Monday, January 14, 2008


The kitchen had a brown floor that looked more or less like linoleum. It had a smooth finish. My mother said a few times that it was special, made out of cork or pieces of cork or something, and I was glad it was special and not cheap, but special, maybe better than what other people had. Something I could be proud of, though it was just a dark brown kitchen floor.

I ate breakfast there before school, my mother always ahead of the rest of the house in the morning, calling up the stairs to wake me in the winter darkness, then dressed and busy in the kitchen when I got that far, toasting toast, boiling eggs, making sandwiches for me and my two younger sisters who got later buses.

I sat while she stayed standing and moving. I sat at the head of the rectangular unfinished wood table, facing a window that looked out onto a bumpy sloping small lawn. It was a view I had known as a very small child. We had lived here when I was very small, and then we’d moved away for two years, returned for one, then gone away again for five. So although I knew the house from when I was little, I hadn’t lived here the whole time. So living here was like looking at something and then closing your eyes, and then opening them and the thing you are looking at has changed a little though it’s still obviously the same, and you are a teenager instead of a first-grader.

So I sat and looked out the kitchen window. My mother used to point out this same window to cardinals in the snow when I was little. “Look! A cardinal!” she’d say with real excitement, as if we were seeing something very very rare.

My father is in the living room as I eat my soft boiled egg and two pieces of toast, one plain and one with jam. He is listening to WQXR, “the classical music station of the New York Times,” on the big stereo that he bought when I was in second grade and we lived in Virginia. He had showed it to me with pride then, leading me down to a room I hardly ever went into – his study or something – pointing out the brand new Fisher speakers.

We still have that same stereo all these years later. It sits inside the big piece of fancy furniture that stands against one wall in the living room. It has glass doors in the top half and polished dark wood doors on the bottom. It’s my father’s piece of furniture. He bought it. He loves it. He keeps his folded shirts from the dry cleaners in it. And the turntable. On the top shelves behind the glass doors he keeps decorative things like the pretty little antique enameled pill box that his Swiss girlfriend Helga gave him. It says on it “I am yours while life endures” and my father keeps the two gnarled little gall stones that they took out of his gall bladder when we were in London inside of it. There are other things on those shelves – foreign things he got on his travels – because when I was little it felt like my father was always on business trips.

Now he never goes on business trips. While I eat breakfast, while my mother stands at the counter making thick liverwurst sandwiches on rye bread with lettuce, while classical music plays or the somber tones of the very serious radio announcer talk about something, my father gets dressed, slowly, almost like he is in a slow dance. From the kitchen I cannot see him, but often when I walk from the stairs to the kitchen I pass him in his underwear, buttoning his white shirt carefully, as if performing a ritual, choosing a tie, throwing his head back as he flips one end of the tie over the other, then pulls the knot snugly around his neck.

I grab the brown paper bag and shoot down to the bottom of the driveway. I have done my homework. I always do my homework. I am not a good girl, but I am not a bad one either, and it doesn’t occur to me not to follow the rules of homework. I give it cursory attention up there in my attic bedroom, but I do the assignments, and when Cyndi, my best friend though it’s not so great, asks if she can copy part of my autobiography for a college essay, I am shocked – such a thing would never have occurred to me -- but give it to her.

When Agnes my little sister reads the autobiography about eight years later – after I’ve been to college and then LA for three years and am living back on the Upper West Side and it’s her turn to be a senior and write her autobiography, when she has morphed from my cute baby sister to a pretty teenager with black-rimmed eyes and multiple earrings – she says, “Oh, Bim, it’s so literary.”

For a long time I thought me and my sisters were pretty interchangeable. I don't think so anymore. We are not interchangeable. We are very separate.


Anonymous said...

Marta, this piece is very moving. The narrator's familial relationships feel warm and distant at the same time. She is an observer and so this separates her from the family; her writing is her gift even before she recognizes it, and then her gift makes her all the more distinct and unique. The narrator draws the reader inward even as she relates her outward observations. Thank you! DeAnn

Anonymous said...


"I was glad it was special and not cheap, but special, maybe better than what other people had. Something I could be proud of, though it was just a dark brown kitchen floor."

Many passages were moving, like this one. The ability to uncover the completeness of a situation, not just the highlights, but lowlights too. Narrator's response, seemingly looking for a way to feel better about herself, yet reflecting the mother's understanding of what was 'special', even while it was just a brown floor. I loved the narrator's mom, making the sandwiches, breakfast. Could taste that liverwurst!

The small ways the family tried to have their world be special, with furniture and high fidelity music equipment. Such a window into life. Reminds me of the show Six Feet Under. Real, not phony like a Hallmark. I could see everything you described.

Anon/Long Distance Writing Group