“Chris, the timer is going to go off. Can you turn the cookie sheet and put five minutes on the clock?”
I grew up in a house that had a dysfunctional oven. Nothing was ever done to correct it, and when it was in use, care had to be taken to watch the time or half of what was in there would burn.
It seemed that my mom was always off in another room when it had to be handled. If not done right, there would be smoke, a scorched unrecognizable and inedible object. A pizza could quickly become a plastic frisbee and a pan of brownies transformed into a brick.
So when she told me I had to deal with whatever she was baking, I moved fast because that night’s meal hung balanced precariously between life and death.
The heat blast that came from it when the door was opened was nuclear radiation quality. With my eyes closed and oven mitts on, I repositioned whatever was the scientific experiment that night. We were in unfamiliar territory and what came to the table in the evening was anyone’s guess.
My dad was put on a low fat diet, and a doctor’s visit had revealed that his cholesterol was out of line. His Saturday breakfast of eggs and bacon was replaced by whatever was considered devoid of the ‘F’ word. Not a thought was given to high sugar content as long as he was eating artificial, man made products with enough preservatives to provide it with a shelf life of at least ten years. But, by God, he would have triglycerides that would be phenomenal.
It was a sure fire way to help him live longer and make him hate his existence.
He was raised on meatloaf, pork chops, and chocolate cake that he poured gravy on. The first recollection I have of him doing that, I knew it was wrong. I tried to tell him not to eat it, and maybe I would have warded off his cholesterol issues, but he turned a deaf ear to my gagging. He sealed his fate.
All of his favorites were off-limits, and he was undergoing a massive adjustment with his taste buds and mentally trying to cope with what she was throwing at him.
One night she tried to use crispy rice cereal to make a coating on the chicken. I don’t know what other ingredients she put in it, but when he went to take some, all of these tentacle-like strings inhibited his ability to get it on his plate, and it kept bouncing away from him like a gigantic Slinky.
In exasperation, he put the spoon back and said he was not going to eat it. It had become like a workout for his bicep. She somehow got some of the glop on his plate, and he ate it to make it to another day. He was almost living the dream.
Occasionally, I was the unlucky recipient of his lunch because she sometimes mixed the bags up. He basically ate a sandwich heavily laden with mustard and crammed with lettuce. When I got that by mistake, I fasted. He, on the other hand, had the best meal he had in weeks.
“Chris, I got your lunch today. It was great.”
I had taken one for the team.
Somehow, he adjusted, and she found recipes that he accepted half-heartedly. When Christmas came around, though, he relaxed a little, took a vacation from it almost entirely.
She baked a variety of cookies which he had a hard time staying away from. She would stuff them into their big freezer, and he would grab a handful because calories don’t count when you steal them away from the watchful eye of the prison warden.
I don’t know how this started, but they joined forces to make peanut brittle at that time of year. I have made it, and I have never needed help, so I still am unclear why this was a team effort. It just shouldn’t have been.
One year, my arrival was way off as I went over to their house at the height of him stirring the liquidy syrup on the stove. It has to get to a specific temperature, and a candy thermometer is needed so you know exactly when it’s done. It has to get to 300 degrees usually to create a hard crack texture. The only thing cracking up was him.
He nervously kept an eye on it while the bubbles began to increase the whole time he stood there.
Meanwhile, she stood by with a box of baking soda and a teaspoon. The mixture gets thick as it cooks, and you have to keep it from scorching. This is when the yearly argument would ensue.
“You have to throw that in quick.”
“I know, John. I have done this a million times.”
“I don’t want to burn this.”
“Keep stirring. Move it around more.”
“I can’t move it around more. It’s getting thicker.”
Two bags of spanish peanuts had been added; those weren’t the only nuts in the room.
“Let me do it then.”
“No. You will burn it.”
“I will not. Just let me see.”
He would not release the spoon to her, but he kept voicing his anxiety.
“If we don’t get this to a certain temperature, it’s going to be sticky and will get stuck in your teeth when you eat it. I don’t like it like that.”
“I know. Let me see what it’s like.”
I should have left. It doesn’t get better from here.
“I am sweating,” he said. This was common for him, and not so much from standing over the burner, but his nerves.
She realized I was standing there watching. I still had my hand on the doorknob and was considering going back out to my car.
“Hey! You’re just in time to watch us fight,” she said, laughing. She and I tried to talk about other things while he kept sighing, stirring, and fretting. It was good he wasn’t in charge of national emergencies.
“He gets too upset over this.”
“Why do you two do this every year?”
“It’s tradition,” she said with a smile.
“So, you purposely put yourselves in a position to argue every year?”
“It makes us closer.” She always had this way of trying to diffuse him while in the heat, literally, of the battle.
“Hey!” he said. “Stop talking and pay attention to what I am doing. I need you to throw that in right when I say to.”
This elicited a frown from her. No one told her to stop talking, ever.
“I can talk to her all I want,” she said.
Here it comes; I still stood right by the door.
“You always are talking. I need it quiet.” He said, staring straight into the saucepan in front of him.
“You would think a man who had six kids running around here at one time would be able to handle us talking. Chris, what are you up to today?”
Now she was going to drag me to take her side, and he had tripped her rebellious switch.
“I..uh..” I didn’t want to commit.
“Are you paying attention?” he barked. As the temperature rose, so did he.
“Yes, John. I can do two things at once. I can talk and pay attention to what you are doing, but I don’t get all bent out of shape about things like you do. Why are you here, Chris?”
I had words forming in my head that kept getting stopped before being spoken. I did not want to be in the middle of this madness.
“You better be ready with that baking soda when I say it has to go in.”
She grabbed the oven mitt and whacked him with it.
“I will be!”
It didn’t phase him.
“Don’t goof around. I need you to be ready!”
“This is why men don’t have babies, Chris.”
We were all over the board on subjects, just because they were both in the kitchen at the same time trying to accomplish a task.
“I think I could have had kids just fine,” he said in his defense.
“No way! You stub your toe, and you go down for days! A little sniffle sets you back. Having a baby would kill you.”
“Being quiet would kill you.”
Her response was always to act hurt, laugh, and keep on talking.
“See? He isn’t nice to me, Chris.”
Still trying to get me on her side.
“I am very nice to you! Do you have the teaspoon and soda ready?”
“For Pete’s sake! I am right here with both of them. Can’t you see me?”
His glasses were fogging up from the steam rising upward.
“I am so hot!”
“Let me see what you are doing.”
“No. Just wait until I tell you what to do.”
“So, why are you here, Chris?”
“I don’t know,” I said, forgetting why I had even come in the door.
I saw him lean in to read the small print on the thermometer.
“I think it is time. I can’t read it.”
She tried to see it, so both of their heads were close together as they fought to see what the number was.
“I can’t see with you sticking your nose in here,” he said.
“I can’t see with you not moving out of my way!”
“Get the glass of water!” He said.
They didn’t trust the reading, so the old-fashioned way of doing things was still used. A small drip was put into a cold cup of water, and if it wasn’t sticky, it was good to go.
Both of them huddled over the glass and saw the crystal shape form.
“It’s ready! Get the soda! Right now!”
He moved the pan over to the next burner but accidentally pushed her across the room, making her drop the teaspoon and the soda that she had ready.
“Get it in there!” He said.
“I am trying to!”
She scrambled to pick up what he had knocked out of her hand.
“What is wrong with you, woman? Hurry up!”
I was in crazy land. These two had been my role models as a kid. Now, I wasn’t sure why I ever listened to them.
“I have to get a new teaspoon. This one was on the floor, and it’s dirty now.”
You did not take anything off the floor that was dropped and use it in her world. Her nurse’s training was in full gear to sanitize all things.
“Hurry up! You have to throw it in right now!”
She started finding another measuring spoon in a drawer that was not known for its ease in locating anything. Forks, knives, and other metal objects were being tossed around as she rummaged through, trying to find a clean one.
He was having a stroke and a heart attack all at once. Maybe even a brain embolism.
Finally, she did her part and threw in the key ingredient. The mixture puffed up like it was supposed to. But, the next step had to be executed.
“That has to be put on the cookie sheet now,” he said.
We weren’t out of the woods yet.
There was more pushing, shoving, trying to get past each other. Their workspace was small, and when one moved one way, so did the other. They kept crashing into each other.
“John, just slow down. You are going to drop it!”
“Move. I can do it.”
She felt the need to keep on stirring while he transported the pan across the room to the kitchen table. She was on her tiptoes because he was taller than her.
It finally made it to its destination. I knew if I came back the following year, I would be a witness to it all over again.
“You are spreading that too thin,” she said.
Not able to take it anymore, she grabbed the spatula out of his hand. He stood over her watching her every move.
“You aren’t moving that quick enough. One side of that is going to be thinner than another.”
“John, I know what I am doing. Just let me do it!”
He sighed, looked at me.
“When did you get here?”
I was inches from him the whole time.
“I have been here too long,” I said.
Once he saw that she was not inept, he said,
“I am out of here!”
“We are making two batches,” she said. “You aren’t going anywhere.”
“What? I thought we were done!” His whole Saturday was going to hell in a handbasket.
“We always make two.”
He rolled his eyes at me.
“I am going to go sit down somewhere for a second. I am sweating!”
At this point, his glands should have been running on empty.
“So, why are you here?” she asked, turning to look at me.
Now that she had finished using the spatula, she decided to taste it, and she bit off some and started chewing.
“I had nothing better to do than come here to see this,” I said. My time was free-flowing before I had kids, so there was no real reason to be there other than to enjoy their marital bliss.
“This is chewy,” she said. She ripped off another piece with her teeth while holding the spatula up and looking at me.
“Is work busy?” she asked. “He is going to be so mad that this turned out so chewy.”
Her jaw was working overtime. But she kept trying to engage me in a conversation.
She had no idea that she was eating the spatula, and I could see a huge bite taken off the hard plastic corner. She kept on struggling to eat it.
“You might want to stop doing that,” I said.
“Why? I am taste testing it to see if we did okay. It’s just really hard to chew!”
I grabbed the spatula out of her hand.
“Look at this. Don’t eat anymore of that. Spit it out!”
Her eyes got huge, and she ran over to the garbage.
“What’s wrong with it?” he said from the living room.
She and I started laughing, so we could not speak.
“Is it sticky? Is to too chewy?” he yelled.
That just made us laugh more.
“What is wrong with you two?”
If a stranger had come into that house and observed, a determination could have easily been made that they had the worst relationship. But, I knew it was only a tiny snippet of the entire picture.
Our walk with God is sometimes the same way. We get in the way, worry about the outcome, and if someone from the outside sees us, we might be marked as having no faith. But, all that is required is a mustard seed, and they must have had that going for them.
Anytime she asked him to do anything, he did it. Maybe not without a grumble or two, but he complied because he wanted her to be happy. And when he needed her, she was right there to help. They worked together most weirdly at times, but at the foundation of it, they kept each other a priority, working to keep their hearts soft and not brittle.