Dusty Ashes 

Maureen Moynihan

© Copyright 2023 by Maureen Moynihan

Image by Carlos Lincoln from Pixabay
Image by Carlos Lincoln from Pixabay

With his name splattered big and bold on bright orange signs, their skinny wooden sticks stabbed in snowbanks, toothpicks in mashed potatoes, I used to think Frost Heaves was a person running for political office. Every year, following Punxsutawney Phil’s forecast, the ubiquitous signs canvassed town and I’d think, Man, that guy just doesn’t give up.

Bastards…have no problem taking taxes but can’t figure out how to fix a goddamn road!”growled my dad as he navigated the Ford Ranch Wagon, Value Seekers Edition, around the obstacle course of mounds and swollen cracks in the pavement. Free of seat belts, my sisters and I popcorned all over the way, way backseat, taking cheap amusement to a whole new level of adventure.

Trying to save a dime by spending a dollar, our nearsighted town officers recognized the perilous road conditions yet did nothing to solve the problem, other than plant warning signs. Void of action, signs and a token will get you a turbulent ride on public transportation, praying like an atheist in a fox hole.

Though signs that I was in an unhealthy marriage could fit in a fortune cookie, their barely legible, delicate script disclosed in private, they existed. They sounded like the rattle of a frying pan thrown against the kitchen cabinet because it wasn’t cleaned the right way. Or the spine of a book when it's crushed against a windowpane.

OUCH!!!!” The pages screamed at me, indignant and offended by my apparent indifference or lack of action.

The road to perdition is paved with warning signs: here, there and everywhere. On a house, with a mouse. In a box, with a fox. On a train, in the rain. On a boat, with a goat. Standing alone, the signs were small, stabbing moments that needled my ear and drained me of sleep; thirsty mosquitoes in the night. Painful slivers disguised as unimportant.

At times, the signs were wrapped in unjust accusations: “Your cancer is putting us in the poor house,” and indirect insults: “What kinda idiot doesn’t know the right way to cut an onion?” But always tied with a bow of cruelty, shot right between my eyes: “How long is this dyke look going to last?”

Even when Nick tossed the eggplant parmesan in the garbage, gutting me on a primitive level, the sign didn’t sound loud enough to end a marriage. Or did it?

Can plump, purple eggplant with its gourd-shaped body and little green hat, the Weeble Elf of the vegetable kingdom, justify the dissolving of a holy sacrament? What would Jesus say?

It was late August, and the back-to-school specials were in full swing with Staples running its parody of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” ad nauseam. For teachers like me who suffer from a manageable addiction to office products, the sound of discounted Sharpies and multi-colored Sticky Notes makes our veins pop with glee. Except I no longer had a school to return to, having lost my job. Or my second home.

To pull from the dredges of gloom, I made my Nana’s eggplant recipe, knowing it would bring me close to her and the promise of good things to come.

During harvest season, Nana’s kitchen was popping with perfect little things becoming better than themselves. Fresh basil percolated in tomato sauce while chopped oregano waited to be whisked into a vinaigrette. Every vibrant pepper, every succulent strawberry, every crisp cucumber was eager to evolve into something greater, to serve a higher purpose, rather than spend another heated moment hanging on a vine, vulnerable to rabbits and aphids.

Then there was the eggplant; perched stout and proud on the kitchen countertop, waiting to be sliced into a pile of thin circles, then covered by a dish towel and topped with a vintage iron, a cherry on an ice cream Sundae.

The weight draws out the bitterness,” Nana explained.

It’s easier to catch the wind than one of Nana's recipes. Spine straight, head up, eyes focused, fingers gripped white around a pencil, I was a notetaking marine, prepared to catch each move she made, measurable or not, secretly fearing the day she would not be around.

Nana, however, was more interested in conversation than direct instruction. “Put that away and talk to me!” My notebook, an annoying house fly, shooed away.

When I pointed to the importance of documenting family recipes, of creating a visible thread to tie generations, Nana wrinkled her nose in discontent, as if I suggested stuffing her head and mounting it over a fireplace.

Sharing a family recipe is one way to shape an identity; my children would know all the goodness they come from,” I argued.

Wow! That’s a lot of work for an eggplant!” Laughter rippled through Nana’s skin the same way it always did, one perfect wrinkle at a time, a single wave in an ocean of love. “Now…tell me what’s cooking with you.”

With eyes stretched wide at the all-important parts, Nana absorbed my stories, my hopes, my fears; her laughter, a lullaby to my heart. How I miss her friendship.

There was a time when Nick and I strummed words together until the stars winked to sleep. We harmonized the dream of a big backyard sprinkled with children gliding on a swing set, their giggles bouncing off the sweet scent of bug spray and sunscreen while Nick grilled hamburgers and I gathered twigs for roasting marshmallows. I’d wake up, nose nestled in the nook of his neck, intoxicated by the smell of his skin, and dream of someday feeling our baby’s breath. Now, with our story out of dialogue, I slept diagonally in bed, Nick’s side empty, my half filled with loneliness and the wonder of how things might have been different without cancer.

As I crawled through the dusty corners of my mind, searching for the ratio of breadcrumbs to egg, I contemplated whether my marriage was riddled with frost heaves or if I was Kamikaze on a death mission, opting for fatality rather than defeat.

How I wished for a big, bold, bright orange sign that I could point to, one that would validate the dismemberment of a family. Perhaps if Nick had an affair or was involuntarily transferred to a remote village on the outskirts of Alaska, where children must participate in remote learning rather than in-person instruction, I could justify our separation. Then the couple in the family portrait above our fireplace would stop rolling their eyes every time I questioned the authenticity of their smiles. Or quelled my urge to draw beer goggles around their hypocritical eyes. Instead, Nick’s tiny, capricious bites of cruelty were angry rain spilling through fingers, crushing my castle to mud.

On his way to mow the lawn, Nick passed through the kitchen. “What’s this?” he asked, mouth stuffed with potato chips, hand devoured by a plastic bag, using his chin to point to the stack of sliced eggplant crowned with an iron.

Eggplant parmesan! It’s my Nana’s recipe!” My head exploded with pride, having added another link, another generation, to our family legacy. The epic ballad sang of surrendering a home to the ravages of war, of paying smugglers to squeeze a child into the vomit-splattered corner of a boat, of a factory job that gave more blisters than dollars, and sleepless nights of rocking a child that would never blow out 7 birthday candles. Above all, it rang of love, love, love, an unconditional devotion to family that ended and commenced with me.
What’s up with the iron?” Nick mumbled between crunches.

Oh…the weight of the iron forces out the bitterness.”

Ridicule sprung from Nick’s cheeks, as if I implied the eggplant would poop diamonds from the steamer. I shrugged my shoulders. “It’s the way my family makes eggplant parmesan.”

The corner of his upper lip curled in disgust. “Well…if that’s how you make eggplant parmesan, then I’m not eating it.”

Suit yourself,” I said, masking my disappointment with indifference.

When the timer buzzed, I pulled the casserole out of the oven and swooned over like Julia Child presenting her Boeuf Bourguignon to a speechless audience of French food critics: c’est délicieux!

My ancestors, seated before me, applauded my dish, their dish, the recipe that required my hand to mix the same ingredients they did. For the first time in forever, I felt worthy.

I set the eggplant on the kitchen countertop to cool and joined my daughters on the swing set, their ponytails catching sunbeams in the air. In one swift move, I hopped on a swing and pumped my legs with a force that I thought no longer existed. Within seconds I was air bound, the wind dancing upon my cheeks.

Look! Mom’s swinging!” My children bubbled with glee, as if they just saw a flying unicorn.

On the glide back, I tipped my head upside down, allowing my wig to fall to the ground and the sun to caress my big bald head, fingertips that warmed my worries away. The girls collapsed with laughter, holding their little bellies as they rolled in the grass.

When we returned to the kitchen, grass stained and hungry, I sent them to wash up for dinner. Soon as they left, I sensed something was wrong. Trepidation spidered up my spine and my heart began to pitter-patter at the pace of angry rain on a windshield. I widened my eyes, trying to absorb more than I could see, which painted me as a crazy lady not knowing what to fear.

The casserole dish sat on a different spot, holding the scene of mob assassination at a restaurant booth. The savaged remains of eggplant, torn and splattered with red tomato sauce lay crumbled in the corners, with a string of mozzarella cheese dangling on the edge of the pan, a cigar still stuck in the mobster’s mouth.

I eyeballed at the dog with suspicion. Could he? Would he? Eat my Nana’s casserole? Buster perked his ears and smiled with hope not guilt, the way only dogs can do when they sense the opportunity to capitalize on a snack because something has gone wrong.

Nick walked into the kitchen and smirked at the confusion on my face.

I told you I’m not eating that crap.”

I folded inside myself, lost for words. A toxic potion of anger and hate boiled deep inside me, ugly enough to make a witch fly from her house, but only spilled out in tears.

Relax,” Nick told me. “We’ve got plenty of casseroles. I don’t think there’s a person in the neighborhood who hasn’t made us something for dinner.”

It’s not about the eggplant,” I gritted through my teeth.

Nick let out a skeptic snarl. “Yeah, it is.”

You put my Nana in the trash!” I spat, still gasping for air.

Nick rolled his eyeballs, grumbled something about the chemo going to my head, and left the kitchen.

The trash told volumes about what had occurred: how my heart was corkscrewed and tossed in the garbage alongside spent coffee grinds and chicken bones. A patriarchal society chastised me for being too sensitive; it’s only an eggplant after all, I tried to rationalize, a plant that has nothing to do with any kind of an egg: boiled, fried or scrambled.

My ancestors, though, dusted off their ashes and straightened their backs.

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