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Coming of Age Fiction Sad

“More anise,” Mom says.

I look up from the mixture at her. Our eyes meet from across our kitchen table. They’re dark but warm, like the amber-colored extract I’ve let trickle into the teaspoon. 

“Are you sure?” The sickly sweet licorice smell hits my nose as I protest. They say preference for licorice has a genetic component. I must have inherited this trait from my dad’s side.

“Two teaspoons. I remember,” she insists as she rifles through the pantry for the baking powder. She’s ready to move on to the next step. Even under normal circumstances, my mom can never sit still. Since Yiaya died she’s been a whirlwind of pragmatic energy: planning, packing, making arrangements. Never stopping to process what happened. 

A month has passed by and all the big tasks are out of the way. We bought a black tombstone for Yiaya’s plot in the cemetery next to Pappou, visited with friends and family who came to say their condolences, and cleaned out her one-bedroom apartment to get it ready to sell. And on that icy March day we dug into the cold hard ground and buried her, saying goodbye for the last time. 

All that’s left to do is make paximadia, biscotti cookies for Yiaya’s 40-day memorial at church tomorrow. We’re using her own recipe, written in big block letters on a faded yellow sheet of paper we found in a kitchen drawer after she passed. We’d found it stashed among receipts and pizza coupons--the only remaining family recipe, haphazardly written and incomplete. 

I look at the mix in the bowl: three cups of flour, an egg, a cup of the olive oil my cousin Alexis brought back from Greece this summer. Two teaspoons of any extract seems like a lot. But especially anise, with its distinct, pungent flavor.

“Hey mom, I don’t think that’s right.” By the time it escapes my mouth, I wish I could take it back. The lines at the corners of her mouth deepen as her full lips collapse back into the ever-present frown that started with the news that Yiaya was sick . Her eyes sort of bulge. There’s the anger again. Through this mourning period I’ve seen that look many times--mad, sometimes weary, but never sad. 

“I think I remember my own mother’s recipe,” she snaps. Her anger, back in full force, has now found an outlet in me. Her eyes seem to darken; they match her sweater now--black, like every article of clothing she’s worn for for the last 40 days. 

I don’t know what I expected when I drove down from Milwaukee. When Yiaya was first diagnosed with breast cancer I tried to keep up with her appointments, grocery shopping and helping out. Then my own life got in the way. I was in my senior year of college with exams, friends, and boys all competing for my attention. And when things got bad everything happened so fast that by the time I realized, it was too late. 

I’d taken off from my babysitting job this week because Mom needed help. I knew she couldn’t do everything alone, especially with Dad gone on business trips more often than not. What would he do for her, even if he was here? He’d hardly said a word from the minute we’d gotten the news until the funeral luncheon, when he’d had too many shots of ouzo and picked a fight with Uncle Nick.

I pick up the piece of yellow paper. Through the stains I read ‘FLOUR.’ ‘OIL.’ ‘ANISE.’ No measurements given. Yiaya didn’t measure anything. She didn’t even own measuring spoons. Every teaspoon of anise and cup of flour was etched in her, like a pianist who inherently knows the keys to play in their favorite symphony. 

How many hours had we spent with her in this kitchen making paximadia, baklava, and melomakarona? I think of the first time she let me help her roll the dough to shape it into koulourakia cookies for Easter. As Yiaya and Mom twisted and braided the dough into beautiful shapes, I struggled to morph ugly blobs that we all laughed about. 

All those moments, and no one had ever thought to write down her recipes, except for this stupid piece of yellow paper. With Yiaya gone, every measurement had gone to the grave with her. 

I look over. My mom’s tiny frame, all dressed in black, is sitting hunched over the table. She’s making no effort to mix the batter or check that the oven is heated. Dirty cups and bowls have been left to pile high in the kitchen sink, and flour is dusted in several spots on the table and counters.

I soften. “Oh mama, I’m sorry.” 

Her small, dark frame begins to heave. I sit down next to her at the table and drape my arm around her shoulder. 

“I just can’t believe I don’t remember,” she says as tears start to roll from her eyes. “All those years baking together. I thought I’d remember.” So many things were lost when Yiaya passed. We’ll never know her first thought when she first set foot in America, or the color of the walls in her house growing up, or the moment she fell in love with Pappou. All those memories, those small details we never thought to ask, have died with her. Now it’s up to us to fill in the gaps. 

I pull my mom closer to me. Her shoulders are slender and fragile as a bird's. She grabs on to mine as tight as she used to when I was young and woke up scared from a nightmare. She buries her face in my shoulder. I can hear her crying now and feel her shaking. After a few moments, she gives me another squeeze before letting me go. 

I sprinkle another teaspoon of anise into the mixture and start stirring. Now all that’s left is to bake and cut the cookies into long, diagonal pieces. 

Maybe we won’t get the recipe right. But maybe that’s okay.

December 08, 2020 01:25

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2 comments

Chris Wagner
16:27 Dec 17, 2020

Wow. I can't think of anything bad to say about this. You took the prompt and made it look like it was your idea from the start. The characters and scenes are vivid and believable, as ridiculous as the concept was. At the end I was almost crying. Great job.

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V Nyx
14:57 Dec 14, 2020

This is my first time submitting a story to Reedsy and I'd appreciate any feedback!

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