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Memories in the Kitchen

Ruthanne has gone down into the basement, but she can't remember what for.
She glances around, but the cobweb over the storage bins and the dusty shelves don't jog her memories. There's wet laundry in the washer, anyway; she bends to haul it into the dryer. Her jeans, Ben's running t-shirts--what's this, wadded up at the back? She pulls it free, shaking out its folds.
It's a memory of her and Eileen, running through the rain, umbrellas forgotten and Eileen's stubby little ponytails plastered to the side of her head. She's squealing, and spinning, and her little fingers are cold and slippery in Ruthanne's grasp. The memory's edges have bled a little, losing their color and focus; it might grow even more threadbare from a spin in the dryer, so Ruthanne takes it upstairs, hanging it on the clothesline in the yard to dry.
It's a breezy day, cool for this late in June. She hefts open the lid of the storage bin, looking for clothespins, to keep the memory from blowing away. Beneath the bag of clothespin, in the bottom of an old sandal, is another memory--a warmer summer day than this one, Eileen standing on the front porch, wearing too much makeup, crying and shouting at Ruthanne, who's crying and shouting right back. Eileen's boyfriend slouches behind the steering wheel of his car, avoiding Ruthanne's eyes. Ruthanne leaves the memory there, for another time; she really needs to go through everything she has stored, to collect the memories and take everything she doesn't need to Goodwill.
Ben is mowing the front lawn, the electric motor whining. Ruthanne waves at him, and he waves back, before she goes back inside. The electric kettle is out on the counter, next to the coffee tin; she sets the water to boil and opens the cupboard for cups and saucers and cookies. When she pulls out the open package of shortbreads, there's a little memory wedged in behind. Ruthanne takes it out and unfolds it along old creases. In it, she and Eileen are baking Christmas cookies, pressing reindeer and snowmen and bells into the dough and eating up the skinny, funny-shaped pieces left behind on the floury counter. She strokes the memory with her thumbs, turning it over fondly, finding, on the underside, the shrilling smoke detector and blackened shapes to be scraped off the pan--they'd forgotten to set the timer on the oven. She smiles, and shakes her head, and slides the memory back into the cupboard corner, in its own special place between the boxes of teabags.
Creamer, sugar, a coffee spoon. Is there a special occasion? Even if there isn't, it would be nice to use the good tablecloth, wouldn't it? Ruthanne hurries to the linen closet to look for it. Between the sheets, a whiff of potpourri, and the memory of Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo, a brush of lips over damp curls on a cool forehead, green-and-pink sheets pulled up tight under a soft little chin.
"Mama?" That call is solid and real, not the mist of memory. Ruthanne grabs the tablecloth and shuts the closet firmly, hurrying out to the front of the house.
Eileen has let herself in, of course, keys jangling in one hand while she bounces Lily on her opposite hip. "We made it!" she says, dropping her keys on the carpet and throwing her free arm around Ruthanne. "The traffic coming crosstown was awful--sorry we're late." She pulls back, frowning at the single coffee cup set out on the table. "You didn't forget we were coming, did you?"
"Of course not, honey," Ruthanne lies smoothly. "I haven't run the dishwasher, I just need to wash a dirty cup--give me a second? Dad should be in shortly. You know how he is about the lawn on Saturday." Ruthanne takes Lily and makes faces until her granddaughter giggles. "The coffee is almost ready, I just need to grab something from the basement real quick. Do you think you can help me find it, Lily?"
Lily nods solemnly. In the deep, dark pools of her eyes swim memories of her mother's, but Ruthanne blinks those away for now. She sets Lily down at the top of the stairs and they go down together, hand in hand. Under the stairs, in the old cardboard boxes, she shows Lily some of Eileen's old toys. "Would you like to play with this?" she asks, showing her the plastic tea set, the one she'd come down here for in the first place.
"Yes peez," says Lily, with well-rehearsed politeness. Ruthanne smiles and leads her back upstairs.
In the bottom of the teapot is a memory, Eileen's fourth birthday party, the one where she'd received this very tea set and insisted on filling it with water from the sink and filling her guests' cups, over and over again, Ruthanne and Ben and Grampa Geoff and Great-Gran, all the relatives that never got to meet her Lily. Ruthanne lets Lily hold it while she fills the teapot with water and pink powder and a bit of sugar, swirling it around and around until a bit of the memory dissolves.
"Kool-Aid?" asks Eileen, coming into the kitchen. She has a bouquet of flowers that she must have cut from her garden on the other side of town, and she digs around under the sink for a vase.
Ruthanne hesitates, plastic spout paused over the teacup. "A treat for Grandma's house?"
Lily pulls out a hand-painted vase, blue and gold and green, and squints into its opening. She doesn't answer at first, her face softening. Then, finally, she agrees. "Okay, Mama. A treat."
Pink lemonade for Lily, coffee for the adults. They sit together in the kitchen, talking about all the meals they've had at this table, planning the ones to come. Lily perches on Ruthanne's lap, chubby legs kicking, sipping slowly, smiling, until the last drop is gone.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, October 6th, 2022
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