The music always seemed to be the loudest in the summer. That was because the industrial-strength air conditioner was humming away in the window above the sink. She couldn’t stand the heat, so she spent most of her days in that kitchen. And even though she always complained about cooking, she certainly seemed to do a lot of it. She was either breading boneless breasts of chicken in crushed up Saltines, or stirring the meat sauce for one of her enormous batches of meatballs. She was Italian, and even though she had distanced herself from her family and her cultural background, she still held on to this most fundamental, stereotypically Italian-American tradition. The meatball. And she was one. Four-foot ten. I used to tease her that she could pose for trophies. At that height, she stood only a few inches above the stove. This worked out perfectly for her, though, as this placed her directly in front of the air conditioner vents spewing out climate-controlled air cooled to a brisk sixty-six degrees.
In my bones, I can still bring myself into that kitchen. Climbing the back steps, I can hear the air conditioner buzzing the window frame in which it sits. The back door swings heavily on that one hundred year old doorframe, and I enter through the dimly lit laundry room. The kitchen is separated from here by a swinging door, and I can hear my mother singing.
That kitchen never got out of the 1970’s. Orange ceilings with brown and yellow plaid wallpaper, the floors rutted with dents from the aluminum chairs framing the table. (I learned at an early age not to kick my brother under that table because a metal bar ran across the legs. It eagerly stopped my shins, preventing my foot from ever reaching my brother on the other side.) I see the table as I enter, and am immediately blasted by the cold, chemical breath of the air conditioner. It is so loud that everyone has to speak in a mild scream in order to be heard. But that’s not the only reason we have to scream. Part of my mother’s daily cooking ritual is her music. She likes rock and roll, and she likes it loud. She wants to feel the drums beating in her chest. She moves to it. A spoon is her microphone. As she cooks and moves, she sings as loudly as she can. She knows the noise bothers my father, and this makes her smile even more; she’s a bit of a trickster. What comes out of her mouth, what emanates from her body is a form of joy. The music makes her move, and the noise of it all is intoxicating.
Growing up, I loved to be in that air-conditioned kitchen. My earliest memories of music lie there. Even though my mother is longer here, deep inside my mind, there is a corner papered in orange and plaid, freezing in the climate-control, and she is there, moving to the sound of drums. It is pure joy.