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The Mast-Head: The Nostalgia of Things

Wed, 06/14/2023 - 17:52

Buoy the dog destroyed my favorite cooking utensil the other day. It was the second to last of a set of four wooden stirrers that I had bought in an open-air market in Kenya when I was in my early 20s, about the age of my eldest child, who graduated from college on Sunday.

It was inevitable that the flat, spoon-shape stirrer wouldn’t last forever and, I think, something of a miracle that it did for so long. But there was something about it that I really liked; it was made of some sort of African hardwood entirely unlike the junk wood turned into grocery store spoons, which snap the second you bear down on stirring a big pot of chili. It had a simple beauty, too, flat on both surfaces and striped with a line of chocolate-colored wood up the middle. Someone had crafted it with care before I bought it and stuffed it in my bulging luggage to take home from a study-abroad semester.

Nostalgia is a funny thing when it is wrapped up in an object. Each time I used the spoon, I was reminded of that long-ago trip and the market and seeing people cooking all over East Africa with similar utensils. There was nothing I could do but sigh at Buoy as he lay on the bed, savoring 40 years of flavors as it turned into splinters. I grabbed the last remaining of the set from its place in a stoneware jar on top of the refrigerator and stuck it in my pocket; maybe someday I will try carving a replica and will use this one as the pattern.

The past was very much on my mind this weekend, as Adelia got ready to leave college. Among my fondest memories of us together are the mornings that I took her to preschool, where each child was required to wash his or her hands on arrival in the morning. It became a ritual for us: I would march Adelia over to the extra-low sink and take her two hands in mine. Reaching over her shoulders from behind, I would do the work of spreading the soap and rubbing her palms together, while she kept her arms limp, and giggled. Then we would rinse and dry our hands together, and then she could get on with her day of learning the alphabet, the names of clouds, or how to tell time.

I’d take off for work and come back later to pick her up, generally from the playground, where her hands would have gotten dirty again. It was often a challenge to pull her away from her friends, but once we were in the truck, heading home, we would chat about small things. Now she is all grown up, about to take a first job in New York City. I am so proud of her and all that she has done since we washed our hands together in the tiny sink.

Maybe I will make my cooking stirrer one day. I don’t know. But the memory burns strong, as do others from so long ago. 


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