We’d recently returned from our honeymoon when Rob invited friends over for dinner. We lived in a little garage apartment in rural Ohio, and I was excited to break out our wedding gifts and use our new kitchen. Through graduate school, I’d eaten like a pauper, subsisting mostly on white rice with a melted slab of cheese on top for protein. Canned green beans loosely counted as a vegetable. But now I was a wife! And my husband had invited folks to supper! Time to pull out all the stops!
When Rob headed off to college, his mother wisely wrote out a handful of recipes for him on index cards, and he still regularly cooked with that stack beside him on the counter. She’d included recipes for Eagle Brand magic cookie bars, her delicious chocolate chip cookies, and — among other easy main dishes — chili. My pennywise eating habits aside, I honestly didn’t know how to cook much when we got married. So, that day, I leafed through the recipes and pulled out the chili card. “I can do this,” I thought. “It’s mostly chopping after all.”
Like many poor newlyweds, we were grateful for each gift for our new home. Silverware, new plates and glasses. I didn’t think much about what we hadn’t received until I opened the cupboards that afternoon to start cooking. It was then that I discovered I had no pot. We’d received some small sauce pans and a skillet, but nothing that looked like what his mother used when she put her chili on to cook. I scrounged around in the cabinets and landed on what I considered the next best thing — a large glass Pyrex mixing bowl.
I’d heard of folks baking in mixing bowls to make a rounded cake. If it was oven-safe, I reasoned, surely it could also work on the range. Both locations were pretty hot. I knew it was perhaps an unconventional choice, but company was coming, Rob was at work, and I didn’t want to let anybody down — myself included. So I dumped all of my carefully chopped ingredients into the mixing bowl, set it on the burner, and began to heat my chili. My concoction looked pretty standard, and I felt proud of myself. I wanted to be a good wife, and I thought I was off to a great start.
My chili hadn’t been on the range long when I noticed that its contents bubbled violently around the edge of the bowl. I turned to pull a wooden spoon out of the drawer when I heard a loud explosion — just as Rob walked in the door. Instinctively we both ducked as shards of glass sprayed across the kitchen and chili splattered the ceiling. Something — I knew not what — had gone terribly wrong.
Chili wasn’t the only meal I destroyed in our first years of marriage. Forget Julia Childs; I was Amelia Bedelia in the kitchen! In later years, Rob and I would laugh until we cried as we recalled my baked bean loaf, my Coney Island hot dogs, and other meals I made as I fumbled my way around the kitchen. For some reason, I’d gotten it into my head that being a good wife was equal to being a good cook. I wanted to be the former, so I worked tirelessly toward the latter.
Over the time, I learned that wife and cook were two mutually exclusive roles. I waved the white flag of surrender and happily deferred to any of Rob’s requests to man the kitchen. It was clear my skills lay elsewhere. While the majority of the cooking in our household still fell to me on a weekly basis, Rob’s generosity of spirit took all the pressure off. If a meal was truly terrible, he said, we could always go out for pizza.
For years we ate — good meals and bad — as a family at our long farmhouse table, a special purchase Rob and I made together when our family expanded to five. But, after he died, I just couldn’t bear to eat there anymore. The kids’ places at the table were still the same; but at the end, across from me, the chair now sat empty. I tried turning the table so it no longer faced the front door, where he’d walk in after work, but that didn’t help. His absence filled that empty seat at every meal.
I missed our dinnertime conversations, his smiling eyes across the table from me after a long day. I missed his reassurance when my dinner was delicious, his jokes and kindness when the meal was collectively deemed a fail. I missed the perpetual “What’s for dessert?” question and his mock protest when I brought out fruit. (“Fruit is not a dessert unless it’s in a pie,” he used to claim.) My heart ached so much for Rob at meal time that I bought a little kitchen table to stick in an empty nook in our kitchen. Too small for six, but just right for five. Round, so I wouldn’t have to sit across from a space he should have filled. And I started making kid-friendly food only. No more recipes or elaborate family favorites. Just things I knew my kids would never protest eating. Food’s appeal to me mattered less; dinner hour ease now trumped taste. Grief had made me lose my appetite anyways.
It’s been almost seven months since Rob died, and our family gathers for every meal around that little kitchen table. Our farmhouse table sits alone in the dining room, relegated to homework area and craft space. For dinner, we eat spaghetti and chicken nuggets, tacos and egg scrambles, Costco potstickers and salad mixes. Nothing burns or boils over. No bowls explode.
I’d like to tell you this means I’m making progress as a cook, that I’ve learned some artistry in the kitchen. Really though, it’s just another mark of how Rob’s death has changed our lives. We’re different now, even down to the food that’s on our plates. Nobody tells me that my meals are bad anymore, so that’s a win. But I’d whip up a terrible dinner in a moment if it would bring back Rob’s smiling face across the table. If I could hear him laugh and say, “Grab your coats, kids, we’re going out for pizza.”