The Colour of Butter
The cream cheese in the fridge is so alluring. As is the butter. The cucumber slices in winter. These are off limits, of course, part of Dad’s special diet. Each admirer comes to the fridge and peers into the bowl or shelf of forbidden food. I can skip the pickled herring.
This is the beginning of a habit of distracted pining, opening the fridge door and staring unthinkingly into the void of desire. I dip into the cream cheese, trying to smooth over the transgression so that it will not be noticed. I know the limits. Taking too much will incriminate me. I have to resist frequent dippings. Will they remember what was in the white wrapping last time?
Dad had a constant feeling that people were stealing from him or taking his things. And of course, we were. Why would we not want to partake of the privileges he wielded? Most especially as the snack pickings were slim.
There are few leftovers with a growing family. The options are peanut butter and jam, a repeat of lunch, or the grey flats of broken eggs. Dad purchases these at discount prices from a local farmer. He or Florence will pick up a box, sometimes two, each with ten or twelve carton flats. All the eggs are broken or cracked.
I fry two into a thin omelet, smear jam over the top and roll it up much like a crepe. My snack allays two hankerings, sweet and savoury together, sometimes with Mum’s fresh bread.
That is the best part of arriving home from school. The smell of her bread pervades the house, a welcoming balm. This is Navah’s phase of making bread in the afternoons. Its fresh fragrance permeates the whole house, infusing it with spirit and optimism. A fresh slice of warm bread does not need butter or margarine, though I still would prefer butter melting into its spongy pores. The flesh springs back, there is an elastic give, and the crust is so light and crispy, crackling to our few pleasures.
There were years in which she got up at three and four in the morning, to punch down the dough and to bake her perfect mounds before we woke up. Sweet and sweat became our alarm, time to awake
After school the aroma not only signals spongy fresh goodness but that Mum is in the kitchen and that she will ask me about my day or what I have to write for school. I sit on the high green stool discussing the ideas I have to develop for my essay. What about drug use? Or Canada’s oil policy? Or the relation between ecology and religion? Mum always has something to say that influences my righteous interpretation of the world. This is one of the few times we talk, as her busy hands mechanically sprinkle the flour, knead the dough, and smooth its mounds and surfaces. How many batches of bread? I think twelve at a time, a perfect number. Four bread pans, three bakings. Mum felt such pleasure and satisfaction in making the bread, in feeding her family fresh wholesome food.
There are years when she is just too busy to bake. Or Dad has said her time is best spent with other chores and repairs.
“There are only so many hours in a day.” She shrugs. But she is not that keen on the alternative.
Dad has found a bakery in town that sells day old bread. Really these are more than day old. I can’t believe that the white rolls and chunky bread, sometimes broken, dumped into deep and long paper bags, could have hardened to such an extent in only one day. The bread is inedible and Mum figures out creative ways to revive it.
“Sprinkle water on the bread, not too much.” She instructs. I learn not to douse it as that will make it mushy. Just a light sprinkling and place it in the oven. When it comes out the crust is crispy and the inside soft. This only lasts for a short time, so you have to eat it right away. You slice open the bread and spread margarine. I wish it were butter.
The bread lends itself well to French toast but slicing without it crumbling requires a refined skill. Another revival technique is to mush up the bread with milk, sugar and cinnamon towards a kind of bread pudding.
And then there are the hours, or what feels like hours, to which I am recruited to make bread crumbs. Mum sets me up in the kitchen with the metal meat grinder attached to the plyboard kitchen table or to the table in the dining room. I lament the drudgery of my life as the steady drizzle of crumbs gathers beneath the rotating blades. My right arm tires from turning the handle, from pushing and pulling through staggering efforts as the bread resists its own disintegration.
The only thing that makes this task even bearable is music. The record player is in the dining room and Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison aid my mood and time’s passing. There is hope for an illiterate flower seller, she may become a sophisticated woman. She just needs to be discovered. Where does my hope lie?
“You’ll need to pick up the pace. I need more for the meat mix for the rolls and then do the rest of the bag. That will give us some to keep.” Mum wakes me from my reverie and encourages me when I complain.
“My arm is too tired.”
“Use your other one. You don’t want to be lopsided.”
“Am I a scullery maid or something?” There is little sympathy for my complaints.
Navah knows Dave loves cabbage rolls and she determines to please him. A way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Isn’t that what they say? She will fix the dish for the whole family, an intensive job of blanching the cabbage leaves to make them pliable, she mixes the rice and ground beef mixture with onions, tomato sauce and spices. She rolls enough for everyone, but she is thinking of Dave and how much he will like and appreciate something he remembers from his childhood.
Dave sits at the table, his glasses on his forehead, he watches as the children clamour for their plates and settle in to enjoy the rolls. He smirks, flicking his ashes into the ashtray beside his elbow. He distractedly picks up a child’s fork and cuts a bite out of their portion. Dropping the fork back to their plate, he signals with his hand, go ahead, eat your food.
Navah’s cooking is always complimented by guests. She loves to cook with the confidence of experience. She is a doer and all her tasks are taken on with gusto. Sewing, repairing a toilet or bicycle, any technical or domestic task is absorbing and accomplished. But the one the family relies on most is her good cooking. Dave, over the years has requested certain foods, instructed her on their preparation, and increasingly competes for the complements she receives.
“Dave would you like a plate now or do you want to eat with us?” Florence notices his sampling.
“Make me a baloney sandwich.”
“You know Navah made this just for you.” Florence grimaces.
Dave grunts and waves her away.
Florence knows not to argue and goes into the kitchen to fry up the baloney in the cast iron skillet. She knows Navah will be upset yet again. She does not say anything.
When Navah asks, “Dave, did you not like the cabbage rolls?” he replies, “Tasteless.”
The children have seen Dad’s rejection of Mum so many times it is ordinary and yet always uncomfortable. The injustice of the treatment is apparent, but at the same time we are influenced by all the many times he has called her emotional or irrational. Navah’s escalating distress, her hurt at the rejections, her extreme grief is always a source of embarrassment. No one wants to be in her place, to be so abject.
The children turn their backs, we all do. We cannot stand this level of cruelty or the constant vulnerable wounds that Navah displays.
Navah will sometimes confront Dave outright.
“What is wrong with the cabbage roll? Do you know I made them specially for you? I made them just as you said your grandmother made. Are you deliberately trying to hurt me?”
That Navah would name Dave’s motives or tactics does not help her situation. Dave becomes even more enraged.
“Leave me alone, Woman.” And to Florence, “I’ll have my sandwich in the living room.”
What used to be Dave’s roost, the seat at the dining room table, soon became his jail. After his angina diagnosis and then diabetes, he had to be on a strict diet. Florence was in charge of making his food, of keeping track of the calories. He could not stand to sit through our dinners, the temptation too great. When he did lose weight, and his belt buckle was the measure, each hole a triumph, he was exceedingly proud of himself. He lost weight for a time, got a new suit, or Navah adjusted and took in his current one, cleverly leaving the fabric should it have to be taken out again.
“Wow, you look good Dad!” Giving him positive reinforcement or just stroking his ego was part of our job. We did want Dad to stick to his diet. We were concerned for his health. The Mothers most of all, but the children too knew that there were dangers in wait. If he ballooned to an unhealthy size the repercussions could be severe. Dad’s physical frame was not that large. He said he was six feet tall, but he was probably an inch or two shorter than that.
Slowly, with one spoon of peanut butter at a time, one piece of cake, one extra piece of chicken, he lost his resolve. Florence still made his special meals, but his cheats and avarice were too great. His weight started to climb again, up to 250 pounds and then nearing 300.
I do not know the number of times he started and failed his diets. This was when I felt sorry for him. He was in the grip of his own demons and addictions and he could not shake them. I did not understand that his weaknesses, as he perceived them, made him depressed. That he did not have command over his own will.
Cigarettes too proved to be a great battle which he could not win. How many times did he try to quit? The kids lent their help by hiding his red and white packs of duMaurier. This did not last long. He would laugh, he would be tickled by the concern, but soon enough his craving was too much and soon enough one child or other would cave and bring him his cigarettes and lighter and ashtray.
The living room or dining room, with its haze of smoke, was a place of watchful hazard. Dad regularly fell asleep in front of the screen or even at the dining table and more than once burned a hole in his shirt, on occasion right down to the skin. Occasionally his sheet upstairs also was ruined from his narcoleptic smoking habit.
Dad was properly alarmed, the Mothers watchful, and then slowly slowly, as these things are want to be, he slipped back into his habits of danger and risk. He could have burned the house down with all of us in it. The walls were made of paper and it would have gone down quickly. The Mothers prayed for our safety and knew that were if not for God’s watchfulness and protection we well could have been subject to numerous disasters, most likely by fire.
Navah stands at the counter, chopping and peeling, preparing dinner. Tonight it will be borscht and Dave has said he will cook. But the preparation is up to her, as it always is. Sometime Florence will help, but mostly it is up to Navah, not only dinners, but lunches and breakfasts. She stands for hours in the kitchen, hours each day. Soon she realizes her varicose veins are getting worse and worse. Days of standing and lack of circulation will make the veins bulge and the pain burns through her legs.
The mid afternoon light does not reach the one kitchen window, only the sunset will do that. The kitchen is dark for a day, but she doesn’t often like to have artificial light on. That is what she thinks of electricity and bulbs.
“We had little light in the kibbutz. We would wake up before daylight. It was so quiet and peaceful.”
The timing is important, between children’s naps, Dave’s activities and repairs, which could prompt a call at any time, she will have to drop what she is doing to help him with some pipe or shovel or some other more urgent need than feeding children. Between school arrival and prompt dinner time, she has to juggle all these to make sure dinner is ready. Dave is irate if it is not on time even if he has distracted her away from her central task.
Navah peels carrots, beets, potatoes and onions. She chops them with expert speed. If onion ever needs to be chopped thinly she is as skilled as any trained chef. The knife descends at a mechanical speed, her fingers tucked under her left palm as they guide the knife, moving down the onion’s smooth surface. She can get to paper thin thickness keeping the half onion intact as she chops against the grain. This is best for eggs and onions, everyone’s Sunday morning favourite. Fried onions form the base for eggs over easy. Navah will spend hours of her life just preparing onions alone, frying them to their soft translucence and putting them to the side until everyone is ready for their eggs. The trick is to monitor the flame on the gas stove, keeping the yellow runny and frying the onions brown and crisp at the bottom of the eggs.
Most of the time the kitchen is Navah’s domain, unless Dave chooses to supervise or cook himself. He fancies himself an expert chef, even and as much as everyone cringes when they know he will be cooking. We, most of us, detest his food and culinary experiments. Head cheese, cow brain or tongue, fried liver. Eventually some develop a taste for these, at least liver, but it is not just the type of food that is at issue. Dad’s hand at seasoning is another cause for consternation.
"Nu, try this." He holds out a spoon, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and though I would not have had any desire, I know I cannot refuse. Usually the broth or stew is too salty or too peppery, while the option of disclosure impossible. I nod.
"Good, eh? Don't I know how to cook? What'd I tell you?"
I turn away politely, as if I have a chore to do, which usually I do, knowing that supper this eve will be a meager portion, if possible returned to the pot, behind his back. Bread will provide the substitute.
When Dad is in the kitchen it is always more uncomfortable. The kitchen itself feels different.
“Stop tickling the eggs.” He is always impatient. After school or on a Saturday morning when I fry eggs, for myself, for the children, or for him, waiting for that right moment to flip the eggs, to get an over easy just right, he sits and watches me. I make the toast, spreading the margarine to every corner, making sure no surface is left unlubricated.
“Ach, come on with it,” his arm lifts to indicate, give it to me already.
I have learned to shrug at his impatience, even and as much as I know I have to hurry and serve it up before he gets more frustrated.
Dad’s fear that we lied to him or that he was being cheated extended to everyone. He often hired workers onto his building projects and then would fire them with accusations of stolen tools or missing building materials. He was always afraid of being played the fool.
“There is no room for funny business.” Defensive and aggressive in his demands, he wanted to make sure that no one took advantage of him. Once in a while the tool was found in the wrong place. He never apologized.
Such paranoia called for constant scrutiny. He suspected every merchant in town, especially the Dominion grocery store cashiers. Just as he directed what food was offered he also controlled what was purchased. Nothing would be done correctly unless he was there to supervise. Eventually it falls to us to check for any mistakes, and likely cheating.
The paper bags are unpacked ceremoniously and each item checked against the ticker tape receipt. This sometimes involved two people, one unpacking and reading the item and its price and the other with a pencil or pen finding the item on the tape and writing it down in the margins beside the registered numbers. If any small amount, any charge, is unaccounted by the end of the call and check, the next trip to town involves a wrangle with the store manager.
“Navah, will you do it next time?” Florence was the main one to drive into town and tired of this recurring errand and tussle. If she would have had the money, she would have put in the outstanding amount.
I do not often object to this onerous task, as it allows me to know what is in the cupboard and fridge. That’s how I know there is low fat cream cheese. Or butter with its appeal of pure gold. Really, it makes no sense. Why does he get butter when he’s on a diet? And we have to have margarine. I hate margarine.
The margarine comes in white bricks along with a tab, a bright orange yellow pellet inside a plastic wrap. This is one of my tasks, to mush up the margarine in a bowl, and when softened, to add the colour. As the concentrated orange dissipates, the margarine turns into the pale yellow colour of butter. It is still tasteless, but made more palatable by sheer mimicry, a lesson in artifice and the psychology of colour.
Everyone shifts on their feet as Dad once again moves up and down the line, a performance perfected over many years.
“No one will get baba this Sunday if they don’t confess. Who ate the cream cheese?” No one says anything, even though every one wants candy.
“If no one ate the cheese, why is it smaller than the day before? Or the day before that?”
I contemplate this information. Maybe it’s not just me. I’ve dipped in once but not twice. If the cheese is getting smaller, others must also be picking at it. My indiscretion was small, I reason. If the cream cheese has shrunk that significantly, it must not be my fault. I was being careful. Maybe someone else’s confession will cover us both.
Dad looks around. His cigarette in his right hand, the box of cigarettes in his left. He sits at the table as his fingers slide down the sides of the box to the bottom, and then he flips it, so the box is upside down but his fingers at the top and he repeats this over and over. His lips are pursed, but not angry. He enjoys this game, this drama, this opportunity for a lesson, or just the fear in his children’s eyes.
Author’s Note: The Colour of Butter is a chapter in a book length project, a memoir-ish account of growing up in a polygamist family. Dave or Dad was my step father. There were three mothers: Navah, mine, Florence the second wife, and then Loretta. Navah was Iraqi born, Jewish. Florence was from Florida, and Loretta from Oklahoma, though she does not figure in this chapter. This chapter of Our House of God (working title) figures in the last third of the book. The family dynamics begin to reveal themselves.
b.h. Yael is a Toronto based video and installation artist. Yael’s work has exhibited nationally and internationally and has shown in various settings, from festivals to galleries to community and activist groups and various educational venues. Her video work has been purchased by many universities and she is a recipient of numerous arts grants including the Chalmers Fellowship award. Lessons for Polygamists, a 14 minute animated collage premiered last year and addresses a family narrative, which her current memoire writing, Our House of God (working title) does as well. b.h. Yael is Professor of Integrated Media at OCAD University in Toronto, Canada. www.bhyael.ca