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Contemporary African American Inspirational

Shannon padded quietly into the kitchen, pausing a moment to look around the space. When Mom bought the house nearly a decade ago, she’d been in love with everything except the kitchen. It had been an explosion of pink: pink walls, pink cabinets, pink tile on the floors and the countertops, even rusted pink appliances.

“It looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us, ladies,” Mom wrapped one arm around Shannon and the other around her younger sister, Shea, “Because, I don’t know about y’all, but I refuse to cook in a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.”

Shannon had been fourteen years old then; Shea had been six. It had taken the better part of two months to get the kitchen from the pink monstrosity that it was to the light, airy space she stood in. She smiled fondly, trailing fingers across the quartz countertop. Mom loved this kitchen. Almost as much as she loved her girls.

Focus, Shan.

She took a slow, steadying breath. Right. She was on a mission today.

Today was going to be Pancake Day.

Mom had never been a fan of overly sweet breakfasts. Breakfast in the Rogers household rarely deviated from the standard eggs, breakfast meat, grits or toast, and a piece of fruit for Shannon and her sister. The two of them took turns petitioning for a pancake breakfast, a waffle breakfast, some little inkling of sugary breakfast, but Mom was steadfast.

And then there were the rare mornings that the girls would wake up to old-school music floating through the halls. Mom would be in the kitchen, singing loudly and off-key to Whitney or Aretha as she set up the tabletop griddle.

“It’s Pancake Day!” she’d beam when she spotted them, “Blueberries or chocolate chips?”

And she would stand back and direct the two of them through the process of making the batter and heating the griddle and making sure there was a decent ratio of batter to add-ins.

Those days were the unspoken best days.

Shannon smiled. She rustled through the kitchen, pulling out everything they would need. Flour, eggs, milk, baking powder, sugar, spices… she lined the ingredients across the counter like little culinary soldiers. Then she moved on to pulling out the bowls, the whisks, the measuring cups. She set the skillet on the counter and turned it on low, just to let it begin warming. Satisfied with her work, she hopped back up the stairs to the top floor. She paused briefly at Mom’s door, only briefly, before continuing to Shea’s room. The door was cracked, as it always was. Shannon knocked softly.

“Shea?” she called out.

No response. Panic gripped her for the quickest of seconds.

“Shea!” she tried again.

A groan of annoyance. Shan breathed a sigh of relief before flinging the door fully open. After sixteen years of watching her grow and sleep, Shannon was convinced her little sister spent nights either kung-fu fighting demons or possessed by them. No matter how tucked in she was the night before, she always woke the next morning with her sheets in a bunch, her hair a mess, bonnet God only knew where, occasionally facing a completely different direction than she had gone to sleep in. That morning wasn’t too bad, sheets kicked to the foot of the bed, one arm and one leg dangling off the edge. Her bonnet was still on and the twists she’d begged Shannon to help her finish the night before still looked fresh and smooth. Shea herself groaned against the influx of light in the room as Shannon opened the curtains.

“Go away, Shannon,” she spat with a level of vitriol only a sleep-deprived teenager could manage.

“Well, good morning to you too, Sleeping Beauty,” she replied, perching herself on the edge of the bed, “You hungry?”

Shea rolled over just enough to glare. “Go away.”

“Fine, fine,” Shan feigned defeat, “I figured you’d want to give me a hand with breakfast. You know, since it’s Pancake Day and all. Guess I’ll eat all these myself…”

She stood and stretched, meandering out of the room. She stood in the hall and waited one second. Two seconds. Three seconds. And then-

“Did you say it was Pancake Day?”

There was a dull thud as Shea tumbled to the floor, but she was standing in the doorway a beat later, eyes wide, grinning. Shannon laughed.

“Go brush your teeth and wash your face,” she called over her shoulder as she started back down the stairs, “I’ll get the batter started; you’re on griddle duty.”

She waited until she heard footsteps leading to the bathroom before she started the music. Mom was very particular about her pancake batter; what was now the family staple had been tested and tweaked for as long as Shannon could remember. She creamed her sugar, milk, and butter together in a small bowl, then added her eggs one by one until they resembled custard. Then, she sifted the flour, baking powder, sugar, a pinch of salt, and a hefty amount of fresh-grated cinnamon and nutmeg into a larger bowl.

“Blueberries or chocolate chips?” she called over her shoulder as she heard Shea enter.

“Blueberries, please,” the response was immediate; Shea had always been a blueberry girl.

Shannon grinned as she pulled the carton of washed blueberries from the refrigerator. She used her whisk to make a small well in the middle of the dry ingredients, then filled it with her custard mixture. Tipping the bowl to the side just like Mom taught her, she carefully combined the wet and the dry until the batter was thick and smooth. Behind her, Shea cranked the griddle higher and drizzled it with a bit of vegetable oil before she added a pat of butter. The two of them worked quietly, music the only soundtrack to their work.

“Griddle’s ready,” Shea said as she moved towards the dining room, “I’ll go set the table.”

“Thanks,” Shannon brought her bowl over to the now sizzling griddle. Using the ¼ measuring cup, she poured three generous cupfuls of batter onto the griddle, adding a smattering of blueberries to each. She waited until the edges were good and bubbly before sliding the spatula under each and flipping them. The surface of the pancake was crisp and golden, punctuated with the deep violet of blistered blueberries. Shannon smiled. Perfect. She slid the finished pancakes onto a serving plate, then started on the next batch.

The recipe made nine total pancakes. She had just slid the last of the pancakes onto the plate when another dull thud pulled her from her bliss. Followed by a wail. The serving plate clattered to the counter as she dashed into the dining room. Shea had sunk to the floor, gripping the chair as if it was the only thing keeping her from sinking into the earth. Huge sobs wracked her body. Shannon pulled the younger girl to her chest, holding her close.

“I’m sorry,” Shea sobbed into her sister’s shoulder, “I’m sorry! I just… I just…”

She started to ask what happened, what was wrong… and then she saw it. The dining table was set as it always was: Mom’s plate and coffee mug at the head of the table, Shea’s and her own set on either side. On any other day, those plates would soon be stacked high with three pancakes apiece. That was Pancake Day. That was the routine.

Except there were three too many pancakes on the platter now. There were too many places set at the table. Mom was gone. It was just the two of them.

Hot tears stung Shannon’s eyes as her arms tightened around Shea, clinging to the girl to keep from sinking them both to the ground. It had been almost a month since their mother had passed. It had been so quick, almost like a dream. One night, she was calling good night from her bedroom like always. The next morning, she was gone. Just like that. The coroner chalked it up to cardiac arrest, which even they considered bizarre given her age and otherwise ideal health.

“A tragic accident,” he called it.

Shannon had been the one to find her, and she’d done her best to pick up the pieces in the aftermath. She’d fought against every well-meaning relative that offered to take Shea in. There was no need, she insisted, to uproot the girl and further disrupt her life. Shannon was only 24, but she had a good job. She had a decent amount in her savings and she was already helping with bills around the house. She could take over the mortgage, the bills. She could keep the place running just like her mother could.

“We’re all we got left,” she’d said it so many times the words were permanently engrained in her mind.

She’d fought for days, weeks. The offers and urgings faded away as the days passed until they died away completely. And life almost went back to normal. They fell back into their regular routines with ease. Shea went to school, went to her clubs. Shannon went to work, occasionally met up with colleagues or friends for drinks afterwards. The two of them met up in the evenings to talk college and hair and typical sister gossip over dinner and trashy reality tv. For a while, it was almost as if nothing had happened.

And then one of them would set an extra place at the dinner table. Or one of them would call out for her. Or one of them would swear that they heard her light footsteps or her laugh or her offkey singing and the pain was as fresh as it was that awful morning.

For a long time, neither of them moved. Shannon held her sister until the tears subsided for both of them.

“You want,” she winced at the rawness of her voice, cleared her throat and tried again, “You wanna eat out on the back porch? Switch it up a little bit?”

Nothing. Then, slowly, Shea nodded. She pulled away from Shannon and dried her face. “It’s nice outside,” she said softly, “That would be good.”

Shannon smiled weakly. “Wanna help me set it up?”

Another nod. Shea started to grab the plates on the table, then thought better of it and grabbed some more from the china hitch. Shannon made her way back into the kitchen and gathered their pancakes, sitting the extras aside. Together, the two of them set up their breakfast spread- pancakes, maple syrup, orange juice, and fruit- on the picnic table on the back porch. They ate quietly at first. But then Shea pointed out a particularly fat squirrel trying to run across the yard with what looked like half of a slice of pizza and it cracked the door for conversation wide open. Shannon felt the aching parts of her heart start to soothe, the grief packing itself away yet again. Across the table, Shea stared out at the backyard.

“Do you remember the last Pancake Day we had with Mom?” she asked.

Shannon frowned. “Not really,” she admitted, “You know how she was. I think I was still in college the last time we did it.”

“Do you think she really liked it? Or do you think she did it because she knew we liked it?”

“She’s the only one that could answer that, Sis. I guess we’ll never know.”

Shea nodded thoughtfully. “I think we should start doing it more often,” she finally said, “I think we should make it a weekly thing.”

She smiled over at her big sister. A laugh escaped Shannon’s lips. “And what, may I ask, brought on this declaration?” she asked.

“I dunno. Pancake Day is one of those things I never really saw as a ‘Mom’ thing,” Shea frowned, choosing her words carefully, “It wasn’t like Taco Night or Sunday dinner or Spa Day. With Pancake Day… I dunno, it’s like she was there, she was in charge of it, she was there in spirit. Pancake Day was really our thing.”

She looked over to her older sister. “What do you think?”

And then it was Shannon’s turn to go quiet. In her mind, she replayed the Pancake Days of before. How Mama was always there, presiding over the pancake making. When they were young, she’d been more hands-on, making sure there were no eggshells in the batter or that they didn’t mix up the sugar and the salt or that Shannon didn’t overload her pancakes with chocolate chips. But, as they’d gotten older and more capable in the kitchen, she’d taken a backseat, setting up the ingredients and the utensils but ultimately hanging back with her coffee as the two of them cooked.

It surprised her, too, how little the memories hurt. Unlike memories of Sunday dinners or Taco Night- meals that had been suspended indefinitely because neither of them could stand to think of them, let alone actually cook them- the thought of Pancake Day only brought memories of dancing to the music with her sister, fighting to see who could add the most fillings to their pancakes, cheering whenever one of them achieved the perfect rise with the perfect crispiness to the crust…

Mama was the facilitator of Pancake Day, she realized, but she and Shea were the ones that made it Pancake Day.

“Shan,” her mind snapped back to the present as Shea snapped her fingers in front of her face. “Did you hear me?”

Shannon smiled as she knocked her sister’s hand away. “Pancake Saturdays does have a nice ring to it,” she agreed, “But I refuse to eat blueberry pancakes week in and week out.”

“Oh, come on!”

The two of them laughed then, and they planned the specifics of the Pancake Saturdays to come. They were all they had left, after all. Maybe it was time to build new memories.

July 08, 2023 01:30

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1 comment

C. Charles
09:39 Jul 13, 2023

Well written, nice work! Food is really such an important part of family and choosing a special food as a ritual is a smart way to approach the prompt. You did a really good job not giving away the mother’s death too early but letting the reader clue in before we learn about it for sure. When Shannon stopped at her mom’s door, I thought she was just trying to keep quiet. I didn’t realize until *just* before Shannon remembered how she died, which is right where you want the reader to know. I like how the sisters realize that pancake day was...

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