Lucille grasped the damp, rough skin of the potato. An earthy smell rose from it that was like a summer backyard. She held its shape a moment before sliding a paring knife under its skin. She sliced; grainy wetness came on her fingers. The white flesh of the skin emerged, shining mutely, the way pearls did.
She had dug her first potato at four, with her father, a big straw hat on her head. Her balance had been crucial; either the shovel would slip or the straw hat would dip below her eyes. Lucille still remembered pushing and holding her breath. The shovel had dug into her palm, and she had thought she might die before she found a potato. Wetness had seeped through her clothes. Then the shovel flew up and sent her tumbling onto the grass.
“A big one,” her father said as he held the potato for her to see. Shadows filled in the lines in his face, shadows from the sun. As she craned her neck, he peeled the drooping hat from her head. She blinked. Had there ever been a potato that big before?
When Lucille was ten, she had watched her mother peel a potato. It was almost like watching the circular motion of someone winding yarn. Then Lucille peeled her first potato. Large pieces of white flesh skimmed off with the skin. She forgot to cut out the eyes. The potato was a stark, angled shape that her mother dropped in the pan next to the other potatoes without a word. The others looked like huge eggs. Potatoes had never tasted better to Lucille than they did at dinner that night.
After a while, Lucille had begun to peel potatoes like Mama; she didn’t have to think or strain. The potato she was peeling now looked as if it were wearing a brown necktie before she scraped the last peeling off. The skin lay smooth. Its starch clung to Lucille’s fingers as she reached for the second potato.
She always began with the potatoes when she peeled vegetables for stew. She made stew the way her mother had. As if there were no other way. Five potatoes. Six if they were skinny or small. Cut the big ones in half.
When she was first married, the stew seemed to last forever. Thomas once asked if she was trying to feed armies. He always took two helpings; she always tried to just take one. Even if she did take two, the stew would be dinner the night she made it, supper one or two days later, and possibly lunch on Saturday. The stew grew thicker with reheatings, and the flavors proclaimed themselves—they danced in your mouth. Stew was solid, sturdy and lasting. They ate stew often, she and Tom.
Lucille picked up a carrot, remembering more of her mother’s recipe. Four carrots, thick as your thumb. When she was younger, that seemed silly. Shouldn’t you say a pound of potatoes? Eight ounces of tomato sauce? She was surprised to find herself perennially holding carrots up to her thumb to compare the thickness.
Lucille started peeling the carrots with long, wispy, strokes as if she were swiftly bowing a cello. It still amazed her how easily the skin sailed off. Carrot skin would always glide easier than potato skin. And she would always be amazed by that. Her mother had taught her how to peel carrots before she had learned how to peel potatoes. It still was hard to let a peeled carrot pass without taking a bite. Was there anything newer, fresher, than a just-peeled carrot? Something of the freshness seemed lost when carrots were boiled and sliced and placed on a china plate before being dotted with butter. Lucille cut off a bit of carrot, plopped it in her mouth, and looked around, as if she expected someone to spring out and scold her. Then she laughed. After seven years of living alone, who was there to look around for? She smiled to herself, then dropped the carrots in with the meat and potatoes.
This stew was for the Bakers, down the street, who had just had their first baby. Lucille remembered her first week with her own first baby, Jonathan, and how the dinners people brought all tasted so good and so different. It had been like visiting a new restaurant every night. Their clean dishes had piled on her countertop until she had felt strong enough to return them, and thank each neighbor for being so kind. It was as if they had all somehow known how Jonathan cried to the ceiling each night that first week.
Lucille remembered scarcely noticing the sound of Jonathan’s crying. She had been too intent on the delicate symmetry of his face, the beauty of his nose and cheeks like rose-colored blown glass. She spent the days discovering Jonathan; neighbors, home teachers, and her visiting teachers brought dinner at night. That first week was a precious memory, complete with casseroles wrapped with potholders and dishtowels—and full of caring.
Lucille remembered that week every time someone in the ward had her first baby. She made stew many times.
Now for the celery. Lucille eased it from the crisper, smelled its thin smell that was like clear water. She thought of its pieces and strings, its composition that was as much like a fabric as it was like a vegetable. She recalled the subtle flavor celery added to stew. When she was first married and in a hurry, Lucille sometimes left the celery out. Now she seemed to always have some on hand.
Lucille leaned and lifted the lid from the pot of stew. The pieces of meat had grown rounder, smaller, and browner. The bubbles carried on a low-voiced conversation. The smell was beginning to fill the house, the smell that to Lucille meant a family safe at home. She felt a warmth start inside her.
She put the lid back. The iron pot had been a wedding present. A heavy, solid presence in this kitchen, it would hold the stew for three hours without letting it burn.
She cut the celery. Long, even cuts. Then short chops, like the sound of a trotting horse’s hooves, separating the celery into small squares with threads hanging from them. She had never been able to master her mother’s method of cutting that left a celery checkerboard. Had she been daydreaming the day her mother showed her how? She gathered the scattered squares into her fist and dropped them into the stew.
She felt again the solid, peaceful feeling she had when Tom came home tired and the stew was boiling on the stove. He would lie down for a few moments, but he wouldn’t sleep. The smell of the stew would soon fill the house, and Tom would saunter out to the kitchen where he and Lucille would talk until dinner was ready. It was such a cherished time. As if the entire universe had settled itself and all the problems had suddenly soared away. Their talk would emerge; the smell would rise and drift slowly before settling about them. After they had eaten and talked, they felt as if neither of them had worked that day.
She made stew the night after Tom died. Neighbors had brought casseroles to her, then, too. But she had been unable to forget Marjorie, who lived down the street, who had been married nine years and had just had her first baby. So she had made stew. It had felt good to sense the quiet, even rhythm of her hands peeling the potatoes. And you couldn’t cry if your hands weren’t free, could you?
The stew hadn’t lasted as long after Robert, Joe, and Mary Beth were born. Possibly two suppers, but never a Saturday lunch. Sometimes they all put bread under their stew for the second supper, just to fill things in. Yet nothing was as filling or as warm as stew on that night after a long snowstorm in the middle of December. That’s when Mary Beth’s first baby was born, Lucille’s first grandson. She had gone to Mary Beth’s and cooked and cleaned, and it had seemed as if Christmas had come ten days early. The stew had lasted two nights for the three of them—Lucille, Mary Beth, and Mary Beth’s husband.
Now for the seasonings. The bottles were harder to read than they used to be. Lucille held a bottle out as far as her hands would reach but still had to squint her eyes. Cinnamon. That wouldn’t do. Nutmeg. Not that either. Basil. Thyme. Ah. Garlic salt. She unscrewed the lid and shook a little into her cupped hand, filling the crevices that formed a sort of lopsided star. She screwed the cap onto the garlic salt; then shook the salt into the stew. The granules clung to the surface a moment before they disappeared.
Lucille could hear her mother’s voice every time she made stew. Half sentences they had said when they stood in this spot in a different kitchen would come back. If Lucille strained her memory hard, she could see her mother’s face as if it lay in front of her. The long, slender nose that now rode above her own cheeks, the fading freckles, the eyes with flecks the color of moss. If she thought hard, sentences would come, pieces of days gone by. For a moment, the stew would not be the stew she was making now. It would be her mother’s stew, and her house would be her mother’s house, and she would be her mother’s girl.
It had been a while after her mother had died before she made stew again. Or chili. Or meat loaf with her mother’s exact combination of cheese, tomatoes, and celery. It had been a while. And one day, she had known, exactly, that she could make those things again. She had felt it inside. The same way she felt her mother with her as she lifted the lid and steam rushed to her face.
She took out the wooden spoon. Her mother had told her never to stir with a metal spoon in a metal pan. She had taken a pan out of the cupboard and stirred through its air with a sterling serving spoon. There had been a rolling, scraping noise, something like water being poured from a jug. Lucille had been thinking that she liked the noise when her mother had told her how much softer a wooden spoon sounded. Now Lucille would grope for the wooden spoon whenever it was time to stir. She had become used to the thickness of wood, and she tasted it briefly again as she lifted a few drops of stew gravy to her tongue.
A little more salt. The words came automatically. They were inside her head like the remembered flavor of the gravy. She shook the container gently and waited as granules fell.
Lucille put the lid back on the stew and thought of other things her mother had left her, other heirlooms. The way she said, “Fine, thank you,” when anyone asked how she was. The way she always wore her best dress if there was a vague chance anyone at a party might dress up. The way she sifted the hair of Joseph and Robert when they were little boys who grew restless at church and begged to lay in their mother’s lap.
She sat on the sofa. The familiar smell had filled the house. The stew lasted longer than ever now, especially if she forgot to freeze half. It became many lunches and dinners. Tonight half would go to the Bakers. Half would be hers. She would share the stew the way her mother had shared. For an heirloom wasn’t an heirloom if it wasn’t passed on.