As Simon was closing one door, Odete was opening another – the door of the oven to be exact – and as she did so, a blast of heat smacked her in the face.
“It looks ready,” she mumbled to herself and smiled softly. It was roasted chicken just like her mother used to make, the traditional Portuguese way. A whole lemon rather than stuffing occupied the cavity. Paprika, salt, crushed bay leaves, and dabs of butter had been sprinkled on the skin. But not before a glass of white wine had been poured over the top to make sure that the meat would be juicy and tender.
Odete was very proud of herself. It was the first time that she’d made it on her own. Of course, she’d watched her mother thousands of times, but cooking had at one time completely disinterested her and she remembered almost nothing of what she’d been shown.
She slid the dish out of the oven and using the two large forks that had once resided in her mother’s kitchen, transferred the succulent bird to the platter. And as she inhaled deeply and the aroma filled her head, the grin on her face slowly faded to a frown. She wished that her mom could have been here to see this.
Odete’s mother had passed away the year prior. During the woman’s lifetime, Odete had wanted nothing to do with her Portuguese heritage. Her parents had emigrated when she was a child and never went back. As she got older, she did everything she could to be a Canadian, wanting to fit in and avoid the cruel “portuguese, pork and cheese” taunts of her classmates. But with her mother’s passing, something had awakened inside of Odete. A desire not to lose her roots, a desire to somehow keep her mother with her, a desire to get to know her mother in a way she never had when she’d been alive. A need to fill the massive void she felt inside. Not having any siblings, and having lost her father a decade earlier, Odete had no one to talk to to keep the memories from fading, and she’d discovered that food was the next best thing – perhaps even the best thing.
It had started with an accidental trip to the local Portuguese market. Needing milk one afternoon for some soon-to-arrive tea guests, Odete had gone to the closest shop that was open. The last time she’d been there had been with her mother, and Odete found herself purchasing not only the needed milk but all of the same things that she’d bought on her last trip with her mom – chorizo, two types of cheese (the salty Queijo de Castelo Branco, and the creamier Queijo ta Serra), and a few Pastéis de Nata.
Odete had served the latter with the tea that afternoon, and as the sweetness of the custard tart filled her mouth, her mother’s presence touched her soul. As soon as her friends had left, Odete took the larger mound of cheese from the fridge and carefully cut and peeled away a circular “top” from the skin as she’d seen her mother do, and then scooped out the smooth and tangy treat inside. Once she started, she couldn’t stop, and in fact, ate all of her remaining purchases from that day. Savouring the flavour of the cheese and the sausage, she again savoured the energy of her mom. But somehow she knew that it could be even better. Somehow she knew that it was finally time to learn to cook.
And indeed, Odete quickly discovered that she’d been right. Even through the many months of struggle, of wasted flour and burned pans, when she had attempted to prepare and most importantly, consume her mother’s recipes, she was not only touched by her mom’s loving spirit but more and more filled up by it.
“Simon?” Odete looked up from her chicken and saw her son-in-law standing on the other side of the table. He seemed thousands of miles away, and for the first time in all the years she had known him, he looked old. Far beyond his thirty-one years.
“She’s not coming down. She said she was going to, but I know she’s not. She wants to be a kid again. She wants to stay here and live in her old room.”
“I can talk to her.”
“No, please don’t. I don’t think it’s a good idea. She seems very angry with the world right now and especially with me. I wouldn’t want to drag you into the middle of anything.” Whether the problem this time was solely with him or included Odete, Simon honestly didn’t know, but he did know that he didn’t want this special day to be ruined for the older woman and he also knew that she wouldn’t be able to help anyway. He wasn’t sure when it had started, but Jacq seemed to have developed a disregard for her mother, almost a disdain that Odete either didn’t see or didn’t want to see. He glanced at his watch, “Let’s eat. We need to leave soon.”
Odete and Simon ate in silence. The former enraptured with the warmth of her mother that entered her and bite by bite completed her. Her face quickly transforming from an expression of anticipation to one of ecstasy. Across from her, Simon was oblivious to Odete’s rapture, and was obsessed with worry – a worry that grew more and more intense and conquered his appetite. He carefully rested his fork and knife together on the plate as his grandfather had taught him to do – the polite sign that he’d had enough.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to talk to her?” She lifted Simon’s chin so that his eyes could meet hers. He bore a strong resemblance to his mother with reddish-blonde hair and freckles that are usually not attractive on men but somehow on him, worked.
Before he had a chance to answer, Jacq burst into the kitchen. “I’m going out,” she exclaimed, and then whirled around and headed for the door.
He looked back at his mother-in-law, “Yeah, I’m sure. Let’s go. If we don’t leave now, we won’t be there when the flight arrives.”