Once a year, the kitchen is full of Mom. This mom, me, and my first mother-in-law, my sons’ grandmother, who originally gave me a banana bread recipe. The year’s perfectly-sized boxes, saved in the basement, are set in one kitchen corner along with the saved box of foam pellets, accumulated over the year, and I pack the banana bread I’ve once more made for the men in my life: two sons, two husbands (one of which I’m no longer married to), a grown grandson, and our mail carrier.
My kitchen rejoices.
The recipe, hand-written on some piece of paper I scribbled out more than forty years ago, lies folded in thirds in the back of my battered Joy of Cooking cookbook. I smooth it out, check the ingredients. They never change. The paper is stained and spotted, but the handwriting is mine, hurriedly written from one corner to another above a left-over drawing by one kid or another.
Perhaps I expected to transfer it to a proper card or something, but now, each year, I refold and replace once the baking is over: six bananas, butter, white sugar, leavenings, chocolate chips, nuts. Each batch makes two loaves. Except, for more than forty years, I have separated the batter after adding chocolate chips. I pour half the batter in a bread pan, and add nuts to what’s left in the bowl before dumping it in the pan. One son does not like nuts in his banana bread, the other son doesn’t care. If I make chocolate chip cookies, I do the same: half the batter without nuts.
I also make, and pack, the same oatmeal cookies, from the same cookbook, with chocolate chips, no nuts, seal them in plastic bags, and add them to the boxes that are mailed. The ones that aren’t mailed, the ones that stay here in the house, don’t last long. Which is probably a good thing.
Mary, my first mother-in-law, died twenty-five years ago, but she lives with me still in the kitchen at Christmas and in the chocolate mayonnaise birthday cakes which I make and which never change although they are only made for whoever is in the house at the birthday time. Mayonnaise cake, moist and fragrant, does not mail well. That recipe is also in my writing, quickly sketching down the direction as my mother-in-law dictated the ingredients.
One box goes to Florida, one to San Diego, the mailman gets his bread in hand, and the men here in the house have theirs.
And as I bake, I remember other times and other seasons. Mother-in-law Mary made banana bread when her boys came home; I usually limit mine to once a year: white flour and white sugar and chocolate chips are not our usual fare. But these are gifts of love, gifts of memory, gifts of tradition.
The mailman tells me his mother-in-law, no longer living, used to bake like this. His eyes shine as he takes my proffered loaf.