Image by Dawn Estrin
Macaroni and cheese. She wanted the solace of her grandmother’s macaroni and cheese and rummaged through cookbooks until she found the three-by-five From the Kitchen of Katherine Blair card with the recipe.
While the water came to a boil, she trimmed mold off one corner of a block of sharp cheddar and sliced it into strips. Small elbows, slightly cooked. I’m sorry, Mama.
Her mother stood at the stove, making macaroni and cheese. It’s nothing, Sweetie, it’s only macaroni. We’ll make some more, but not cook it quite so long.
Not the macaroni, Mama, I’m sorry I disappointed you.
She’d like some wine, but her mother was there by her elbow, assembling the ingredients on the counter: saltines, butter, salt and pepper, milk. Now, grease the baking dish. That’s the way.
She wondered how it would taste if she substituted Ritz for saltines, if she added some garlic, suspected this was why hers never turned out well. For one who’d had most of the advantages, Elaine hadn’t turned out very well, either, and knew she hadn’t lived up to her parents’ expectations. Their expectations were those of the insular campus of a small state college where she’d grown up. She wasn’t published. She didn’t hold a chair. She’d ended up in health care by default, not design. Not like her sister, Mary Beth, who led a charmed life because she followed The Plan: finish school, land a teaching position, get married, buy a house, then think about children, but by then Mary Beth was thirty-seven.
Where did waitressing at Denney’s or packing dispensers at the Dixie Cup factory fit into the plan? At thirty-seven, Elaine still hadn’t finished her degree. At thirty-seven she’d been weaning herself from Stelazine and working her own plan for leaving John, and Susannah had been gone for three years. All the while, her sister had been secure in their parents’ world where everyone knew the rules, where their mother had known the idiosyncrasies of Mary Beth’s washing machine, had known that in her sister’s house the coffee mugs were on the second shelf, corner cabinet.
Where do you keep the colander?
Elaine couldn’t remember where she’d put it, looked in the cabinet, found it in the drawer under the oven.
Now drain the macaroni and put a layer in the bottom of the dish.
She did and felt better in the repetition of this act of communion.
Now, a layer of cheese, a layer of crushed crackers. Dot with butter. That’s the way. Salt and pepper.
Is this the secret, Mama, these layers? Or the cheese, perhaps, and though she wondered how Monterey Jack would taste, Elaine followed her mother’s instructions. This time she followed her mother’s instructions to the letter, except for the lying. Mary Beth had no reason to lie, her life spread before their mother, a life as honest as a line-dried sheet on a double bed.
I couldn’t tell you what it was like. You wouldn’t have understood. I always tried to call you, timing my calls when John wasn’t home. The time you called and I told you I couldn’t talk because I was expecting twelve for dinner, that was a lie. There was never a dinner party. John was drunk. I was afraid you’d hear him in the background. Is the secret the cheese?
There’s no secret to it, Sweetie. You just follow the instructions.
In her heart Elaine knew Susannah’s leaving was her fault, that she had never been the mother her mother had been, hadn’t taught her how a lady removes her gloves, how to pour coffee and serve dessert, how to play bridge. She knew it was her fault as surely as she knew she could’ve left John the first week they were married, the night he cornered her on the couch and made her tell him everything she’d done with every man she’d ever been with, and then hurled a coffee mug against the wall. She could have packed her red American Tourister and taken a Greyhound back to Bronxville. She could have told the dean she’d made a foolish mistake and begged to make up the work, and the dean would have understood and said yes, and all would have been forgiven. She could have walked past Freddy the gardener, past the endowed tulip beds, and up the steps to her corner room in Gilbert.
The second layer’s the same as the first, but you add milk before the crackers so they don’t get soggy, and put the butter on top so it melts down on everything and makes it good and buttery.
How for years her mother had been distracted by Mary Beth’s job and Mary Beth’s new house and hadn’t noticed that Susannah was never there to talk on the phone, such a social butterfly, they’d say; ball games, and play practice, and has Mary Beth chosen drapes yet? Wallpaper for the guest bedroom? Have they thought about a baby?
Then you bake it at 350 for twenty-five minutes.
Fresh from the oven the macaroni was bubbly hot, its top gilded with cracker crumbs, and Elaine sank a spoon deep into the dish and watched the cheese trail as she lifted it to her mouth. It tasted just like she remembered, like three generations of love, and tears filled her eyes from the pepper and the heat, the roof of her mouth blistered.. Mine never tastes like this, she said.
Her mother smiled, tossed a dish towel across her shoulder. That’s because you don’t follow Grandmother’s recipe. You’ve always improvised. She combed Elaine’s hair out of her eyes with her fingers. That’s one of the things I love most about you.
Elaine tucked the card back into the Junior League of Little Rock cookbook, remembered how she’d finally broken down and confessed her whole ugly life and begged for forgiveness and for money to get out while she could, remembered that her mother had asked how much she needed, sent a check for twice that amount and included in the envelope this card: a From the Kitchen of– card with the recipe for Grandmother’s Macaroni and Cheese.
Lu Livingston teaches English at University of Arkansas-Fort Smith and is a life-long student. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University, Charlotte, NC, and is pursuing advanced studies in Scottish literature at Orkney College, UK. Her current pursuit is to transmute her novel about a southern U. S. biker club into Gaelic bardic metre–an eerily natural fit.
Read our interview with Lu here.