Cupboards Filled with Cookie Tins

This is Part 4 of my series of interconnected short stories about my grandparents’ wedding day. You can start from the beginning here, but you don’t have to do all that reading to follow along in this story.

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Nelson had wanted his brother’s shop in Flint– the one he helps out at– to provide the flowers for today, but decided to ask his sister, Jennie, to fill the order instead. Her shop was much closer. She and Merrill ran the large greenhouses just over on Coutant Street in town. His brother got his flowers from Merrill, so either way Nelson was still supporting his family’s small empire of dirt and bulbs.

Can you imagine committing yourself to the same plot of land for 54 years?
Jennie Harburn jumped from one family of florists to another when she married Merrill Bump in 1927. The Flushing Florist still stands today in my hometown.

He imagined his sister earlier this morning, her hair hanging loose and inches above her narrow shoulders. The bob she wore remaining perfectly quaffed despite the hard labor required of her job. Every day, she wore her uniform of a simple white cotton blouse and a powder blue A-line skirt around the shop–presentable, but easily washed when the inevitable dousing of water or dirt occurred.

Nelson knew his older sister’s routine. She surely would have helped her husband with the day’s load and it would be a large one today being so close to Mother’s Day. She would put the flowers he had purchased in the space behind the driver’s seat, so she could check on them from the passenger’s seat, making sure they didn’t tip on the ride over. Then she and Merrill would fill up the truck with the rest of the orders. Knowing Jennie she hummed a hymn as Merrill drove them to each stop, and, eventually, to Minnie and Fred’s home tucked back from the road where Nelson stood now.

As Nelson walked closer to the kitchen, the combination of smells of the flowers, whatever was cooking in the oven, and his own nervousness made him feel sick to his stomach. He stepped through the narrow threshold of Minnie’s kitchen, the cloying aroma of flowers fell away to a thick smell of ham. He saw the backside of a man, Minnie’s father, stooped over the oven door, basting the ham with either pale maple syrup or dark pineapple juice. Nelson said hello and then wondered if he should start calling the older man Pawpaw like Bernice did.  But, Mr. Porterfield . . . Pawpaw being 74 with ears to match didn’t hear him. Nelson knocked on the counter to announce his arrival in the room. Pawpaw turned his head to the left, gave a quick nod to Nelson, and went right back to ladling juices over the ham using a large wooden spoon.

“Grab me a knife, young man, would you? Before my daughter walks in and insists each part of this hog go into separate tins!” In order to hear himself, Pawpaw tended to shout. Pawpaw? Mister Pawpaw? He felt absurd even thinking about calling another man Pawpaw.

“I was just wondering, sir, if you had any preferences on what I should call you. That is, now that I’ll be a part of your family.”

“Yes! It’s the second drawer to the left of the sink!” Pawpaw said, pointing to the only drawer that was ajar in a horizontal row of identical white drawers.

Nelson opened the drawer further to find long, thin cracker tins wedged neatly into one another in order to fit the space. None of the tins had lids, but every last one of them was full to brimming with silverware, sorted according to their use. It looked like one of those children’s games where a picture is cut up into squares with one piece missing and you’re supposed to move the pieces around until the picture is whole again. The empty space in the drawer contained a small rolling pin. He found the carving knife in a tin along the left of the drawer.

Steep cupboard kitchen popular in the 1930sAfter carefully handing off the knife to the other man, Nelson looked around the rest of the large kitchen. He’d been in the house twice before—to plan for the wedding and to bring his and Bernice’s parents together to meet—but he was struck again by the conscripted order of the room. He knew if he were to open the steel cupboards he would find a similar display of perfectly aligned coffee and cookie tins spaced evenly apart. He knew this because his mother had asked Minnie about her caliber of cleanliness when they had visited. Minnie just said it was the only way she could think of to “ward off her husband’s tendency toward clutter” and looked over at her husband with a playful air. To which Mr. Wilson, in his low growl of a voice, responded, “Don’t let her fool you; she’d never tolerate being married to an untidy man.”

Minnie’s smile stretched to her dimples as she said, “It’s true. Fred comes back behind me and cleans up what I missed.” Then she placed her hand on his forearm and moved the conversation toward the new pastor of their church. Later that night, after the dishes were washed and the playing cards were put back in Fred’s rolltop desk, after the Harburns said their thank yous and their goodbyes, after they got in the car waving to their hosts on the porch, Nelson’s mother leaned back toward Nelson and marvelled out of the corner of her mouth about the time and energy it must take that couple to maintain the pristine condition of the old porcelain sink or the perfect bunting-shape of the tea towels on the rack underneath it.

And today standing in the middle of it once again, Nelson thought, the towels, the sink, the whole kitchen looked as if it hadn’t been used since that day months ago, except for one glaring difference: the cutting board on the hoosier bowed under the burden of plate upon plate of cakes, cookies, and tarts.

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4 thoughts on “Cupboards Filled with Cookie Tins

  1. What a great way to explore family — it combines all my loves too: genealogy, history, sociology. Thanks for stumbling across my blog and leading me to yours!

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