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February 4 would have been my sister Kim’s 58th birthday. She died three years ago on March 10.
She has been with me this week as I’ve been padding around the house, unpacking and arranging things, wandering from room to room trying to find a warm spot. The Colorado winter turned bitter and brutally cold on Monday, and I turned into a happy hibernator. Kim showed up in the blue-framed cross-stitch snowflake I propped in the bedroom window; in the small ceramic vase that I keep in my study, stuffed with pens and pencils. She keeps watch over my kitchen where an embroidered sampler of hers hangs above the door.
Most of all, she is with me when I can sit back and enjoy just being. She was a master of just being, of always knowing what she wanted, of wanting very little. Her essence was simplicity.
Our house was in a state of disarray when the cold front hit and paralyzed the city. We had pulled the old electric stove out to install a gas line for its replacement. Ever since we moved into the house, we had complained about the inconvenience of having only one functional burner. But with a day to wait for delivery of the new stove, and no hot water in the house because the gas man had inadvertently knocked out the supply to the water heater, I spent the coldest day of the year huddled over the old stove.
One burner was sufficient to boil egg noodles and poach chicken breasts and whisk together a lemon-cream sauce. The oven warmed the chilly kitchen and my knees as an apple pie with a brown sugar streusel topping bubbled inside. Across the room, Kim’s sampler issued the simplest of prayers: Give us this day our daily bread.
One year, when she was a little girl and my mother asked what special dessert she wanted for her birthday, Kim announced she wanted a strawberry cake. My mother knew how to make a strawberry pie and every summer she put up strawberry preserves, but she’d never heard of a strawberry cake. So she invented one, a yellow cake batter sweetened and flavored with some of her preserves. Whipped cream frosting. It became an annual tradition: strawberry cake on Kim’s birthday.
We gobbled up our good chicken-noodle dinner and settled in for the night. The next morning our kitchen pipes were frozen, the back door had blown open during the night, and the linoleum floor was as cold and slick as an ice rink. Due to weather delays, our new stove wouldn’t arrive until Wednesday. But the old stove with its one functioning burner was still there and breakfast could warm us. I shuttled back and forth from the kitchen to the bathroom when I needed water. Scrambled eggs with bacon, shallots, cheese, a little smoky chipotle chile, and crisp corn tortillas. The dog jumped up and licked the chipotle as I was carrying it to the bathroom sink for a rinse and that entertained us well.
Time was not an issue on this second coldest day of the year. I wasn’t going anywhere in a car enshrouded in a layer of permafrost. So I piddled and read and wrote emails and consulted with students and cooked a big pot of black beans. I filled the soup pot in the bathtub. The house filled with the scent of bay leaves, and later, onions, garlic, cumin, oregano, and a splash of sherry vinegar. Dirty dishes piled up, as we still didn’t have hot water, but we had a fresh pot for the rice. Again, we feasted and slept, our old house imbued with the complex aroma of two days cooking on the one-eyed stove.
Wednesday came, and with it the delivery men. They unplugged the old stove and hauled her off to wherever old stoves go to die. We had hot water again and, in the kitchen, a shiny new spaceship of a stove with digital touch controls and timers and four big burners. The gas man came back and hooked up the gas line, but there was to be no flame. The new model came with a simple plug that didn’t match the clunky old receptacle. We would have to wait another day for the wonder of multiple burners, until the electrician switched the outlet.
I longed unreasonably for the old stove and its single reliable burner. It is bleak February and I miss my sister. I need a strawberry cake, sweet and warm, straight from the oven.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feaest: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.
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