This piece is the next in the set inspired by my Sophomore class of last year.
The small recipe box had one corner singed from a long-ago house fire, but it still looked like a recipe box, with a three by five front panel adorned by a red Dutch tulip. It stayed in a shelf beside the kitchen sink, and inside it held yellowed index cards, mostly, and some paper clippings. Tasia’s Grandmother Bamburg had no fewer than twenty pickle recipes.
When Tasia was little she always asked permission to look inside the box, bringing it down to the kitchen table and shuffling through it, to pull out the card with “Dinner Rolls” printed neatly across the top. She needn’t have fetched the card. Her grandmother could have spoken the instructions as Tasia worked, but the little box and the recipes inside were the ceremony the two shared.
The last time Tasia entered that kitchen, her cousin Janice was already in the house, had already put open boxes in every room, with names printed across them in black sharpie letters—“For Good Will,” “For Yard Sale.” Every grandchild had a box as well.
“Is that you?” Janice called from the far end of the house.
Tasia hesitated. “Yes? Um…it’s Tasia.”
“Oh.” Janice came into the kitchen. “I thought you were Mother.”
Tasia nodded. Her Aunt Etta and Cousin Janice were like a super hero and side kick team. Wherever one went, there was the other one.
“We thought we would start in Gramps’ office,” Janice said, curling a finger for Tasia to follow.
Oh, how Tasia hated Janice and her imperative tone. She longed to stand her ground, to refuse Janice at every turn, but she moved easily enough now. Her own mother’s admonition from the day before echoed in her heart. “Try and get along. You know how your grandmother hated to see family fight.”
Tasia tried a gentler form of resistance. “Who is we?”
“Mother and I.” Janice was high stepping through the boxes in the living room.
“I thought your mother wasn’t here.”
“She went out to get packing peanuts and tape.”
Gramps’ office was a shrine. He had died twenty years earlier, when Tasia was only nine, but everthing in his retreat was kept as if he had just stepped out to have a cup of coffee. On the top of his roll top desk sat his straw hat with the thin brim and black band. In the top drawer was his dented silver bear-claw money clip (with nothing in it), a dried up chapstick, a cup of dingy quarters, a pack of Pall Malls, a lighter, a copper Rotary belt buckle with his name engraved on the back, some antique sparklers, a pearl-handled pocket knife with razor sharp blades, and a wee grinning Buddha Gramps himself had carved while stationed in the Pacific. A handful of dried-up pens rattled when the drawer opened, but only one of them still wrote, and it had purple ink. The few items of any value in the room were quickly spirited into the boxes marked Janice or Etta or Seth (Janice’s younger brother).
Tasia had no brother, no sister, and her mother had to spend part of the day at the funeral home and part of the day at the lawyer’s office. Tasia knew her mother had no interest in the house items. Grandmother Bamburg was Tasia’s father’s mother. Tasia’s mother was staying with her husband and making sure the estate was properly handled. Tasia’s father was rocked by his mother’s sudden demise. He had acted like a half-zombie for the past three days. Tasia didn’t have the heart to ask what he might want from his mother’s home. She had moved there after he was grown and gone. The little house on the edge of town was pleasant, quiet, and all the toys of childhood had long since flown away. Still, Tasia asked for the little Buddha. Perhaps her father would want it. Tasia wanted it. Maybe her father would want it, too.
“I don’t think your dad would care about that,” Janice said as she wrapped it in paper and slipped it into Seth’s box.
“Did he say he say he wanted it?”
“Yes. He did.”
“Seth always loved that little thing,” Aunt Etta put in. She didn’t even know what Janice had in her hand, but she backed her up anyway.
Tasia just knew Janice was lying. She had always told those kinds of lies. “My mother was a Rodeo Queen,” she once told Tasia, and when Tasia asked her father about it, he laughed. He said his sister wanted to be a rodeo queen, but she never had been. Tasia could never figure why Janice had told her that. What would it matter? Still, it was like Janice to lie because she wanted things her way, even little things.
Tasia managed to get a turquoise and silver key ring that held the useless key to her Gramps’ old El Camino that had been her father’s first car. She also managed to get her Grandmother Bamburg’s passport for her father because he had mentioned that. Tasia’s father had taken Grandmother Bamburg to Europe five years before, and gone to the home of her ancestors in Brussels. It had been a glorious trip, and he had talked about how proud his mother was of all those stamps from all those countries, like each one was a gift her son had given her.
Aunt Etta and Janice and Tasia went room by room thusly, and by the time they finally reached the kitchen, there were only three things in Tasia’s box—a little metal pendant with a fish on it made of pop metal, a small silver ring that looked like a feather, and a gray-green silk scarf with little harps and shamrocks embroidered on it. Tasia could not help but compare her meagre part of all the treasures that had one filled the house with those of the other grandchildren. Even so, she was only thinking of one treasure, one thing she knew would be enough for her. She went to the cabinet beside the kitchen sink. She opened the door expecting to find all the little tea dishes along with the recipe box, but the cabinet was all but empty. An old, half-eaten Toosie roll lay where the recipe box was supposed to be.
“Where is it?” Tasia asked, mostly to herself.
“Where’s what? Grandmother’s tea set? We already got that. She promised that to Janice years ago.”
“Not the tea set? The recipe box. Where’s Grandmother’s recipe box?”
“Oh, I took that, too.” Janice looked at Tasia ask if the question was silly.
“Oh, I don’t know. A while back.”
Tasia could feel her head start to throb. “You took that, too. You took that, too.” To keep herself from saying anything else, she turned on her heel and flung herself out the back door. She crossed the back yard and went through the second gate, into Grandmother Bamburg’s kitchen garden. There were the rows of vegetables—the pole beans, the tomatoes, the squash, the okra, the peppers. They were wilting from the neglect of the past four days. To Tasia’s eyes they all blurred in browns and greens. Her throat was tight with misery. Why had her mother not come or at least called? It had been a whole day with them, the bossy and business-like relatives who never seemed to care what she thought or felt. She asked her Grandmother’s memory why it was this way. Why was Tasia never the beloved one?
In that kitchen she had learned to cook. For one month every summer Tasia came and stood beside her Grandmother Bamburg. She had learned to make sweet rolls, and okra pickles, had pulled taffy and stirred fudge, and always her Grandmother had done what Tasia asked. She had built the days around Tasia’s pleasures. Some afternoons they would take the little Chevy into town and shop at the drug store or read at the library. Tasia and Grandmother Bamburg would drive home with all the windows open and sing together, her grandmother’s wavering soprano and perfect memory recalling all the words to all the little songs Tasia loved best. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
Tasia tears and sobs eased. She bent and twisted a purple pepper from the last garden her grandmother grew. She breathed in its bright savory scent. She picked all the peppers, all the purple peppers from the plant and tucked them in her pockets then turned back to the house. She would get one of those card board boxes and pick everything in the garden she could and then she would go in and tell Janice she wanted Grandmother Bamburg’s recipe box. If Janice refused…Tasia would think of something to make her. “I’ll slap you if I have to,” she imagined saying to Janice. To hell with not fighting. Let Grandmother Bamburg come back and tell Tasia otherwise if she liked, but Tasia intended to have that box.