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Family questions: They need to be asked of the living, when they’re next to us

The call came in the midst of a dinner party. “Mom, should I partially cook the chicken before I put it into a baked ziti recipe?” Well, yes, unless you want to grow things that will make you throw up. I told him to totally cook the chicken and then throw it in with the noodles, which theoretically would keep the chicken moist. And I remembered my own post-college calls. “Gramma, could I get your recipe for Swedish rye bread?”

Kris Potter

“Mom how did you get that special frosting on my birthday cakes so shiny?” “Grandpa, how many languages did you know when you lived in Istanbul? Was it 12 or 13?”

I was so charmed that I was called upon for an answer to something answerable. In this day of so many confusing topics, chicken is straightforward.

I catapulted to the last truly coherent conversation I had with my own mother, before the pain drugs clouded her endlessly perceptive mind. What I should have asked and didn’t. I know now what I didn’t then — that I should have been asking and asking and asking about as many family details and histories as I could. That I should have asked the whys and the wheres and the who-did-whats sooner and earlier while we both had the energy to process it all.

When I look at old family photos of a sod house — who lived there? My jaunty mom at Camp Hanging Horn — where was it again? Who ate at the marble ice cream shop antique table, and where was it procured? The questions pour out like a river, but they empty into an endless sea. Because my mother was an only child, there are no aunts and uncles left to ask, and fewer close cousins and in-laws that might remember the stories she regaled them with. 

I carry the stories and answers I do know carefully, try to solidify them in writing, in my journals, in my family conversations. I cling to the solid memories contained in the family antiques held in my house and cabin museums. The farm table, the summer kitchen Hoosier cabinet, the Lenox plates with raised flowers, the half log raw-cut coffee table, the pianos, both over 100 years old — one that coughed up miniature pencils, photos, and watch gears when it was refurbished. They withhold their knowledge, I know — so silent and stubborn. I know they could tell me why my one grandma spoke so softly and shyly huddled in her bedroom, and why the other had only one child, and why no one could stop a parent’s drinking and why exactly did the drinking start? The cot, the one that came from Sweden that my grandpa slept in, did it miss its builder? What did the father in Sweden feel when every single one of his boys got on a boat to America and never ever returned even when his house, on another’s land, burned, leaving him injured and then dead? 

So the questions need to be asked of the living when they are next to us. Over the farm tables and restaurant nooks, over coffee and wine and bread. Communion, when open minds meet, questions flow and answers enlighten. Funny how the phone calls are often about food, the beginning of life when food flows through a living tube from mother to babe, and then from breast or bottle to infant, chopped up on the high chair tray and then from oven to plate. At the winter table, where food is so central, our first elemental questions finally emerge. Why did this and then that happen? Not so funny how raw those holiday questions and tables can be. The answer we don’t want to hear, the family history we wish we didn’t know, the diagnosis that could end the answers.

The craving for answers even extends to the future, and I’m not even sure whom to ask. What exactly will happen to the planet? Do my students all turn out OK? Fully employed and healthy and productive and with lots of friends? Or at least one really good one? Will our democracy mature and flower? In the dark deep of night … what will happen to me? Has it all been worth it? Did I at least mostly do the right thing? Did I pay back the endless debt to the many teachers and mentors along the way who answered my questions and pushed my thinking out my own self-centered worry?

We live to ask the questions. The top-of-the-table questions like, “How’s work? How’s school?” The questions that lurk under the table, the hard ones, that our mouths struggle to produce and our hearts hesitate to unfurl. Predictably, what’s under the table is what brings us close; it’s the tiny trusts that build the firmest foundations.

The answers are laden with guidance, a map for the journey. Backpack strapped on, bulging with words, emotions, reactions, mistakes. It’s heavy, but I keep asking, finding one more pocket to place the information in. Wait for the day it’s needed — trace the connections from one source to another and weave ever more slowly along the path. Questions reach back, ahead and to the side. A forest of inquiry in a mountain range of living. As I forage for winter foods, tracking down the ingredients my family will cook into a world of flavors, the questions curl around the edges of the shopping list accumulating, pressing to the top. Rich as the foods on the top of our farm table.

Kris Potter lives in South Minneapolis, where she teaches at a play-based preschool. 

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