I am Prairie. I wasn’t always Prairie. The name derived from a dream. A quarter century ago I made it my legal name. But, that story comes later.
In grade six I kept a tiny black notebook hidden in my “fort” under the basement stairs. To it I entrusted every aspect of my young life. A septuagenarian now, I still keep a journal but I also write stories–true stories. Creating fiction is beyond my grasp. I cannot describe a flower, or a feeling or a situation I have not experienced. However, I do change some names to protect the privacy of certain individuals.
Perfect Meatballs is my first blogged story.
When I entered the first grade, my mother entered the working world–the working world outside the home. It was a rare thing for a woman to do in 1954. I suspect that the choice was based more on Mom’s wanting her own income than on wanting more work. At home she scrubbed, laundered, ironed–does anyone still iron?–gardened, harvested, preserved, mended, baked, cooked and cleaned. After she went out to work, she still did all those at-home things. No wonder she never read a novel or watched a western. Those were Dad’s diversions. If Mom sat down she invariably fell asleep.
My dad objected to Mom’s decision solely on the grounds that she would not be home to make him lunch. Dad worked as a cost accountant in a nearby town and had exactly one hour for his mid-day meal. The drive took twenty minutes each way. His meal needed to be set before him with utmost precision. Dad’s problem was resolved by allocating one of my older siblings to look after his noon repast. When my last brother graduated into high school, it was my turn to take on lunch duties.
I too had exactly one free middle-of-the-day hour. If I ran, I could make it from my public school to my home in eight minutes and get the meal ready for the exact moment when Dad walked through the door. Frequently, Father complained that the soup was not hot enough. Well, it was hot enough for me and I had to eat it too. Dad never did grasp the impossibility of winning an argument with a thirteen-year-old. Well, not an obstreperous one anyway. Obstreperous was an adjective Dad sometimes applied to me. He did a lot of challenging crossword puzzles. I suspect that’s where he gleaned his polysyllabic vocabulary.
One glorious afternoon I ran and skipped and pirouetted my way home. Our grade eight teacher had returned papers that morning. A major test. American geography–all fifty states, their capitals, climate, agriculture and industries. I had earned ninety-nine out of one hundred available marks. I forgot one “s” in Mississippi. Pride threatened to burst every button on my striped red and purple cardigan. I surged into the kitchen, prepared the meal–made sure the soup was piping hot–and perched at one end of the long narrow table–directly opposite my father’s chair.
Dad entered. Sat. Began to eat. After a suitable time, enough for him to almost finish, I slid my trophy toward him. He reached for the paper. Looked at the grade. Set down the prize. Paused. Then asked, “What happened to the other mark?” He was not being funny.
This was not an isolated instance of my not living up to my parents’ expectations of perfection.
On my first attendance at summer camp–I was nine or ten years old–I wrote an enthusiastic letter home describing the magical experience. When I returned, after one whole week away, my letter was waiting for me on that bright orange laminate table top. Every spelling and grammar mistake had been circled in red.
Mom was less demanding in terms of my being perfect. Even so, she did sneak into my bedroom after I had made my bed and smoothed out the wrinkles.
I imagine most parents in the 1950’s subscribed to the same child-rearing philosophies: spare the rod and spoil the child; father knows best; practice makes perfect. One of the lessons I learned from those precepts was that I could never be good enough. It took a couple of decades of therapy to repair my self-esteem. On the plus side, I resolved that when the time came, I would be a different kind of parent. By the mid-seventies when I had my first son, a lot about parenting had changed. I read widely and tried to practise a gentler, more loving style of child-rearing.
Louise Hay wrote, “We need to realize we can go beyond our family’s limitations”. I did go beyond them. I grew beyond them. One proof came on a sunny Saturday when my six-year-old daughter was helping me prepare meatballs.
Rowan loved to assist in the kitchen. She also loved to iron. Ten cents for each large linen napkin. But, food preparation she would do free of charge. She tied her bibbed apron, just like Mommy’s, around her diminutive waist, pulled the armless Windsor chair to the opposite side of the kitchen peninsula and climbed up. Facing each other, we solemnly began our task.
First, we dumped the hamburg meat, broken into small clumps, into the big flax-coloured ceramic bowl. Next came the chopped onion, garlic, egg and seasonings. No breadcrumb fillers for us. Sometimes we tossed in raisins. Weird but tasty. Soon we discarded the large wooden spoons in favour of hands which were more effective mixers and much more fun.
At last came the time to form dozens of tiny meatballs. We would pick up a lump of the gooey concoction, roll it in our sticky palms then deposit the result onto the waiting sheet of waxed paper. I smiled as I watched Rowan work. Tiny wrinkles formed between her brows. Utter concentration. No time for chit- chat. Each miniature orb had to be perfect. And perfect each one was. Fat, skinny, small and not-so-small, lop-sided and sausage shaped. Never would I suggest that meatballs were supposed to be round. When every specimen was complete, Rowan regarded her work. Pride threatened to burst her apron strings. I said nothing. Just smiled into her eyes. And Rowan’s eyes smiled back.