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The Artifacts of Everyday Life

We have lost Christopher Robin’s mother recently, and her estate and all her things must be settled. CR is back in England taking care of it. As you read this, I will photo-83be on my way.  It’s been challenging to stick to my writing schedule, worrying and feeling the upheaval, and that was my first thought for today’s blog—that I would talk about getting work done, making progress even when life turns upside down.

But it would be false because I haven’t been writing very much at all. I couldn’t tell you what I have been doing except taking a lot of walks and cooking like a crazy person. One night I sat down to a genuinely beautiful bowl of French onion soup, which happens to be one of my favorite comfort foods. The broth is a rich, deep vegetarian stock I’ve finally perfected after months of trying, the depth imparted by very slowly carmelized onions, and I was quite pleased as I admired it in the soup. Then I realized that I’d also baked the bread, a simple French bread that doesn’t keep well, so I make several baguettes and cut them in half and freeze them for later.

Such a cook I am! I thought to myself, digging in.

What has that to do with writing? It has a lot to do with my writing, actually. I seem to find stories in food and nourishment and the way we bring food to each other, the way we feed and coddle each other, the way some of us cook to heal or think or find connection to the simple act of feeding ourselves, creating something all in an hour or a day.

Cooking is what I do when I’m sad or lonely or need to think about a book—all of which I’ve felt here and there over the past week.

I’ve been thinking about the stories women leave behind, and how we can find them. I made sure CR knew to put aside all the photos until I got there, but I forgot to tell him to leave the kitchen alone. I want the chance to go through her cookbooks and recipes, make sure to gather her recipes, the ones she wrote by hand, anything that her mother might have written down, all the tidbits and notes women tuck into their cookbooks.  I don’t mean this to be sexist in anyway, but Gina was of a generation that took pride in cakes prepared just so for summer gatherings, and fluffy white rice dotted with fresh green peas.

Imagine my distress when I learned that CR’s brother had been in the kitchen all day today, “throwing things away.”  My dismay must have been written all over my face (we were Skyping), because he hurried to add, “The good news is, I’ve traded a tea set for stories from a WREN in the war.”

Which didn’t entirely allay my dismay, but it will be a very sweet afternoon. I’ll gobble her stories like cream from a cake.

Women leave their stories in different ways.  Often, they are left behind in the record of the splattered cookbooks they used over and over, through the decades.  I have a cookbook that my grandmother gave me when I was married, and she wrote in it in several places, noting a recipe that reminded her of childhood.  My ex used the cookbook a lot, and it ended up stained and marked by twenty years of fried this and gravied that.  It reminds me—kindly, warmly—of both of them now.  Our own Jael McHenry [1] wrote powerfully and poignantly of the power of the recipes left behind in The Kitchen Daughter.

My grandmother left behind a cedar chest full of letters, hundreds and hundreds of them, all handwritten. Some were even from me and my siblings and my mother. There were a few from my grandmother’s mother, who died when my grandmother was very young.  It was eerie to see her handwriting on the page, talking about normal things.  In some letters, the women talked about keeping the children in because of a polio epidemic.  The swimming pools were closed, and the movie theaters and everyone was hot and irritable.   Those letters are a treasury of ordinary life, just as recipes and cookbooks can be.

I’ve kept a thousand million words of ordinary life (often cranky or petty or small, but now and then beautiful, kind, inspired, thoughtful) in journals I’ve been writing since grade school.  I sometimes considered burning them all, but my eldest son was absolutely horrified and begged me not to ever do that.  They contain my story, he said. He doesn’t want that story burned.

The journals go along with my recipes and the cookbooks, some now abandoned as I move to new cuisines, new ways of doing things. The history is in their existence. The French phase, when I was teaching myself with Julia Child. The Rodale phase, when my children were small and I took care to keep processed food away from their rosebud little mouths.

The history of our lives is found in the artifacts of every day life. As novelists, our job is to tease stories out of the things left behind, or scattered over a garage sale tale.  Or sometimes, you can get lucky and get a woman’s story for the trade of a tea set. I’ll have to let you know how that goes.  (A WREN! Imagine!)

Do you see stories in cookbooks and artifacts? Do you have artifacts—family or found—that beg you to tell their stories? What artifacts do men leave? How do we piece the stories of their lives? 

About Barbara O'Neal [2]

Barbara O'Neal [3] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [4], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [5].