by Amy Crawford
My mother always said to cut the cucumbers thin, like the wafers served at the communion rail in church—just thick enough to stand on their own, but thin enough that they didn’t break in your mouth when you put them on your tongue to curl up and suck out the bittersweet juices.
Her pile on the cutting table was neat, uniform like soldiers lined up for a drill, while mine wafted between thick, translucent light bulbs in a recycled chandelier with different baubles and beads, and thin discs of cellophane that you could read through.
“I don’t know how you do it,” I whined into the briny air, tinged with pickling spices and apple cider vinegar.
Garden season had swooped in like a west wind dust devil. Corn, tomatoes, black-eyed peas, Kentucky wonder beans, cabbage, potatoes. All in their due, dithering for the kitchen knife and post-culling conversation.
“Practice, concentration,” she sighed, continuing her chopping. “My mother was a master chef...” she started, and the comment floated off on the breeze, irritating the summer heat and humidity undulating through the farmhouse window.
That master chef, however gracious and loving a grandmother I had ever had, was always at odds with her oldest child the way the bees in the garden didn’t care for the poison mom sprayed on the plants. They circled each other, attracted by the smell of the sweet nectar of a mother and child’s love, yet repelled by years of poisonous decisions made, choices regretted, and affection rejected.
“It was the polio,” mother continued. “It destroyed me. My mother couldn’t stand to look at me anymore. I was no longer her perfect child.” She stood slowly to dump the cucumbers into the pickling sauce simmering on the stove, her legs bowed out like a horse that’s sickle-hocked, the rest of her gait across the room determined by the adult deterioration of her childhood illness.
I reached across to hug her as she limped back to the chopping table, a long island in the kitchen with a block top, perfect for skewering chickens, slicing ham hocks, mincing garlic, and carving out holiday turkeys with the wonder of a knife welded in a wrinkled, shaking hand.
“You’re perfect. And you’re my mom. I wouldn’t have you any other way,” I mumbled into her short graying curls, my hands squeezing, infusing, dusting off the infinity of depression—I was always trying to mitigate the insatiable black hole inside her heart, wondering about her other decisions—to flunk out of college, to move to a redneck-saturated backwood, to marry an illiterate farmer. Was it all to escape a life of privilege and the capricious, pharisaical middle class upbringing of her youth?
By the way her fingers lighted over my back, scratching soft circles, I knew that all she had wanted was love, on her own terms, with nothing latching to her gentle, crushed spirit.
“Let me show you this secret, dear heart,” she said, picking up the knife, plunging forward, as if I couldn’t touch her depths.
Her voice melted through my lobes, her straightforward alto teaching voice caring and concerned with getting the lesson through slowly deafening ears.
Cutting pickles—a lesson I never mastered.