CW: alcoholism, domestic violence
Flour is highly flammable, but maybe you know that.
I remember once, when I was a teenager, someone at tailgate party tossed a cup of flour into the air over the fire we'd built. It went "WHOOSH" and lit the sky for miles up, or so it seemed.
Thank God there was no wind. It was epic. I had had a few tokes and I was trying to articulate to my friend Clarisse how my mother worked with flour every day, making it into things, and yet, watching it become NOTHING was so much more spectacular.
Clarisse was busy watching a moth on her sleeve, so I'm not sure she was even listening.
It's funny how you remember things. Even stoned, I remember that so clearly, how impressive that quick flour fire was, and how it overshadowed my mother's pedestrian use of flour and fire.
I was raised on doughnuts. Mom got up at 4 am almost every day - she said she couldn't sleep any longer than that. She got up and made batches of doughnuts. I was well into my twenties before I calculated that a 'batch' was a dozen dozen, and therefore my mother made doughnuts in multiples of 144.
When I would get up for school at 7:30, there would be hot doughnuts ready, although I usually had toast. Some of my uncles used to stop in for doughnuts and coffee. I would wake up and wonder what grown-ups did so early in the morning that by 7:30 they needed a coffee break.
One day, years before I was born, one of my uncles was goofing around and teasing my mom. She was notorious for her temper. She got mad and poured hot coffee in his lap. I like to imagine her that way. Fiery. A big flare of temper.
I was born the last child in our family by far. Mom thought she was getting menopause, but she got me. By that time her temper had cooled some. Maybe 25 years of living with an alcoholic had vented it off.
I made my first dozen doughnuts when I was 27. Mom had been dead for four years. My boyfriend complained about the smell of frying. It took me two hours from the time I started. I wondered if it was faster when you started before dawn.
I was a reader as a kid. I went from room to room with my book hovering inches from my face. I could manage stairs, eating, toothbrushing, without missing a word. I think it annoyed my mother. She read some, but mainly before bed. During the day she was too busy baking, cleaning, buying groceries, checking in with my aunts, trying to keep tabs on dad so he didn't get too out of hand.
Housework was not my forte. I was oblivious and messy. My cousins would visit and tidy things up, pitch in on dishes while I read. Mom called me lazy.
It's true. I was lazy.
Mom sold her baked goods, especially the doughnuts, at a local grocery store. That's why she baked so many. It helped her make enough to supplement dad's disability pension, to cover when most of his cheque went to the Legion.
I did not have her entrepreneurial drive. I did what I knew how to do: I read, and learned. I was an honours student. I figured the best thing I could do for mom was to finish school, go to university, get a good job, and then... maybe rescue her? I wasn't clear on what the "and then" was. Mom was never much interested in leaving dad, as much as he drove her crazy.
On the very rare occasion when dad drank black rum instead of white, he would get fighty. Usually he fought with my brother, and mom would throw herself in the middle to protect him.
Once dad was so bad that mom and I and my brother drove to my sister's house in the middle of the night. Mom was clear eyed and glowed in the light from the dashboard. It was weird and exciting. I didn't even read in the back seat the whole way there.
Two days later we went home. Dad had sold most of mom's dishes for drinking money.
When mom died, it happened suddenly. It seemed like forever that we had been expecting dad's liver to explode. And then, mom's heart stopped. I was living at university. I didn't know anything was wrong until she was gone.
For a year after, I felt like all the stars had burned out in the sky. Everything was dark.
Mom never wanted to teach me to cook, probably because I was lazy and bad at other housewifely things. Maybe also because she had no patience.
But I would watch her, absorbing information unwittingly. How many apples to slice in a pie, how to use the paring knife, stopping it with my thumb, not getting cut. How to spread out the filling for cinnamon buns -- buttering the dough with a butter knife, sprinkling on the cinnamon and sugar, rolling it up with finger tips and holding it with the heel of your hand so it doesn't unroll.
How to take the doughnuts carefully on your hand and set them into the hot fat so that they didn't stretch out.
All of this information soaked into me the way that turmeric absorbs into your hands, staining them. My memory was stained with secret knowledge.
A year after mom died, I found out my thyroid had stopped working. I thought it was depression, but eventually my mood lifted. My sleep got strange as my body adjusted. One night I woke at 3 am. I was restless, pacing the kitchen, feeling the need for dusty flour on my hands.
It was too soon to make doughnuts.
I decided to make biscuits. I found the index card with my recipe, written quickly by me as my mother had recited it from memory. It was written in code. Flour: 2 c, plus some for kneading, but not too much. Butter - enough to make it flaky. Baking powder. Salt. Milk. Sugar if you want.
I took a deep breath, pulled out the bowl. Let my body take over. Cut in the butter, not letting it melt. Quickly stirred in the milk. Knead, 10 times, quarter turns. The movement felt like breathing. Cut them out with the crinkled cutter, pat the tops with a finger of milk, lightly score with the fork tines. Bake.
Out the window, the stars faintly glowed. I turned on the gas to make coffee. A "whoosh!" sounded. Flour had fallen on the stove top and ignited, flaring quickly.
A mother's approval at last.