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Down in the Dirt (v142)
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Memories of a Sunday Afternoon

Nancy Christie

    When Elizabeth was a little girl, she would spend countless Sunday afternoons watching her grandmother make homemade noodles for soup.
    First, a snowfall of flour would drift onto the old wooden dough board, to be piled into a high white mountain. Inside, a well was excavated, filled with fragile yellow egg yolks and transparent slippery whites.
    Elizabeth’s grandmother worked quickly and almost without thought. And, as she whipped the eggs into a frothy pool, she would tell Elizabeth about the past—of growing up on a small farm on the outskirts of a peaceful village, of driving cows home each night through the fields, and how the sweet smell of hay rose around her like a blessing while she milked the tired animals.
    “Not like now,” and, as she gestured toward the plastic milk jug, bits of dough flew from her spoon in a wide arc. “Now, the milk comes from who knows where, and what they do to it, no one knows. I knew what made the milk my cows gave me,” and she licked her lips reminiscently, “and it was rich milk—not like this white water we buy in stores.”
    Elizabeth nodded her head. She had never drunk milk warm from a cow—never even touched a cow, although she had seen pictures of them in books. But she accepted her grandmother’s words, looking with distaste at the glass from which she had been drinking.
    The egg began to eat at the flour walls, and what was once a pale, yellow liquid became cream-colored as the two were combined. Her grandmother’s hands moved quickly, independent of the speaker, and soon the flour and egg were irreparably mixed and ready to be kneaded into an elastic mass, almost breathing with life on the scrubbed wood board.
    Pushed and pulled, folded over on itself and drawn out again, the dough seemed too strong to ever surrender to the old-fashioned rolling pin. But slowly, reluctantly, the mass began to give way.
    Elizabeth watched the stringy muscles in her grandmother’s arms flex as she fought the mound. And inevitably, the dough ball became a parchment sheet through which Elizabeth could almost see the horizontal grain of the dough board.
    “The flour was better, too,” her grandmother continued, picking up the conversation as though there had been no pause at all, “not so white and delicate. All the best parts were in the flour, and the miller ground it just enough but never too much.”
    “This—” and she sniffed contemptuously, “this flour is for weak people, not for people who had to dig the ground with their own two hands, not for people who had to live with what strength the good God gave them.”
    Elizabeth’s grandmother had dug the earth. Elizabeth had heard all the stories about the farm and the hard life and the endless round of labors from daybreak to long past sundown.
    And she wondered why her grandmother hated the life she lived now, where a trip to the store bought whatever was needed, and there were no fields to plant nor animals to tend.
    The knife, its long curving blade ending in an oak handle, now danced across the sheet of dough, cutting it into long strips to be piled neatly on top of each other.
    Elizabeth’s grandmother held the knife firmly in her right hand, rocking the edge across the narrow end of the layers of dough, reducing them to threads as slender as the grass that had once grown in the upper meadows of another land.
    Up and down, faster and faster—too fast to be hypnotic—the blade was raised and lowered with one hand while the other held the dough in readiness, work-roughened fingers barely resting on the white-floured surface.
    Each time, Elizabeth feared to see the knife advance faster than the fingers could retreat, but the dance was well choreographed, and never once did the shining blade cut more than the white length of soft dough.
    “I brought this knife with me, hidden among the small bundle of clothes they let me take.” Her grandmother had told this story many times, but Elizabeth was still entranced, listening as though for the first time.
    “I thought that, if he was waiting for me, I would need a knife for our kitchen. A good, sharp knife, to cut what meat I could find, or slice the bread I would make, or chop the vegetables for soup. If there was food...” and her voice trailed off, as her stomach ached in memory of the deprivations that had preceded her arrival.
    Starved to gauntness before she left her homeland, too sick to eat in steerage, there was little left of the round, red-cheeked farm girl he had married. She knew that, and knew as well that, if he refused to take her as his wife, she would use the knife one last time.
    But he was there—for what it was worth, he was there—and agreed to take her. And no longer expecting love, she was not disappointed by its absence. To eat, to sleep in peacefulness without fear of soldiers—this was enough for her.
    And yet, the memories lingered—of kisses stolen while the cows had grazed, of promises made before the war came and burned them all to ashes.
    All the while, the parchment strips grew shorter and the pile of noodles higher. Elizabeth’s grandmother continued to talk, filling the modern kitchen with memories of long ago—when young girls wore brightly-patterned headscarves and stars shone like diamonds on the velvet sky, and the world was only as large as the people one knew from one village to the next.
    And still the knife moved—flashing in the sunlight and never faltering in its rhythm—until the dough strips were gone and only noodles remained.
    Then, there was peace on the wooden board, as the noodles dried in the air. Elizabeth’s grandmother bustled from stove to sink, chopping golden carrot medallions and green celery rafts, while the kitchen was filled with the aroma of chicken and onions simmering in the blue enamel soup pot.
    There was no more talk, for there was too much to do and too much for Elizabeth to watch as the ingredients were added to the broth, one by one.
    Elizabeth sat quietly on her chair, her eyes following her grandmother as she made soup the way her mother had made it, and her mother’s mother before her. And as the old woman worked, her cheeks flushed from the heat and a few strands of soft, white hair escaped from the tightly rolled bun to curl around her lined cheeks.
    Later, there would be ladles of steaming broth filling the old-fashioned china bowls. The noodles would be set on the table, rinsed and gleaming, for Elizabeth to take as many or few as she desired.
    And then, while she slowly sipped the rich liquid, the noodles sliding easily down her young throat, her grandmother would begin again to talk of years gone by—of a childhood spent in a kitchen of a small cottage, watching her grandmother make noodles for Sunday supper.

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