“Blue Box” by Danielle Evennou
I purchased the box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese on a whim. An impulse drove me. It was cheap and familiar. And what else was I going to do with the milk and butter taking up room in the fridge?
Making dinner was my grandmother’s job. And, she did it without reading books or magazines. She cooked by heart and dwindling memory. My father still speaks of her legendary potato salad. “I can still taste it. So good. Thank you.” He says this to her in 2005 when they disable her life support and she keeps on breathing for days.
I wince when Grandma Jean’s chicken soup reeks of celery and carrots. When she uses egg noodles that look nothing like Campbell’s, I declare, “This can’t be right.”
Inevitably, the tea kettle emits bubbles, and spoons spark in the microwave then disappear en masse. Even the small one engraved “USN” vanishes. I imagine my grandfather stealing it from a boat he worked on during World War II. My mom and her siblings were so proud of that spoon.
Never keen on cooking, my mom took over feeding us. She had a handful of specialties, pepper steak served with white Minute Rice, spaghetti with meat sauce, and all-out Sunday dinners with asparagus and filet mignon, or “London broil.”
The winter of 1994 pounded the tri-state area with tremendous snowstorms. When the cold loosened its grip, my grandfather, Heinz, hit up Atlantic City with his longtime girlfriend, Elaine. The whole time I knew him, he lived with her in another house across town. They went to A.C. frequently. My adult mother sleeps in a white Trump Taj Mahal casino sweatshirt with iridescent purple and green letters, though she’s never been.
On the way back, Elaine phoned to say: stroke. Or something like that, they weren’t sure. Extended family hung around the house for weeks. I got to eat a lot of McDonald’s. Then they left and things went back to normal, except for the snow that cancelled school for days.
My brother and I had the whole neighborhood over. Traipsing through the house in wet snow pants. All the laundry baskets full of soaking socks and gloves. I took turns warming them up in the dryer as if all the kids were hotel guests and I was the concierge. We were hungry. But my suggested list of edible concoctions seemed unfamiliar to them. How about a bowl of Rice Krispies with butter and marshmallows microwaved for 60 seconds?
Macaroni and cheese was the consensus. I didn’t want to bother my mother, who was tapping away at her steno machine in her bedroom beside the only phone with an answering machine. At almost nine, I thought I could do it on my own. Make some mac and cheese, using grandma as backup. I called her up from the basement and sat her at the kitchen table while I lit the gas stove. The whoosh sound of the ignition was enough to send my mother screeching down the shag-carpeted stairs.
“What are you doing?!”
“You can’t do this.”
“I don’t need to be doing this.”
“Making macaroni and cheese for the whole freaking neighborhood!”
My mother spoke these things loudly to herself as she carefully read the directions on the back of the blue box.
Bring six cups of water to a boil. Add the pasta. Have the milk and butter measured and ready. Shake the packet of cheese powder so that you don’t lose any. Drain the noodles, but don’t rinse. Combine it all in the hot metal pot.
When I pulled out the butter she swatted me away, breathing, “Just let me do it.”
The kitchen cordless phone whirred with an electronic ring. I picked it up quickly, instinctively. Like the butter, my mother took it from me. She gestured for me to dole out the finished meal to my friends, the waiting children. My grandmother was still there, staring off at the snow-covered trees.
He was gone.
It’s 2014. I pair Kraft Macaroni & Cheese with farmer’s market kale. Remove the stems, then chop the leaves. As I’m mincing garlic for seasoning the back of the blue box catches my eye, Imported from C-h-i—
“China,” I laugh to myself.
It reads, Imported from your childhood.
Danielle Evennou is a writer and performer who lives in her own 90’s sitcom: with a strong female lead, roaring laugh track, and the inevitable moral lesson. Her work has been published in literary journals, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Blue Collar Review, and Xenith, as well as The Washington Post and DCist. Evennou makes appearances as a poet, open mic host, and a dancing payphone with a penchant for Yoko Ono. She lives in Washington, DC. Find her online at www.whatevennou.com.