch. The smell would always indicate the season—hardboiled eggs and grilled peppers, cinnamon apples and tomatoes, turkey and ham, rhubarb and strawberries.

Her kitchen table matched the yellow 1957 Frigidaire gas range where she worked. The table was pushed up against the wall that held the Crescent Tool calendar that my Grandfather got from work every Christmas. There were only five chairs around it even though they were a family of six. I don’t know if that table was anything but an alchemical workbench for my Grandma. The table was always covered with food – bushels of tomatoes, mounds of green beans and peppers waiting to be canned; ribbons of floury pie crust scattered around eight nearly perfect circles of dough waiting to be pinched into pie dishes.

In early fall of 1981, I was eleven. Cortland apples floated in her chipped white enameled sink while she peeled others – red ribbons dropping onto newspaper that would be carried to the compost pile out back. I was fascinated by her spare, practiced movement and wanted to understand the hands that crushed tomatoes and turned the most delicate crust. It was a rare moment, the two of us alone. Apple peels continued to fall deliberately on the newspaper but the bushels of red and yellow fruit waiting to be skinned seemed herculean. My heart pounded and I hesitated. Surely an apprentice would start with peeling. I asked in a mouse’s voice, “Can I help?”

She patted me gently on the cheek with her pink-scrubbed hand that was so soft and so hard. “No, Michael. You don’t help in the kitchen. Go ask your Grandpa in the garden.”

I never learned to garden. In high school, I would read cookbooks alone in my room. College led to experiments with noodles and venison. Traveling as a young man, I would challenge myself to make a four course meal with toaster over and camp stove. After getting married, the 1950’s galley kitchen in our house was torn out and expanded to make a space where a family can cook together.

I dreamt of my Grandma in the Fall. Her hair was the steam of some unseen pot. We stood at my kitchen island with a glass pie pan that I pulled out of the back of her hutch the day after her funeral. Plastic wrap peeled away from chilled pie crusts that I was sure would be leathery when I rolled them out. She stood, facing me, and told me how beautiful my children were. She looked into my eyes and found a sadness there that she alone recognized. “Michael, everything will be okay.” I desperately begged her for the recipes for pepper relish and pie crust. She touched my face and whispered them too softly for me to hear.




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