Still life with basket (Kitchen table) | Paul Cezanne

A Kitchen Marriage

How do the spaces we inhabit often represent our internal struggles? In many ways, the condition of my kitchen mirrored the condition of my life for almost twenty-five years. The lens of my marriage and relationship with my ex-husband had clouded the view of my life and I began to act accordingly. At some point I began to realize it was not my kitchen, but me that was feeling “ugly” inside. In the end, beyond a little “window dressing,” my kitchen never really changed. I had changed.

I had a tiny ugly yellow and ill-equipped kitchen. It wasn’t my idea; I didn’t choose this kitchen. We weren’t a good fit, my kitchen and me; rather, more a matter of convenience. I sort of fell into this kitchen, much as I did my marriage, twenty-four years ago.                               

You first must know that I love to cook, so a kitchen is a necessity, and it is my laboratory of sorts. I enjoy everything about cooking, from the painstaking selection of high-quality ingredients such as protein and vegetables to the hunt for unique recipes and the experimentation with exotic spices. I welcome the build-up of anxiety that gets all wrapped up in excitement as my creation simmers, bakes, fries, or broils until its completion. In my opinion, preparing a meal for other people to enjoy is one of the purest demonstrations of friendship, reconciliation, love, and community that one can give. Despite my enthusiasm, it had become increasingly difficult for me to appreciate and relish in these things because my tiny ugly yellow kitchen had often stood in my way.

Over two decades ago, I moved into a small, two-bedroom, second-floor walk-up apartment that I rented with my newly married spouse. The first thing that caught my eye when I reluctantly claimed this kitchen as my own was the yellow Formica countertop from the ‘70s era. It wasn’t a pleasing yellow like wild daffodil, nor a too bright but lively lemon yellow. It was more so the shade of golden lichen or ground mustard. Framing the already disastrous countertop was the tiled backsplash behind the stove and sink. It was another nauseating shade of yellow peppered with what I think was intended to be golden flecks. Insignificant and almost invisible were kitchen walls, a color that I cannot name, an almost non-existent color, that I had come to refer to only as “some disappointing sort of white.”

I have lived in this kitchen for twenty-four years, finding myself feeling alternately appalled and indifferent toward the aesthetics and physical layout. Despite its largely vexing presentation, I still managed to thrive in this kitchen. At the same time, I grew and provided sustenance to my family over the years. In some ways, this small and unappealing kitchen became a mirror of my life, reflecting events, the passage of time, and even my moods. I spent a lot of my time and effort in this kitchen. I have nourished children, cooked for an oft missing husband — figuratively and literally — baked cookies for my widely anticipated Christmas cookie baskets, and put together feasts for extended family on holidays in the years after my father’s death. In the more recent past, I even prepared a meal filled with hope for a boyfriend who eventually vanished.

Despite the early culinary pleasures and success that I had allowed myself to enjoy in my cooking space, I became increasingly self-conscious about my kitchen as life went on. Over time, I slowly began to stop inviting guests and discouraged the children from having friends over to the house. During the holiday dinners that my lonely mother would guilt me into continuing, I would distract guests with eye-catching festive and unusual décor. I didn’t want anyone to see my kitchen for what it was when stripped down and bare. I wanted to distract them for fear that they may think past the enticing tastes, aromas, and menus and begin to consider the beastly shades of yellow or antiquated and uncared for cabinets and perhaps at some point, take in the untended walls and windows tinged with grease. 

I am sure by now you may be judging me as I have judged myself. Why wouldn’t I just replace the countertops or wash windows and paint walls? Mostly, it was because I had always thought this was just a stage and this kitchen was a pit stop before I landed in my own home. I had dreamt of a large eat-in kitchen housing a double oven, large swaths of granite countertops, spacious hardwood cabinets, and an Italian tiled backsplash with some funky accent wall, a shade I can see but can’t pronounce. Yes, I have given that wistful kitchen dream some considerable thought. Along the way, I had come to understand that this kitchen and life were no longer a starting point or a launchpad to something more and better. I had become paralyzed and stuck here in my disappointing kitchen, much like I was feeling stuck in my disappointing marriage, stuck with the knowledge that it was all simply ugly.

After twenty years, the golden lichen of the countertops had seemingly spread and overtaken the kitchen where the life of the marriage no longer grew. For it to survive and thrive, the lichen drank in the sunlight that poured in from the two large kitchen windows until there was none left for me. Fungus and algae worked in concert until yellow leafy crusted lichen formed not only all over my kitchen but in my heart as well. Then, the husband eventually vacated the tiny ugly yellow kitchen and lichen-laced marriage, and I remained unmoving in this dark and dismal kitchen, hating it and my life, for almost two long years after the husband had left.

On one ordinary day, as I stood in the middle of my tiny ugly yellow kitchen, I thought I saw a glimmer of something bright. As I glanced back at the backsplash under the windowsill, instead of the golden flecks embedded in a shade of dull-colored sand, I saw what I believe now was a golden flicker of promise. I had also caught a glimpse of my younger self, once so full of life and hope, and it made me feel more alive.

Over the next several months, my mood began to improve. I started to cook again in earnest and felt a stirring in places I thought I’d never feel again. I fed my family, friends, and even briefly satisfied that boyfriend I mentioned in a few different ways. I began to carefully study my mustard and golden lichen-colored countertops and at the kitchen where they live. Instead of shame or regret, I felt both nostalgic and inspired. I reflected on all of the ways my kitchen had been there to support me as I chopped, cut, and mixed. My solid and reliable kitchen had withstood spills, climbing children, smoke, and steam, as well as heavy bags and boxes on its countertops. This tiny ugly yellow kitchen had stood bravely by during heated arguments, crying children, and an acrimonious divorce. These golden lichen-colored counters once even supported me in a passionate, sweet embrace. Why hadn’t I noticed sooner? Why hadn’t I tended better to my tried-and-true old friend?

Not long after, I started to notice how the sun flooded through my kitchen windows again. I could feel the heat of it on my face for the first time in what felt like a lifetime. That very same day, I had made a list, a hopeful list. It was a list full of color, images, and promise. My mood was the color of red, not the angry red of a matador’s cape, but red like a loving and open heart. I saw shades of red that reminded me of candy apples, ruby lips, and hot flushed cheeks. Red is vibrant and alive. Red is passion, and it commands attention. I could see how yellow and red were meant to be good friends, a perfect match, happily married. I painted my walls the same glorious shade of golden lichen as my countertops, and it somehow made them seem bright and different. I bought red-accented kitchen accessories and purchased fun and lively wall art that pulled together what I saw as perfectly playful combinations of yellow and red. I painted my grandfather’s desk carefully, the tender touch of red chalk paint, and I eventually centered it along the freshly painted yellow wall. My tiny yellow kitchen had come alive, much like me.

***

My kitchen continues to grow increasingly lovely, warm, and inviting, and it reminds me of sunshine and smiles. I feel a renewed sense of optimism and confidence that I forgot I once had. I have remembered my love of cooking again and the pure joy I feel when feeding family and friends. Rather than seeing the age or wear and tear of my kitchen, I realize the beauty and pleasure it has brought to my life. I love my life and my chosen tiny yellow kitchen. 


Margo Griffin is a Boston, MA area urban public school educator. She is a divorced and a once hopeless romantic who has lost a bit of her shine and looks forward to polishing. She is the mother of two daughters and to the love of her life and best rescue dog ever, Harley.

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