It’s strange to me the things that can evoke a strong memory. A certain smell, sound or scenario can transport you to a different time or place in an instant.
It happens to me while walking in a forest blanketed with pine needles, smelling chlorine or while peeling potatoes.
While I’m pretty sure this is a task my mother taught me to do, I associate this simple kitchen skill most strongly with my grandmothers. In fact, when I’m overcome with these memories, I can see their hands again, and the particular paring knives they used. I can see how careful they were, making the thinnest peels to not waste the potato. Carefully carving out the eyes or brown spots. Setting aside the peels for the compost heap.
Both of them peeled potatoes nearly every day of their lives. It was a staple starch that could be prepared many ways. So most days, some time in the afternoon, they’d peel the potatoes for supper.
In a day that was filled with the activity of keeping house, I can remember their sigh when they finally “took a break” to sit down to peel the potatoes. When others were around, it was a time for light conversation. When they were alone in the house, I imagine they day dreamed or thought about their day as they worked.
Peeling potatoes was one more chore on a long list, but it was a perfect example of all they did to nurture their families. It was part of how they fed their kids and husbands (something they both did well). It was part of their frugal nature, making sure they spread the pennies as far as they could. At different points in their lives, the potatoes were from their own gardens, and peeling them for dinner was the end of a cycle begun months before.
I don’t peel potatoes very often. When I do, I have to go more slowly than they did and pay attention to what I’m doing. But maybe that’s what allows the memories in. In a distracted, multi-tasking life, when I peel potatoes, that’s all I do.
And without my bidding, my grandmothers are with me again. Suddenly I can hear their laughter, remember the smell of their kitchens, see their agile, quick fingers making things that made me feel loved.
Both of their birthdays were in November. Grandma Evelyn would have been 94 this year. Grandma Dow would be 104. I don’t know what either of them would make of my life. Neither of them traveled very far from where they were born and yet I hop on planes every month. I am surrounded by technological devices where I’m not sure either of them ever even used a calculator.
Yet for all that our lives look nothing alike they are still in me. In the shape of my chin (and my hips), and in my deep practical streak, part of them lives on. When I slow down enough and quiet my busy mind, I recognize the foundation they helped build for me.
I don’t know if it’s the legacy they would have wished for me, but I could wish for nothing more.
Picture taken by me, with an iPhone.