What Drives Me, Too

          I like to do things just because I think I can. Most times, the results make life better for me and others.

          One of my first ventures, at age five and in first grade, was to make a mid-winter Sunday afternoon supper for my family of two younger sisters, older brother, and parents. I was already planting in the garden, changing beds, helping cook meals and do laundry and help my sisters. I could care for and walk the dogs; feed the chickens and pigs. In two years, I’d have my own horse and would clean the stall and measure out her grain and hay at 6 a.m. Ladybug was an ex-show horse, a chestnut Morgan, who couldn’t jump anymore because of a strained tendon. Mom got her for free for my 7th birthday. I’d run from the bus at 3 p.m. to the barn, saddle up and ride through the woods until dinner, often in the dark. By myself.

          I told my mother of my cooking plan. I would accept no help. I would be allowed to be alone in the kitchen with the wood-fired cook stove and oven.  The dining table also was in that same room of the large old farmhouse, heated with a wood furnace and fireplaces in rural New Hampshire. The snow plough driver occasionally stopped to pick us up for school because the bus couldn’t get  through after snowstorms.

          I got permission for my undertaking. Dinner would be at 2 p.m., as usual, I announced, and kicked everyone out of the kitchen to begin my work around noon.

          I knew my menu – roast pork, mashed potatoes, and green beans. No meal in our house in those days was served without a home-baked dessert, so I would make apple crisp. I got on a step stool to reach the double-sized porcelain kitchen sink and began peeling potatoes. I had already put the roast in a pan in the oven and banked the fire box with small logs. A pan of water set on one “burner”, a cast iron removable circular cover over flames, for the potatoes and another smaller pan was for the beans.

          Tum de dum. This was going fine. I peeled potatoes and apples. The water boiled over and doused the fire. I started up the fire again with newspaper and hard blowing. I dumped the potatoes and the beans into boiling water pans. Great.

          Time to set the table with colored, plastic plates, stainless steel forks, knives and spoons and red plastic milk tumblers. The water boiled over again. Smoke from the burning pork snuck out of the corners of the oven and filled the room.

          “How’s it going?’ my mother yelled from the living room where whisps from under the door frame drifted around.

          “Fine,” I yelled, grabbing oven mitts to pull out the pork, but I missed getting the gloves all the way on my hands and burned one palm and wrist. Darn. I dropped the pork on the floor, ran to climb on the stool to run my hand under cold water. The dog made a bee line for the pork, and I ran back to grab it, as water filled the sink and overflowed.

          In another hour, the cold burned pork was on a serving platter on the table, the potatoes and beans were drained. The apple crisp was baking, under a crust of flour, sugar, cinnamon, and dabs of butter.

          I tackled the potatoes in a bowl on the counter. The electric beaters wouldn’t pop into the motor casing. I gritted my teeth and pushed. Clunk. First one, then the other. I sloshed milk from a large gallon glass container into the pot and spilled some on the floor. Jumpy, the family Brittany Spaniel, licked it up. Cynical, two cats looked at me from their chairs near the stove as if to say – What a mess!

          The potatoes were hard, but the beans were mushy. Oh well. I added butter and beat and beat and beat to get those hard potatoes into a fluffy mass. But they turned shiny like glue and lumpy. So what. I put them in a bowl on the table.

          I climbed the stool to the sink and rolled up my sleeves to do the cooking dishes. It was a rule in our house – clean as you go. I was hot, sweating, and pushed my bangs back from my face. I scrubbed the gluey potato from the sides of the pan.

          Suddenly exhausted, I put my head down on the edge of the sink. I couldn’t go on. I had underestimated this task. I almost cried. But the oven started to smoke again from the bubbling apple crisp. Yikes! I jumped down, grabbed the mitts, burned the other hand this time. How did mom get the fire just right so things would cook through but not burn? I stuck a fork in the apples. They were hard. Darn.

          I raced back to the sink and swiped at the remaining pans, enough to say they were “done” but not necessarily “clean”.  Call that good enough.

          Last thing to do was pour the milk into six plastic cups. The table was 32 inches high the cups, tall; the glass milk jug, heavy. With my 42 inches in height, I managed to fill the cups with only a few streams of milk running onto the plastic tablecloth, down to the floor. Again, Jumpy was happy to help.

          I stood back to survey the scene. There were mashed potato bits everywhere – the wall around the counter, the floor, on my pants and in my hair, on my ear.

          “Time for dinner,” I yelled and picked the potato lump off my ear and ate it from my fingers. Jumpy cleaned up my other hand, having just finished licking the wall.

          Ceremoniously, five people filed in from the living room.

          “Everything looks perfect,” Mom said.

          “You’ve done a great job,” Dad said, even though there was evident dog hair on the pork roast.

          “The whole house is smoky, duh?”, said my brother.

          It was just Sunday dinner. But I had made it and that made me happy. What drove me? Did I do it for my family or myself? That was something I would come to understand over decades of taking risks and doing whatever it was- anyway.

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