“Where are mom’s bowls?” I asked.
“What Bowls?” he grunted.
“Her mixing bowls, I don’t see them in the cupboard.” What bowls, my ass, I thought.
“Oh your brother took those,” Dad said. “Can you clear your mom’s things out of the closet? I want to make more room for my clothes.”
“The Bowls” had become a trigger point since my mother passed. They were as present as any member of the family my entire life and for me, at the end, became the symbol of my place or lack of one in the family.
The Bowls were my mother – how hard she had to work, how creative she was, how she persevered. Except for the little blue bowl that disappeared while we were on vacation – that one did not persevere. And no one ever owned up to breaking it and hiding the evidence. It was as mysterious as an alien abduction. I wanted those bowls. Somewhere inside my raised not to be entitled little heart, I felt I deserved those bowls. I was her only daughter after all. But I had been raised to not feel I deserved anything.
My mother cooked and baked everything from scratch every day of our lives. It was rare for her to consider using a mix and when she did, we all agreed whatever the outcome was, it was not as good as what she would have made from scratch. We could tell the difference between a cake made from a box mix and one from scratch by sight. There was no need or desire to taste it. No pre-made cookie dough ever entered our home. No frozen dinners or fast food for us. Except of course for the things considered healthy – Wonder Bread and Campbell’s soups – which I now know weren’t at all healthy. In doing so, she inadvertently gave us the best start nutritionally as far away from preservatives and processed salt anyone could have hoped for.
Most of her cooking involved “The Bowls”, a set of primary colored Pyrex mixing bowls that she received as a wedding present in 1955. It is a fairly common set you’ve probably seen if you did not have one in your home. They began to manufacture them in the 1940’s and there are entire websites devoted to them – click here for one called Pyrex Love. They are in nearly every antique store I’ve ever been in and well-represented on eBay. You can get a set for between $65 and $100.
They are cheery, bright colored bowls that nested one in the other and were stored high on a shelf in our cupboards where little hands could not reach them for fear of breaking one. They were a sign of something good to come. A sign that soon there would be scents wafting through the house signaling a get-together, event, a normal meal or better yet – cookies!
The largest, the yellow bowl, always meant something big was being made, usually a double batch and in a family of seven, everything was likely a double batch. The best was a double batch of chocolate chip cookies – the Tollhouse recipe from the back of the bag of Nestle’s semi-sweet chocolate morsels (gee that is a mouthful to say and one to look forward to!). It was also used for Christmas cookies, pie dough and even at times, something savory, like meatloaf.
The next size down was the green bowl. It did not get used very much. Every other bowl had to be dirty before it got selected. It was like the last kid left standing when getting picked for kickball. Poor bowl. It just wasn’t big enough for most things my mother needed to make and too big for others. It was most often used for mixing icing. Now that I watch the Great British Baking Show like an obsessed dieter, I understand there are many many types of icings and coatings for cakes. In our house it was fairly simple. There was the “hard” white icing and the “soft” white icing and, of course, the chocolate fudge icing. Both of the white icings were soft but one was a soft meringue (a word my fairly simple mother never used – and I don’t mean simple stupid, I mean simple, plain and clear) The other, more often used, was a sugar packed royal icing made with milk, powdered sugar and a teaspoon of almond flavoring. The almond flavoring was Mom’s signature flavor. It was that little something extra people couldn’t quite put their finger on when they ate her baked goods but they knew it was hers.
Next came the bright red bowl. I recall it as the smallest bowl (but I hadn’t been told about the missing blue one – much like that uncle that we didn’t talk about). It usually held something until it was poured into the larger bowl, melting butter and cocoa, for instance. Melting butter with cocoa in it meant mom was making chocolate fudge icing usually for banana cake. Mom would put the butter and cocoa in the bowl and set it at the back of the stove while the cake was baking so that it could naturally and slowly soften and melt in the heat that rose off the stove. This was pre-microwaves. The smell that came from these two basic ingredients was amazing and called out to us like sirens luring sailors to the shore. And much like a sailor might crash into the rocky coast, we were unable to resist dipping in a finger and were always disappointed. It was so bitter at this stage without sugar, all you could do was grimace. How could something that smelled so tantalizingly good, taste so horrid? And how could we keep trying it in hopes for it to change? There was no enjoyment there except to just keep inhaling and hoping for one of the beaters from the mixer later after the sugar and milk had been added.
It was tough in a house of seven to share two beaters equally. To be one of the lucky one’s to get to lick a beater or the bowl meant being painfully well behaved during the entire mixing and baking process.
I stood next to my mother doing my best not to be in the way, but to be near enough to get her something, if I could reach it, whenever she was cooking. I learned how to gather everything together before you start so that you aren’t caught off guard by a missing ingredient. We couldn’t just pop out to get it in those days. It went on the list and could be a week before the next trip to the grocery store. We did not have much counter space so everything was done on a small area between the sink and stove that was just a bit larger than a checker board. Really big projects, like Christmas cookies and rolling out pie dough would mean taking over the kitchen table – that multipurpose surface on which homework was done, projects were planned and created, newspapers were read, card games and visitors socialized and meals were taken.
I stood next to my mother and watched. I watched and learned without really knowing the words, the difference between stirring, mixing, folding, creaming and beating. She wasn’t explaining what she was doing as she went along, she wasn’t intentionally teaching me. There wasn’t time for that. I stood there and observed and absorbed it. I knew how to level a measure, noticed the differences in the way the old wooden mixing spoon was held and the speed with which she turned it and when to use a rubber spatula to scrape the bottom.
These were “The Bowls” I have been obsessed with since my mother died. These were “The Bowls” that before I made it home the day after her death disappeared from that high shelf in the cupboard into the possession of my younger brother. My younger brother? A boy? Who made that decision? How did that come to happen? I knew it was the wrong time to question it, what with funeral plans being made. Objects weren’t important. Objects are just things. But I have allowed objects have haunted me.
I recently got a chance to ask him. I didn’t need to see him to know he was back-peddling to come up with some answer over the phone. He insisted he did not take them. That he was given them many months later. And that they were now no longer three, but two as his second ex-wife had made the poorly thought out decision to cook something on a stove top using one. It was a mixing bowl, not a casserole dish….apparently she hadn’t spent much time at her mother’s side learning anything. He offered to get the surviving two from his adopted daughters. I said no, they had a new place now. It was enough for me to finally get to ask out loud, “Did no one think of me?” and finally learn that no one had.
I have my own set now from an antique store, a full set of four, yellow, green, red and blue. I cook her recipes and my own in them. They are no longer “the bowls” they are “my bowls”.