August 9, 2012

objects: frigidaire measuring glass

Days spent in Aunt Louisa’s kitchen were the best. They came most often in the summers when Molly was small, when she was out of school and her mother, Alma, was at work all day. Louisa was Alma’s oldest sister, and she and Uncle William never had children of their own. She had always been different to Molly than any of the other aunts and uncles. She bent all the way down to whatever height Molly was at the time, and looked right into her eyes when she spoke to her. Her inflections did not change when she spoke to Molly - her words came evenly, slowly, just like they did for other adults, and the words always seemed to mean more for their deliberation. Molly never minded talking to Uncle Jeffrey or Aunt Helen, or her Uncle Robert, but after she spent time with Aunt Louisa, she would notice how the rest of them talked to the top of her head, in tones that suggested they might be trying to disarm a pouncing tiger. And they always avoided eye contact. 
Louisa was a busy woman, but set aside one day a week for time with Molly. She was part of the set design crew for the local community theater, treasurer of the Garden Club, and a volunteer docent at the local art museum. She was always involved in some benefit or fundraiser or another, crafting or baking to contribute whatever she could. This same quality in her dictated that she would always have something wonderful planned for the days she spent with Molly. Molly looked forward to these days for the whole week between one day with Aunt Louisa and the next. Sometimes they would go on an adventure together, to visit the Field Museum on free days, or the Shedd Aquarium, where they shared in common their favorite jellyfish. Sometimes Louisa would have a project ready for Molly: something they would make of papier mache or a latch hook rug kit. Molly felt important, because Louisa thought ahead. She had learned so many things from her already: how to play poker, how to tie all sorts of different knots, how bowling was scored in television matches, how to tell the weeds from the flowers in the small garden behind the house. 

Molly loved that Louisa planned things especially for her. Secretly, though, she liked it even better when she could tag along on days when Aunt Louisa had one of her own projects to accomplish. She felt important in this tagalong role, rather than playing the guest; on these days, she pretended she was an apprentice to her busy aunt in her exciting life. On the day that Molly first used the pretty measuring glass, they happened to be making peanut butter cookies for the garden club bake sale the following day. Aunt Louisa’s pantry was a source of endless surprises. The refrigerator held her latest cooking experiments, and sometimes Molly found strange fruits, whose names she did not know, in the bottom righthand drawer. Louisa collected vintage cookie jars as another of her hobbies, specifically jars designed to look like old cartoon characters. There was a Yogi Bear jar, a Micky Mouse jar, and Molly’s favorite was the jar shaped like Pebbles’ head: you lifted the bone at the base of her pigtail to open the jar. The hunt for cookies reminded her of the cup and ball trick Uncle Robert liked to play at holidays, as she lifted the top of each jar to see what lay beneath. Louisa was entertained by the challenge as well, and would only give Molly one clue: how many of the fourteen collected jars held cookies at present.
When she baked with Aunt Louisa, Molly’s favorite task, after the taste-testing of course, was being sent to retrieve this or that from the pantry. “Teddy Bear cookie cutter,” Louisa would request, and Molly was off the chair and ‘round the corner, into the pantry in a flash, and back again as quickly as she could find it, timing herself if she remembered. “Two sticks of butter.” Twenty-two seconds. “Flour sifter.” (This was Louisa’s third favorite task.) Eighteen seconds. “Half cup measure.” This one meant unstacking and re-stacking the tall mound of measuring cups: thirty-seven seconds. Today, Aunt Louisa sent her for a new item: “Fridgidaire measuring glass.” Molly sat glued in her seat at the table as she processed the words and scrunched her face curiously: she did not know about this one. Louisa laughed softly and described it to Molly: small glass, painted with stripes, top shelf. Molly unfolded the three-step stool in order to reach the glass. She kept her left hand gripping the top handle of the stool tightly in order to hold herself steady as she stepped her feet back down to the floor, the delicate glass held gently in her right hand. It was the prettiest kitchen item she had ever, ever seen. Five bold, colorful stripes decorated one side of the glass, and the opposite side listed the name of each color in lowercase print, romantic names like “sunny yellow” and “aztec copper.” It looked like a glass just her size, but was painted with marks for ounces and cups. As they filled the glass with flour and then the sugars, Molly noticed how it fit the palm of her hand just right.

Another thing she loved about Aunt Louisa: how everything she seemed to own was not just functional, but also pretty to look at. In Molly’s house, most things were good for use-only, nothing noticeable or pretty about them, nothing to differentiate them from the contents of every other kitchen. She knew this was because they did not have much money, and her mother always said that “All they needed was just enough.” She didn’t really know if Louisa and William had lots of money - all their pretty things seemed to have a use as well as artistic value. She asked Aunt Louisa now where she had found the new glass, and Aunt Louisa said it had been a free gift from the department store where they had been looking at a new refrigerator. They had decided against it, and if they had got it, it would only have been plain old white, but weren’t the rest pretty colors to think of? Molly couldn’t think of anything prettier. She imagined an entire “mayfair pink” refrigerator in her own small apartment kitchen, and it made her just about crazy to think of how wonderful that would be.
Not much had changed in Molly and Alma’s small apartment for as long as Molly could remember. Her father had left when she was four years old. Her memories of her father corresponded mostly with pictures in the photo album her mother only let her look through once a year, on her birthday. “Birthdays are a time for contemplation,” her mother said, “and knowing where you came from, even if it’s a hard thing to know.” Molly spent hours on her birthdays with the album open in her lap, memorizing the angles of her father’s chin, the exact brown shade of his eyes, noting the ways he changed from a teenager into a man throughout her mother’s time with him. He was gone now, long gone, and hadn’t so much as sent a card in the time since. Molly believed deep down that all those smiles in the photos had been his way of sending cards in advance: the smile he gave from the back of the pickup truck was for when she would turn eight years old, and a few pages later, he beamed his bright smile from the sofa for her twelfth birthday. Now, at age ten, she had that one to look forward to. There were thirty-seven total smiles in the album (she didn’t count the pictures where he was not smiling), and another secret belief was that perhaps by her thirty-seventh birthday, so far in the future, he would have somehow found his way back to her. 

She sat all the way back on the brown corduroy sofa, mindful of her posture as she opened up the rectangular blue vinyl photo album, embossed with gold lettering on the front that read “Family Album.” It felt more official this way, more respectful of this annual event, to sit with her straight back at attention. All her sense of what “family” even meant was contained in those sixty-four pages. She squinted her eyes at the laminated pages, to help her memorize the images as she tilted the book against the glare cast by the lamplight. She turned the pages gently, slowly, noticing how the golden corners were beginning to separate from the edges of the yellowing pages. She fought the impulse to peel back the corner of the protective covering, knowing it would never stick the same if she did, because she had experimented with this. One year, she had snuck a picture from the album in between the sofa cushions, with a plan to hide it under her pillow later so she could see his smiles all year long. But her mom must not have applied the same birthday rule to herself; a couple of days later, she sat Molly down to ask where the missing picture went. Now she flipped through all the pages once Molly was through, and made sure every picture was accounted for, before returning the album to its secret place in her bedroom.

Molly was sure that Aunt Louisa would never have handled it this way. Every question Molly could think to ask, Louisa answered as honestly as she could. Molly learned to save up her questions for Louisa instead of Alma, and when she was nine she even started writing them down in her new diary, which locked for privacy so her mother wouldn’t see. Molly asked Louisa why the father of the family that lived above them wore a little cap on his head and grew his sideburns out in long curls. She asked why their church had a statue of a cross, with Jesus being tortured on it, when that seemed like the violence her mother did not want her to see in the movies. She even asked what curse words meant, when she didn’t know their meaning. Always, always, Louisa gave her honest, direct answers in reply.
A few weeks after Molly’s first glimpse of the measuring glass, she was overwhelmed by the desire to have it for her very own. Nothing at Aunt Louisa’s house had been like this before; everything lived in its place and wouldn’t seem right anywhere else. But this glass seemed made just for her, and after all, they were not even shopping for a refrigerator anymore. Louisa had plenty of other measuring cups. Molly thought about asking for it directly, but she knew her mother would frown on this, and remind her of the rule of “just enough.” Surely this measuring glass would not qualify. She thought of asking to borrow the glass, to make her own cookies at home. This might feel like a compliment to Aunt Louisa, and since she really didn’t need the glass herself, she thought it might work. But the more she thought about the glass, the more Molly didn’t feel like she could take the risk of a request not granted. If Louisa said no, she didn’t know what she would do.

The next day spent at Aunt Louisa’s house, Molly asked if they could bake some cookies again. She caught Louisa off-guard with the request - she had always been a child to go along with whatever was planned, with a cheerful spirit, especially since Louisa always put so much thought into it. But her request was reasonable and Louisa decided to try to grant it. They had tickets to a matinee performance of “Pinocchio” at the community theater, but if they returned home with enough time, they could whip up a quick batch together before Louisa started making dinner. They returned that afternoon as planned, and this time, Louisa gave Molly the option of which cookies to make. Her kindness weighed heavy in Molly’s stomach, blocking up her throat a bit as she reminded herself of her goal. “Chocolate chip,” she announced, as if she had been deliberating this whole time, and reassured herself again that she was not really going to hurt anyone with her plan. “Flour, sugar, baking soda, salt,” Louisa read from the recipe, and Molly carried them to the kitchen table, one arm around each matching canister, in two trips. “Four sticks of butter.” (They had decided to make a double batch so that Molly could also bring some extra cookies to her neighbors, causing her heart to sink just a little bit deeper.) Twenty-four seconds. It was almost time. “One cup measure.” And here was the moment of execution. Molly entered the pantry and pulled out the pane of glass from the photo frame at home, which she had tucked on the bottom shelf when she had arrived that morning. Holding both sides of the glass, she raised it up as high as her head and let it fall to the floor with a crash. 
It was another thing she loved about Aunt Louisa: the way she always let Molly figure things out for herself, if she wanted. When she worked a latch hook pattern and got mixed up on where she’d left off, Louisa waited for Molly to ask her for help before telling her how to fix it, and usually Molly found her mistake on her own, and was back on track within a few minutes. When they made the papier mache hot air balloons, Louisa didn’t mind a bit that Molly chose to shape hers with sharper edges than Louisa’s. Where her mother would have stepped in and instructed Molly on what was most normal or most right, Louisa held her tongue and rather let Molly tell her what she needed. When Molly broke the glass, Aunt Louisa called out to ask if she was OK, and when Molly said she was, she let her be. Molly’s tears were real as she came out of the pantry with the dustpan full of glass, quickly emptying the pan into the trash bin. Her apology was genuine: she was really, truly, so sorry about the measuring glass.

(Learn more about my "object" prompts here!)


  1. I love Molly's character and the ending. This piece speaks to me about what it is to be human and reminds me that the difficult parts of the human experience is what makes characters full and not flat.

  2. Jan! Such an encouragement to hear that something in a piece like this really does work the way you hope it will!! :) So happy you connected with this story, and thanks for sharing your thoughts! Means a lot to have you reading, thank you again!!