“Dumplings” by Mary McLaughlin Slechta

 

My sister The Beautiful One has always eaten our parents’ food like an indiscriminate tourist. Not only obvious dishes either, like meat patties that get the lines started at cultural fairs. Even food no sensible child would like she still hankers for in adulthood. For example, a dumpling, no matter its origin, should not rap like a brick against a counter top.

But for every major American holiday, The Beautiful One would like them made exactly this way: too much flour, too little water, a stingy pinch of baking powder, and frayed strings of salty cod fish. Our father’s dumplings. The Beautiful One insists on tradition, even if she has to create and sustain it single-handedly.

I contemplated writing my father’s mother. Were there actual, living Jamaican children who had to gnaw like puppies on their dumplings? I thought of asking her help in securing an accurate recipe, but loyalty to my parents prevented this. A child intuits plenty from overheard conversation and rambling aerogrammes. I suspected Grandma-in-Jamaica would have felt my father’s dumpling was a good-enough dumpling for a family that stole her only son.

“Let them feel a heavy load in them chest,” she might have grumbled of us, “and think of me aching heart.”

My father tried too hard. There’s no other explanation for the overworked dough. Like my Southern-born mother, I know a dumpling doesn’t require kneading and stretching.  The perfect dumpling swells like a golden orb below the oil. It has the good sense to turn itself over and pop up like a ball to sit on the surface. My mother’s dumpling nicely waits, as she lines a platter with paper napkins, to be lifted and drained. It’s mostly round like a little head, but there are extra limbs and bumps to make it more giraffe and elephant than human. Inside is airy with tiny chips of fish.

The Beautiful One is not opposed to our mother’s dumplings. The trouble is she doesn’t
discern. She wants these too, and as often as the others. But how many dumplings can
one household tolerate? How many cooks in a kitchen on a busy holiday morning? If any
particular dumplings are to be eliminated, one ought to begin with those raised for
sentimental reasons. Or so I once believed.

My father is incapacitated now. No taste, save minted mouth swaps and minuscule portions of toothpaste, crosses his lips. If he somehow swallowed that one single tear that
sometimes squeezes from his remaining eye, it could cause him to aspirate. The skin above his navel has hardened around a feeding tube. He couldn’t use his left hand to make the right one dust the counter with flour.  With a recipe he concocted from imperfect memory, he made The Beautiful One’s dumplings and even this he never wrote down. And the other family dumpling?  Before my father’s accident, in the period now remembered as laden with omens, my mother’s last pot turned against her.  Unblended water exploded in the oil, shooting up a pasty comet trailed by grease.  The instant my mother saw it sticking to the ceiling, it dropped back down and stuck to her face.  Mercifully, the fleshy, pink scars have disappeared, but she too is done with making dumplings.

So in the end, all our dumplings are leavened by memory as well as sentiment: the light ones as well as the leaden.  Someone has found the very last one, hidden under an inverted plate, and eaten it for appetite or meanness.  Something is over for all time, but it takes months or maybe years for this fact to be understood.  From feast to slow-growing famine, you might say.

The Beautiful One has no one left to prepare her dumplings.  I won’t make them for her, but I see she doesn’t starve from their absence.  She’s moved into other people’s households: Chinese, Thai, Czech.  She continues to eat anyone’s dumplings, that one.  She has no particular allegiance, no devotion to good taste.  I give her credit for one thing.  She makes our father happy when she reminisces about his cooking adventures with dumplings.  She describes a gold I can’t personally recollect, a softness inside the crunchy outer crust, the tingle of spring water rinsing the salty tastes.  She reinvents holiday mornings waiting for the juices to run clear in some heavenly pheasant or turkey. Munching a dumpling, she insists, could keep your stomach from tearing itself apart.

The truth is my father’s dumplings sheared the roof of my mouth like rocks. I watch him in The Home, rolling his tongue round and round in his mouth. His struggle revives in my own mouth the pain that followed each bite after the injurious one. Round and round goes his tongue, reenacting my own compulsion to explore the contours of the inflammation. Of course, I never completely stopped eating. The pleasure of any good food was mixed with the pain of reinjuring the bump at the roof of my mouth and a brief memory of what had initially caused it. I promised myself over and over, “never again,” “eat more slowly,” “be
cautious.” Lessons I haven’t learned to this day.

I worry about my father. I worry that his tongue reminds him of the tastes of metal, glass, and plastic collapsing around him at tremendous speed. I worry because there can be only pain in whatever memory he locates in his mouth. I’m afraid that each time his tongue surveys its shattered cave, he returns to the intersection of two familiar roads. And crosses.

The Beautiful One thinks she knows everything. She says our father’s tongue is trying to
remember the good taste of things.

“You were the best dumpling maker in the world,” she assures him, as though he was wondering just that.  She’s a good storyteller.  She almost convinces me that I too enjoyed our father’s rock hard dumplings: I gobbled so quickly they tore my mouth; as girls we wrestled for the last ones; I, not she, was The Greedy One; I still haven’t learned to share.

That last is an out and out lie. I always give The Beautiful One what she most wants from
our father.  What we all miss more than dumplings. When she smooths his hair behind his ears and tells him her lies, his eye widens in something like disbelief. I open my own bruised mouth and laugh.

 

 

Mary McLaughlin Slechta‘s fiction has appeared most recently in The Gihon River Review, and it
represents Connecticut in Ballyhoo: Fifty States Project.  She’s published a book of poetry about grief, Wreckage On a Watery Moon (FootHills Publishing) and two chapbooks.  She’s also an associate editor for
The Comstock Review in Syracuse, New York.  This is her first appearance in r.kv.r.y. and we welcome her with great enthusiasm.

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