Cleaving a New Life
I wandered, drenched in sweat, through four floors of dust-filled alleys and enormous rooms. Four delightful, enticing floors of undiscovered treasures. It was a warehouse sale of culinary, decorative and textile delights. Signs screamed WAREHOUSE CLOSING! 75% MARKDOWNS! CASH ONLY! I had arrived from my new home in Holyoke, Massachusetts to feather my nest, to begin my new life. I couldn’t resist the enticing finger of temptation begging me onward, through the heat, the dust, the antiquity of this cavern.
I entered my destiny through huge wooden barn-like doors on the first floor. I climbed the stairs to Nirvana. The narrow wooden staircase, with it’s creaky, old scarred steps grooved with the footsteps of long-departed factory workers. Mill workers who had spent all their waking days here, climbing these same stairs. A history under my feet of countless women. “Thank the goddesses things have progressed for women…” I mused to myself, as I climbed.
It was August, 1975. Six months before I had moved with my knight in shining armor from the doldrums of a Vermont winter to a fresh life with him in Holyoke. I had been hesitant to leave my Vermont haven.
In 1970, at twenty years of age, my renaissance had arrived. I exploded. A novice chef and fresh Vermont resident, I learned and loved and reveled in my new life. I studied every aspect of Vermont, from culinary arts, to love, art and life. I grew from picking wild berries to canning vegetables, fruits, chutneys, relishes and jams. I tapped maple trees and boiled down the sap a huge vat over an open fire in my backyard, magically changing sap into syrup. My hair and clothes smelled deliciously of wood smoke and maple syrup for days afterward. I fell in love. Repeatedly.
I had learned to live, to love my world, to journey into areas I had never traveled through or beyond before. I explored the frontiers in my mind. I was remaking my identity, tailored to my needs of love, life, and myself. I had begun to sculpt my twenty-year old self, readying my future.
Then, at twenty-five I had arrived in Holyoke, Massachusetts, engaged to my on-again, off-again boyfriend. What had I learned? Only that I was madly in love and had thrown caution to the winds. That’s what women of the‘70s did. We were the remnants from the ‘60s summer of love, Haight Ashbury and San Francisco. We wore flowers in our hair. We had birth control. I felt more wisdom than I should have for a twenty-five year old woman in Vermont, moving to Massachusetts.
* * *
The warehouse clattered with sound. There were many other hunters on the prowl. I finally reached the fourth floor, The Vale, the garden of seconds, beautiful with their imperfections. The culinary warehouse floor, heavenly. On the way I made a new friend.
“Whatcha lookin’ fer, honey?” My stairmate had enfolded me into that solidarity of women, snail-like, as we climbed up four flights of stairs. In the suffocating heat we were bathed in sweat and dirt. Ascending the four slow flights my stairmate and I shared lives, misgivings, triumphs and fears, as only women can do. Brief friends, for that instant, we safely confided in one another. I’d most likely never see this intermittent cohort again. She was easy to bestow my secrets to, my misgivings and hopes. By the time I reached the top step, not only the stairs, but my confessions had depleted me.
“I don’t really know what I’m after. Anything I can use in my new kitchen. I don’t have much to cook with, really. I just moved here…”
My voice trailed off as we finally entered the cavernous cafe of culinary creations. It was a beautiful sight. Enormous tables ladened with every possible culinary utensil welcomed me. Before racing off to a distant table my new-found-stair-friend advised me:
“Knives, that way, darlin’. Get yourself the sharpest one. You’ll need it. Take it from a woman twice your age.” She disappeared.
I found a large Magnolite saucepan for creating tomato basil sauce, pot roast, stews, jams, and even stir fry. Next I snagged a stainless steel pot with a steamer insert. As I was departing with my treasures my stair-friend’s voice echoed. I headed to the knife table. There I found the most beautiful cleaver, stainless steel, with deeply engraved Asian characters etched into its side. The heft in my hand was perfect. The blade was sharp. The light glinting off the beautiful steel was mesmerizing. I carried it down four flights of those horrible stairs, balancing the cleaver carefully on top of my new pots.
Over the next twenty-five years my cleaver and I changed. In Holyoke, Massachusetts I showed off my skills to my future mother-in-law, preparing a roast chicken dinner. I overheard her saying to my soon-to-be husband, “I will NOT go to any church to see you marry that shiksa!” THWACK! I hacked the innocent potatoes, threw them into my beautiful new pot, and imagined all the possibilities of my Asian cleaver and my new life.
At 32, In Sacramento, California I was swaddled by a group of talented, loving, smart and caring women. We met every week to share children, chores, pastries, dreams and woes. There, I used my knife to cut my bread dough into two loaves for the second rising. I cleaved the white, satiny, yeasty mound cleanly. My onion herb bread became a legend.
Four years later in San Luis Obispo my cleaver and I chopped plums gathered from our backyard plum tree. I plunked them in my Magnolite Saucepan and created jam. At the Wednesday night San Luis Obispo Farmers Market. I purchased a magnificently sour, salty, rich, fresh and yeasty loaf of SLO Sourdough bread..
At home, I cleaved the SLO Sourdough bread into thick slices. I spread each slice with rich, sweet butter and my homemade plum jam. My two children and I were awash in exploding tastebuds. Our faces were swathed in butter, jam and joy, a testament to our life.
At forty I arrived In Tampa, Florida, wondering why I had once again followed this man, my husband, the father of my children. His knight’s armor had dulled. Chinks had appeared.
I left my friends in California for the unknown of Florida where I finally acknowledged my husband’s ugly side, his face of condescension, disgust and anger had become my enemy; that familiar face of control. I realized my life might be half over, if I was fortunate enough to live to 80. After fifteen years of wondering, ‘Why am I still here?’ It was time to edit my future. Fifteen years of smiling, of playing a part, of being a ruse. I could no longer play my role in this drama. The script had to be rewritten.
Finally, I took a stand. It was the night he had gone too far, locking me in my own home to confront me with all my faults. I fled to my kitchen. My cleaver, my old friend, gave me courage. I picked up my ally, held it overhead, waved it threateningly in his face. A random thought made me smile. The voices of my oldest and dearest friends from Sacramento erupted in my brain, providing courage, “I hate that knife, Janie, it’s scary. The only good thing you should do with it is use it on your husband.”
With my other hand I picked up the phone, called my therapist, who had taught me the independence and bravery to end this relationship.
Her voice was shrill and urgent. “Get out of the house, now, just get out. He sent the kids to their friends overnight. You’re not safe. Get the keys. Get out now.” I brandished the cleaver, backed out of my kitchen, holding the lethal knife before me. I retrieved my purse from its hiding place. I pulled out my car keys. I ran. I escaped.
At forty-two my life was magically, ecstatically renewed. I moved into my first home, completely my own. It was a 1921 two storied bungalow in a “neighborhood in transition.” Just like me. Heart pine planked floors caressed my feet. The many wavy windows let in oceans of light. My children and I were awash in a bright miasma of light and color, of rainbows cascading through old, hand crafted glass. We lived in our new sunglobe, two floors of freedom. My antique bungalow, my safe harbor, was completely renovated, preserving the past, providing the best for my future. My home, the inglenook of my dreams. It was magnificent.
The heart of my new home was, of course, the kitchen, where I happily installed my Magnolite Saucepan, my Steamer and my Asian Cleaver. I arrived at my new world of independence and freedom. My dreams and fantasies had finally come true.
At fifty I contemplated a new marriage to the love of my life. I examined my old friend, my cleaver, for imperfections. There were none. The calligraphy engraved into the blade was worn. The knife edge was still very sharp, thanks to my sweetheart’s dedication to honing. The heft was the same in my hand, worn and molded into my embrace over the last twenty-five years.
“What’s this knife called, anyway? It’s lethal...why do you love it so much? A chef’s knife? It looks more like a hatchet.” My beloved asked as I prepared dinner.
“No, it’s a cleaver. A special kind of knife. I can cut anything with it.”
Tim looked at me thoughtfully, then said, “Yeah. That makes sense. Cleaves one part of something into another? Cleaves life in half? From the past to the present? From the old to the new?” He grinned mischievously.
He was exactly right. A knife that had cleaved my life, from the past, to this day, and beyond. This knife has helped me to strike a path into my future. It has helped me to sharpen my way into the avenues of a fresh life.
I mused over his words of wisdom as I prepared dinner. Gently, with my freshly sharpened friend, I diced the garlic. I threw it into my Magnolite saucepan where it sizzled in olive oil.
The aroma enveloped me, brought me back through the years. I drained the can of Sacramento Italian peeled tomatoes, squeezed the plum tomatoes with my hands as my mother had taught me so many years before. Leaving the tomatoes mostly whole but drained of liquid I threw them into the mix. Diced some fresh basil, threw that in, with freshly ground pepper, salt, roasted Italian sausages and a splash of red wine. I shaved the parmesan with my old friend as I waited for the water to boil for the pasta in my steamer, sans its insert.
This man, my sweetheart, would only be party to the loving meals my cleaver and I would help create.
From that long-ago day in Holyoke, Massachusetts, to this day, in Tampa, Florida, I treasure my prizes and my life. The advice of my stairmate had been exactly right. I needed a good sharp knife to cut me through life. To help me create new beginnings and necessary endings.
Watercolor, 1906 Watrous Ave by Jayne Lisbeth. Photos by Tim Gibbons.