Places from childhood sometimes seem smaller when we go back, but the kitchen of my childhood was always small. Mom and Dad built their house on Ski Hill Road in 1980, intending to sell it as a second home for skiers. The kitchen was . . . well, let’s just say I’ve had closets bigger, and my folks would have done things differently if they’d known we’d live in that house for nearly 30 years.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had ten kitchens since then, and it’s still my favorite. Or at least top three. That first kitchen had a gravitational pull, and even though we had far bigger rooms to gather in, somehow we ended up in the kitchen, gangly teenage legs dangling off the orange formica counters and Mom and Dad stacked double-decker in the corner with their arms around each other. You couldn’t open the fridge and the oven at the same time. You couldn’t open any two things at the same time. When the orange formica finally went I was sad, because I was the only kid in the high school who’s kitchen matched the school colors.

In that kitchen I learned to always check the sprayer on the sink for rubber bands before turning on the water, an entire day's worth of dishes can be cleaned up in the thirty seconds it takes mom and dad to walk from the driveway to the front door, and metal pots do NOT go in the microwave.

The window above the sink looked out over the back yard and the storage shed. Magpies used to chase the cat off while she tried to eat, so Dad would slide the window open, nose his shotgun out and see how many he could . . . scare off. Can't tell you how many summer mornings I woke up to a shotgun bang and fell out of bed, heart pounding. Dad would open my bedroom door and say, "Seven!" (If he didn't want me to tell on him, he should have saved the target practice until a decent hour.) Dad didn't just fire guns in the kitchen. He made the best breakfasts ever. Once the magpies were taken care of, that is. First things first.

Mom fed a gaggle of relatives every Christmas Eve out of that tiny kitchen. She fed them so well, they came back year after year. Her Clam chowder is the best in at least the galaxy. One cousin ate so much he raced to the bathroom to throw up, then went straight back to the kitchen for another bowl. No joke. I can’t point fingers, though. I have no memory of it, (how unfair life can be), but family lore says that while sitting on the orange formica counter on such a full-bellied Christmas Eve, I barfed right into my grandma Udy’s boots below me. My brother swears every drop went in the boots, but Dad took a picture of Udy wiping the floor with a smile on her face. Mom swears Udy would not have smiled when she was a kid.

Udy’s kitchen is the second in my memory. I went there almost every day after kindergarten, and Poppy made me ramen noodles because I was Princess Poobah of Ramen. It smelled like cigarettes and coffee, and toast and dishwashing soap. Goblets I swear were made of every color of candy but were NOT to be touched lived in tempting little nooks next to the pantry. Grandma’s are supposed to have yellow counters and dark cupboards, because both of mine did. Udy and Poppy’s kitchen had a magical drawer that always had a bag of Oreos. But like all treasure, it was protected with a curse. No matter how slowly or quickly I pulled, not matter the trajectory, velocity, angle, degree, prayer, or cover noise, Udy always heard the squeak. She'd laugh, hoarse and wheezy, then tell me I could have it if I brought her one, too.

Grandma Betty’s kitchen smelled like Betty Bread and laundry, and Grandpa’s greasy work jacket in the front closet. Strawberry milk only ever tasted good to me at her house. I’d sip from a brown plastic Tupperware cup while she kneaded a huge lump of dough that looked a lot the the soft backs of her arms. I loved Grandma’s plump arms. I hope when I’m a grandma I can accept that grandma arms are supposed to be soft and huggy, and kind of jiggly, like bread dough. We only visited Grandma and Grandpa’s kitchen a few times a year, so she had to feed us enough to last several months. Every holiday the whole family lay strewn around the wooden console TV in the living room, groaning in gastrointestinal distress after an immense meal. Not five minutes would go by before Grandma would ask, “Are you hungry? Can I get you some jam and bread?” We’d all moan and say, “Yes, please.”

I wish the last time I was in both of those grandma kitchens could have been like it used to be. But kitchens change. After Udy died, Poppy started to need help. My mom or my aunt were there every day, and during the summer on my way to my groundskeeper job at my dad’s elementary school, I would stop to make Poppy breakfast. Hashbrowns and eggs over-easy. Only I sucked at eggs over easy and Poppy always laughed when he heard me say “Crap!” from the kitchen. Every morning the yolk broke, and every morning Poppy said, “Thank you, m’dear”, which meant, “I love you, kid.” The last time I was in that kitchen, my aunts and mom gave me Udy’s untouchable candy red goblets. The funeral was done, Poppy was with Udy again, and their home turned into just a house, with just a kitchen. They sold it to someone who turned it back into a home, though. Maybe they have an inexplicable desire to keep Oreos in the bottom drawer.

On my last visit to Grandma Betty’s kitchen, Grandpa gave us strawberry jam he’d made by himself that year. Then he pulled a loaf of Betty Bread out of the freezer and we all missed her so much it hurt. Watching grandpas cry is hard. Grandpa couldn’t live there without Grandma, so I didn’t get to say goodbye to that kitchen. I didn’t get to say goodbye to Grandma either, at least not the way I would have liked to. My kids wonder why I cry while I knead the rolls at Thanksgiving. I tell them all about my grandmas and how much I love them, but they won’t really understand until it’s their own hands doing what grandma’s hands used to do.

My first kitchen of adulthood, (legal adulthood, anyway), was in a college apartment and my mom rolled her eyes because it was twice the size of her kitchen. It may have been bigger, but the food quality did not increase proportionately. I did not gain the freshman fifteen. In order to do that, one has to make food worth eating. My mom had taught me not to buy junk food, so I nearly starved. Luckily, the next year I lived in a new apartment with a handpicked group of friends and, thank heaven, they knew how to cook! Every Sunday we ate together, so once a week I had something besides bean burritos and apples. When we assigned dishes, I always said, “Uh . . . I have a cake mix”, until it became my catch phrase. Truly, I was just terrified to cook for people. StilI am. I learned a lot of things in my first kitchen, but how to cook wasn't one of them. Luckily my roomies tried to get me up to speed, and I started paying closer attention when I went home to visit.

My next kitchen, I don’t really want to talk about. But it was a kitchen, by definition, so I will. The first place Josh and I lived after we got married was a basement.  It was only for the summer so we could work for higher wages in our home town and save up for school in the fall. No matter that it had flooded and all the sheetrock lay in a gloppy pile in the center of the floor. Heroic efforts went into cleaning it up so we’d have a place to crash for a few months. There was a fridge and counters and a stove and cupboards, all second-hand, and all installed by Josh and his family with lots of love and good intentions. But the little, gappy hundred year old house was plopped right on the mountain side, yards away from National Forest property, which belongs to creatures. Josh promised that he would empty all the mouse traps before he left for work at 4 am every morning, but not all the critters were always in traps. After we moved out, the work continued and that little kitchen was just what a lot of different people needed. But it’s still not in my top three.

Our next kitchen had a mini stove that wouldn’t fit the cookie sheets, no room for a table or a microwave, and no creatures, so I loved it. That’s the kitchen where we gained back the weight we lost during the first months of our marriage, but it wasn’t because I was any better of a cook. We lived a few blocks from Papa Murphy’s, and we had coupons. In that kitchen, I started to worry about my lack of cooking ability. I had my mom’s recipes, but they hated me. I am so grateful for that, because Josh decided if he wanted good food, he had to make it himself. It was awesome. It still is awesome.

After we transferred to a new university, moved into a condo and had our first baby, my kitchen and I were still at odds. I had homework to do, and cooking dinner while holding a baby is an art form I'm still studying. I conquered a few recipes, but there was still something missing. We graduated, bought our first home, and that's where I began to understand that kitchens are the center of the universe. Two kids, a stressful new career, far away from family for the first time, our kitchen needed to be more than just new and clean and shiny. But whatever it needed, I just couldn’t find it yet. 

Thank goodness for an uncle and aunt only a few hours away. Their kitchen, like the kitchens from my childhood, had soul. In fact, their kitchen had so much soul, it spilled into the backyard, so there were two kitchens. We drove four hours nearly every Sunday because we needed a real kitchen, and the tastes and smells, and people and conversations that go with it.

I had to borrow my next kitchen, because work took us elsewhere and our house didn’t sell. We rented, and it was a good kitchen, but it wasn’t mine. I made my first Christmas dinner there, and it made me feel old and homesick, which are two rather unpleasant sensations to mix. But it also made me feel whatever it is that makes moms and some dads willing to put so much effort into a meal. We do it because we love each other, because it makes us remember good people and good food from Christmas past. Because we want to teach our kids that celebrating is not just fun, but necessary.

My mom and dad retired and moved to a beautiful place and built a beautiful home. The basement was going to have a wet bar, but they had a feeling they should put in a full kitchen. Just a little one, but with everything someone would need. You know, so that when they got older, a caretaker could live there. Or, so that, you know, their daughter and son-in-law, and three kids could move in when the economy necessitated a career change. Just for a few months, we thought. But that first house didn’t sell. And didn’t sell. It lingered like the stink of a dirty diaper. And I’m so glad. We used that little kitchen for two years and then some. Upstairs my mom had the kind of kitchen someone who cooked in a closet for thirty years deserves, and I used it on occasion. But I was happy enough with my glorified wet bar. It was a simple time in my life. Nearly everything I owned was in a storage unit or sold down the road in a yard sale, yet I had everything and everyone I needed, upstairs and down.

The first time we cooked in our new kitchen, the one I hope to use for the next century because I'm so tired of moving, I cried a little. As kitchens go, it's nothing out of the ordinary. The appliances aren't top of the line, the dishes have cracks and the counters are always covered in kid debris. But it's the place where we pack lunches for the adventure of the first day of school. It's the laboratory where we create science experiments and inventions. Where we make gifts for friends and food for people in need. Homework, chores, scheduling, planning, rewarding, birthdays. We spend time in other rooms, but the kitchen is where we make the meals that entice everyone to sit at the table, look each other in the eye and talk. With mouths full, usually, but whatever.   

There are days my kitchen feels a little like a prison cell. By the time one meal is cleaned up, it's time to make the next one. But I'm working really hard to change that attitude. A kitchen is a powerful place, even if the food that comes from it is simple and less than gourmet, even occasionally gross. I hope my kids remember this kitchen as the place love came from, filling the whole house like the scent of baking bread. Or burning bread. Either way, they'll know I gave it my best shot.

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