I wondered if I had miscalculated as I stood in June’s kitchen after dropping by unannounced at 7:15 am. She was still in her pajamas, which were actually her husband’s old boxer shorts. Her house was on my way home from taking my youngest to school. I knew she’d be awake because her husband took the early morning train to the city and she usually made him breakfast. She had once brought me a loaf of the hearty bread she served with his over easy eggs. She knew I would like it because we both covet good bread. That is also why she had asked me if I could bring her some bread starter — she was going to resume making her own sourdough but her starter had gone dormant.
I had planned to leave it outside her back door. She has a little basket there for people like me. But when she saw me on the patio she waved me in. I pushed open the door, mason jar of fermenting flour held out in front of me like a ticket of sorts, a non-verbal and immediate explanation of why I was there. She lifted up her hand to touch her still uncombed hair, the slightest of indications that made me feel that I might have possibly caught her off guard or maybe misjudged some level of familiarity. I realized I had only ever seen her in blazers with tidy skirts, bangle bracelets on her wrist that clanged together whenever she lifted her arm — which was often — because she was always measuring things like spaces and fabric and chairs. I stood there not quite able to put my finger on the thing that made me feel simultaneously nostalgic and awkward as I stared at the dishes on the counter, her bare legs and feet. I had never actually seen her toes. She took the starter with a profuse level of thanks that I interrupted with my own apologies of turning up so early. She put it in the refrigerator and as she turned back around she was holding a container of black bean soup. “Can I give you some to bring home?” she asked. My family loves her soup — unlike sewing projects, she never measures ingredients for food but always gets them right.
It had been a while since I was in someone else’s kitchen that early in the morning, a witness to the fleeting intimacy where ordinary secrets live in the pause before the day’s unfolding. Her boxer short pajamas reminded me of mornings at my nana’s house. I’d be eating cinnamon toast cut in fours while she stood at the sink, her hair still in the rollers she had slept in the night before. She barely had any hair at all and this was her little trick to make it appear more full when she had to leave the house for a special event. When I would go upstairs with her later in the morning I would stand there amazed at how her tightly wrapped hair looked like feathery cotton puffs when she combed them out. She would let me pat them gently with my palm.
My nana lived in a double house and there was a connecting door at the bottom of the basement stairs. I loved the woman, Hopie, who lived on the other side. She kept M&M’s in her bottom kitchen drawer. The door in the basement was never locked and there was a free flow of visits back and forth, early mornings included, though usually they were preceded by a gentle tap on the door before it was opened. I liked the familiarity of this exchange, the humanity that reassured me, the comfort of seeing people in bathrobes where simple trades like a cup of flour occurred as well as community information (Mary was sick again) or the weather (might be a storm, so many birds at the feeder.) There were other houses close by and it was never much of a surprise to see other neighbors stopping in as well. I always watched the door with interest from the table, playing with the little address book she kept by the phone. It had a metal slide with an arrow that lined up with the letters on the side. When it was pressed it popped open to the page of the letter. I played with it everytime my nana was busy at the stove.
That kitchen, completely unshielded by barriers of anything (privacy, pretension, locks) was a little comforting hub and communal exchange that laid bare the shared experience of just being human. Looking back I think that my nana’s kitchen was my very own Velveteen Rabbit, so very real and loved–and that I have been looking for a replacement ever since. Maybe that is why I ended up at June’s house so early that morning. I was looking to see if my rabbit was there.