I’d like to think when Aunt Helen said “if you’re not cooking, get out of the kitchen,” a special exclusion applied to me. Me. I wasn’t even tall enough to see down into the treasured stockpot filled with my Nonni’s old country. But I knew what was in there, and my dear Aunt Helen knew as much.
Even at four feet tall, I knew there was something special about a spaghetti sauce made by a woman in a terry cloth robe and matching baby blue slippers. In thick pink stockings, with the Dodger game twanging from an AM radio, she’d shuffle from one end of the long narrow kitchen down to the other, where the adults sipped on coffee, nibbled on almond cookies, and enjoyed the view of Hollywood behind them.
So long as a swoosh rose from the linoleum floor above the laughter at the other end of the kitchen, I’d know the coast was clear. My aunt always had a wooden spoon laid out on kitchen towel next to the oven. That’s how I tasted the sauce I couldn’t even see, at least until I heard the swooshing stop.
She’d place an arthritic hand onto my head and say, “if you’re not cooking…”
“I know, I know,” I’d say. I’d wrap my arms around her and walk down towards the long end of the kitchen to grab a lap near the big red tin of biscotti. I did know. If you weren’t cooking…get out of the kitchen.
I’d find my pocket of time to sneak back to my Aunt Helen. She’d always return to that spot, by the stockpot and AM radio. Like a bubble that simmered between us, I’d wait for my sign, the precious moment when the long kitchen became our square, and then I’d let the music fill my ears.
I grew tall enough to see inside the stockpot, but I never looked in when I held the wooden spoon. As long as I could shut my eyes and taste the tomatoes and peppers, I knew I was cooking with my Aunt Helen, and we were exactly where we were supposed to be.