By Patricia Twomey Ryan
The kitchen in our brick row house was always cold in the early morning. Chilled and shivering, I sat on the cracked vinyl chair and huddled against the small radiator in the corner. My stomach rumbled as I stole a few forbidden sucks on my six-year-old thumb. In the dim overhead light, I watched as my mother poured the oats into a big black pot. That morning it was the Irish oatmeal, my favorite, on other days it was the oats from the Quaker man. I stretched the loose legs of my underwear down past my knees. Woollies we called them but they were not made of wool, just faded pink cotton.
Winter had come early that year and the gray sky offered little outside light. I dreaded mornings in those days, thoughts of school haunted me and I would often leave the house claiming sickness and begging to stay home. I peered across the alleyway and looked into the still darkened window of the Sullivanís kitchen. It looked as if it might rain or maybe snow. Not the bright white snow of deep winter just those fat, wet late November snowflakes that turned into slush and sloshed over the sides of my brown oxfords as I walked slowly to school. The radiator hissed as the heat came up and the pipes clanged and banged.
My mother, up since six, stood at the stove, her flowered housedress covered with a worn white apron, its strings wrapped around her waist and tied in the front. Her short brown hair was secured in a net. I hated that hair net. My best friend, Kathy Watsonís mother wore her hair long and wavy down to her shoulders and I wanted my mother to look like that. But of course she never would. Kathyís mother wore stylish clothes that snugly fit her slim figure, rouge on her cheeks and even a little perfume. My mother always wore a housedress unless going to church or work. Her hair was always in a net and she smelled of roasts and onions and pies.
As I yawned, my mother stirred and the earthy smell of oats began to fill the room. The steam rising from the pot fogged the window and the kitchen began to warm. The tabletop in front of me was tin, dulled yellow with faded green trim. There were worn spots where the plates were always set for dinner. On mornings like this, the tin top stayed cold to the touch so I leaned even closer to the radiator. As it heated up, I readjusted my body, twisting and turning, first the left arm then the right, front, back, sideways, each piece of me getting a few minutes of the precious heat.
Finally, it was ready. My mother scooped spoonfuls of oatmeal into a chipped blue bowl, generous white speckled dollops with flecks of brown and gold, never gray. She placed the bowl before me, and the steam drifted up toward my nose as she poured a stream of warm milk on top. Savoring the anticipation, I tipped the bowl this way and that making winding, white rivers that coursed lazily over the surface. When I could resist no longer, I reached in for that first, perfect spoonful. Creamy, hot oatmeal coated my tongue, the milk slipping around my mouth, and as I swallowed, the warmth rushed through me so completely, I curled my toes.
I knew that it would be cold walking down Perry Avenue. That my legs would sting bright red from above my white anklets to below my blue pleated skirt. That my St. Brendanís beanie would not keep my ears warm or my neck dry and that Sister Miriam Patrick was going to be angry because I didnít have my spelling words. I knew that my mother would never be young and stylish and that my pleas to stay home would be denied. But for that moment, as I sat in the corner of the kitchen, steam heat outside me and warm oatmeal in, I was content.
Patricia Twomey Ryan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Parents, Modern Maturity and the journal Eire - Ireland.
photo by Dinty W. Moore