She stands at the counter with a chopping board and knife, her wrist driving down, cutting through the skin of a pepper. Once, twice, again and again—she knows this repetition. The pepper falls away into long, thin slices of red. She pushes the pile aside.
In a pan on the stove, onions sizzle loudly in a shallow layer of oil. A lamb shank sits by the chopping board, thawed, bright red. She’ll cook it soon. The mother looks up. Her daughter is reading a book on the couch. She is quiet, moody; she’s been lying there all afternoon.
The daughter is smart, capable, usually ambitious. But now she says she feels weak; her face is drawn and pallid, the scoops below her eyes the color of blue-jean lint. The worst thing in her daughter’s life is being here, at home, stuck. This is not sickness, but dejection. All her daughter talks about is “moving out,” “finding a job.” Leaving.
She’s told her daughter often—as if she’s trying to convince her—that she likes having her home. At night, the three of them—mother, father, daughter—sit in the living room, all of them reading, the tick of the clock and hum of the woodstove spinning a kind, gentle music. Those are the good times—the collected minutes of calm. But her daughter will be thirty soon. Maybe she needs her freedom.
But there are comforts here, aren’t there? With her mother and father, she can rest. Can’t she? Maybe she’ll stay, at least for a while.
The peppers in the pan sizzle and steam, and the mother slides a spatula in and under the slivers. But she has to push hard; the peppers have already burnt.
The mother and father have their fortieth anniversary in a month. They’re going on a weekend trip—just to that inn, the one in the next county over. It’s a big old house, settled between cornfields, with a creek just beyond the backyard. They’ll stay two nights—but then they’ll be back home. The next day she’s got choir, then school board, and he has a meeting at the Chamber of Commerce.
Sliding the peppers across the pan, she pictures them together, driving over in time for lunch (at that nice place, the expensive one), then to the park with the playground and dog park, the swimming pool they always used to visit. Then they’ll go to the inn, with all those satin couches and beds with thick, down duvets. The next day? Where to but the diner where they met and then the pavilion on Young Street? She wants to get an ice cream—even though it will still be cold, barely spring.
Her life has turned into so many things, so many little things piling up. Errands, Bible study, watching the grandkids, canning, pie-making, quilting with her neighbor. Some days seem perfect—she feels as though she’s needed, as though her life has a purpose. Other days? They drip, slowly and quietly. Each hour stretches like an entire day. She just sits in that wingback and rubs at her hands, the ache of arthritis growing worse. Beyond the window she looks at those two old oaks, armless and gray with their flat, eyeless faces looking back at her, mute. They say nothing at all. They just watch her.
Her daughter sighs loudly and gets up from the couch. Across the wood floor the sun lays a long straight beam and strikes the mother exactly in the eyes. She’s blinded for a moment and has to squint.
“What’s for dinner?” the daughter says.
The mother shakes her head, trying to get her sight back. The onions sizzle harder and the peppers have wilted, the red now faded into dull, worn orange. The mother sees the lamb shank, remembering again—yes, I’m making lamb. This is her husband’s favorite. “Lamb,” she says. She adds in tomatoes, garlic, then the raw lamb shank.
The daughter nods, coughs into her hand, and heads downstairs with a blanket.
The father, the mother’s husband, will come home from work soon; the mother knows he’s expecting a meal that tastes good. He likes her cooking, oohs and aahs and gives appreciatory groans. At the table, he’ll look at her before praying. His eye will gleam. Again, he’ll smile, just as he always has, ever since the beginning.
Sometimes she is happy for what doesn’t change.
She thinks on the forty years, on contentment, on learning to live with what she’s been given, on the joy available only if she chooses it. Her life could have been different, the way her daughter’s life looks now. But sad and dejected? No. Independent. A life ahead of her. Options. Yes, on her own; out there, seeking adventure.
She looks to the window, beyond the two oaks to the field where last season’s corn has been beaten to stubble. Her own father was a farmer. She knows the rumble of the cultivator, the combine, the baler. “Did he ever ask you to help him?” her daughter once asked. No, he never did. But it wasn’t her place—it was his work, he said. He wanted it. And she saw without thinking the pattern of their life—of planting, growing, reaping, resowing. The cyclical turns of working and waiting.
She settles the lid over the pan. The sizzling fades to a low, soft buzz. It’s half-past five. Her husband will be home soon. Maybe after dinner they’ll all settle down—her husband in his chair, she and her daughter on the couch—and the sounds of the home will settle as well, entering from the back. She will hear the tick of the clock, its easy beat, and the drone of the woodstove, still burning.