Just as mine did, your kitchen may have a sink, a dishwasher, a gas stove, an oven, a fridge and a microwave. It may even have a juicer, or one of those trash cans with a pedal on the bottom to open the top, or a wooden kitchen table, or a spice rack, or a porch attached to it. Mine had all of these things, and yours might too.
But in my home, that 20 by 15 foot room was the centerpiece of the house. In fact, it was the centerpiece of the family. “Bailey Breakfast” and “Saul dinners” were famous, or infamous, among friends and family. The kitchen was the glue that kept us together but also the stage for moments when we were torn apart.
My kitchen was the place where my father made his perfect breakfast burritos: eggs, cheese, bacon, refried beans, mashed potatoes, avocado and salsa all wrapped into a perfectly warm flour tortilla. It was the place where his pancakes came out soft and fluffy and warm inside, sprinkled with fruit like blueberries and strawberries and bananas from my mom’s garden or the Trenton farmer’s market.
Those mashed potatoes in the breakfast burrito had probably come from the night before, when they accompanied a perfectly cooked medium rare steak or an incredible salmon that was sautéed in garlic, onions and an assortment of peppers.
This was the place where early in the morning I’d hear sounds of my mom’s juicer as she created carrot-orange-strawberry-vanilla-apple juices that could not be a better sidekick to those “Bailey Breakfasts.”
It was the place where late at night I’d hear dishes and pans clank and break and doors slam shut as my dad vengefully finished the dishes I had been told to do hours earlier.
This was the place that my brothers and I slid through in nothing but our socks and pajamas as we ran circles around the house – kitchen to dining room to family room to front hall to kitchen and back again – chasing each other with pellet guns and bats and lacrosse sticks and half real half fake fear and hate in our eyes.
This was the place where I knocked Noah unconscious after volunteering him to experience Chyna’s finishing move like I had seen on WWF’s Monday Night Raw, my dad only turning from the stove to scream “what the fuck!” after hearing Noah’s head crack against the red, orange, hollow, linoleum floor.
When we got older, this was the place our friends would congregate late at night to fulfill our stoned or drunk munchies, raiding cabinets and closets and running microwaves in order to scoundrel the most delicious, disgusting combinations of tortilla chips and ice cream and leftover pizza you can imagine. We’d push together the two white, wooden doors that met in the middle, believing they’d stop sound from reaching my parents bedroom.
This was the place we froze in fear when we heard my mom’s footsteps coming down the stairs, knowing that our sound barrier had once again failed us.
This was the place where two of the best dogs you’d ever know would lay, sit and stare hopefully as you finished your meals, only wanting to lick the leftover grease of that night’s chicken and rice dinner before or while the plates had been put in the dishwasher.
This was the place where old friends and family told stories of the time we had spent apart. It was where cousins from California and Hawaii reaped the benefits of staying with the Sauls, where the Sandlars and Sacks’ and Glasses and Lollis’ made their second – and sometimes even first – home. This is the place where Noah Bane and Kevin Venose joined the family in a way that could only be argued by DNA testing.
This was the place where any questions about the hierarchy of family were resolved. This is the place where my dad sat at the head of the table and my mother sat at his side and I sat beside her and across from us sat Reuben and Noah, the boys in order from oldest to youngest starting with my dad. This is the place where my oldest brother, at 6’1” 14 years of age, decided he’d stand up to my 5’7” dad physically for the first time, only to be left pinned on his back, overwhelmed by the “old man strength,” his grunts of frustration drowned out by my mother’s hysteria and me and Noah’s cheering. This was the place where, after being warned several times, that same brother picked food off the big dog’s dinner, only to find his hand pinned to the table by the four sharp prongs of a sterling silver fork, his shock and surprise the effect my dad had hoped for. This was also the place where we laughed hysterically when Reuben decided he would eat like a dog, despite my parents orders not too, only to have his face pushed into the red sauce and spaghetti as punishment, his rising read head smiling through noodles and tomato chunks.
This is the place where we were asked what had happened at school that day, usually opening the door for tales about how we had avoided being caught painting another student’s watch in art class or jumping off the bus through the emergency exit.
This was a place that could be defined by the cartoon hanging above our stove. In it a couple is pictured eating at the kitchen table while a shirtless man cooks in the background. The woman in the couple is asking the man, “Anyone you know?”
This was the place where the phone rang. Where we’d race to the kitchen to see who it was, checking caller ID’s and picking up at the same time as someone upstairs, always hoping it was a brother’s girlfriend or a grandparent to talk to, sometimes covering the mouthpiece and eavesdropping for as long as we could before being detected.
This was the place where people would lean too far back in their chairs, only to hit their head on the glass sliding door to the back porch that sat behind them. This was the place where I sat and looked through those same glass doors onto that same back porch and watched, for the first time, my brothers smoke pot together. This was the place where I knew that I could not tell on them but also could not, and would not dare to open that door and join them.
Here, in the kitchen, is where my life took incredible turns, where I faced great change. It was in this kitchen – right above our basement, between our family and dining rooms, sitting in these wooden chairs wrapped with cushion, elbows leaning on the big, heavy wooden table the Sandlars had given us – that my mom told us she had breast cancer. Right there, knees curled under me as I perched in one of those chairs so I could reach the table, she told me she would be losing her hair. I covered my eyes with my little fifth grader hands expecting it to be gone when I brought them away from my face, thinking baldness was the worst thing cancer could bring.
This was the place where we put down Cleo; a beautiful, intelligent desert mutt my parents had found 20 years earlier when they drove across the country for their honey moon; her crawling on her belly at an Arizona rest stop, legs sprawled out behind her, starving and hungry, looking to my mom for help, begging for a spot on top of that blanket that covered the emergency brake, the spot she rode in for the rest of the trip.
This was the place we sat around her now, thinking about how she had never worn a leash, never ruined a carpet, the oldest of my parents children, her life coming to an end where it had begun: lying on a blanket in between my mom and dad, patiently waiting for what was to come, as if she knew, her family all here with her now to say goodbye.
This was the place my parents sat me down, house empty of my older brothers who had gone to college, me feeling uncomfortable being outnumbered two to one, listening as they explained why their separation was best for the family. Listening as they told me that it would mean selling the house, that this place would no longer be mine, or ours, or the same.
This was the place where I grew.
This was the place that taught me to always offer guests food and drinks first, before you asked how they were. This was the place where my love for breakfast was conceived. This was the place that still, to this day, makes me feel most comfortable with friends and family as we break bread together.
This was the place where I listened, almost certainly the youngest at the table, as people who were all older and wiser and more well versed on politics and sports and relationships counseled each other and even me.
This was the place where I got to be a boy, wrestling on the floor and with my food and eating too fast and cooking my first meals and being allowed to play with knives but only to help prepare dinner. This is the place where our family had silent competitions, where the best ice cream in the freezer that was there five minutes before dinner had now miraculously been misplaced; where you knew that someone was hiding all the good food and despite my dad’s pleading to keep the refrigerator door shut I would not stop looking until I found what I “needed.”
This was the place we looked onto the backyard from, watching my mom unveil the dead bird we had hidden in her gardening mulch, a clear and obvious exploitation of her irrational fear, a successful prank in our young eyes. This was the place where she also watched us, tackling and diving and tumbling in the backyard, never missing a rainy day or snowy opportunity to play football, whether we had friends to play with us or not.
This was the place that would wake me up each morning. It was the place I’d hear my dads booming declaration that “food was ready,” the place where I’d stumble into Sunday morning, hair stuck in places it could only be from sleep, Boomer’s voice blasting from the TV on NFL Sunday Countdown, my friends who’d spent the night already waiting at the table, anticipating the meal that they had in the moments ahead of them. It was the place where everyone that I loved came together, somehow always waiting for me around that big, heavy wooden table.