I’m sorry to tell you your uncle Jaime died last week of a heart attack.
I read the text message from my mother, type:
Ok thank you for letting me know,
and then shove the phone into the bookshelf where I won’t hear it buzz.
I’m making ramen for the first time. I thought I planned the multiple steps out well, making the broth and boiling the eggs the night before, but it turns out I forgot about marinating the mushrooms and infusing the finishing oil with garlic and onions. I’ve been cooking since two o’clock–my feet hurt, my back hurts– but when it’s time to make the noodles at five o’clock I punch the flour like it said something bad about my mother.
“Can I help?” My daughter asks. I bought a pasta maker so I could make noodles from scratch and the kids are fascinated by its shiny metal and heavy attachments.
“Do you want to turn the crank or feed the dough into the press?” I ask her.
It’s hard going–the dough is thick and crumbly even though I rolled it out, and she has to throw her whole body into turning the crank around and around. “Put your back into it!” I fake yell.
My daughter gives me a dirty look but doesn’t say anything because she wants to work the machine.
I laugh but decide not to say anything else. The list of things I don’t say is long. I don’t say, ‘Your great-uncle, that you met maybe twice in your life, died last week.’ I definitely don’t say ‘I wasn’t on the list of people who got invited to his Zoom funeral.’
We take turns muscling the crank, turning dough into sheets of pasta a foot long. After, we run the sheets through the cutter, long noodles flowing onto the counter soft as water.
I wish making healthy family relationships worked the same way. I’ve been estranged from my father for almost eight years now. He would tell you that he’s tried to reach out and I’ve refused. I would tell you that he wants to look like the one trying to heal the breach without doing any actual work. We can’t agree on a starting place. He wants to forget the past and come stay at my house for two weeks. I want to start by following each other on Facebook. So we bob along in our parallel lives, occasionally crossing paths at a wedding or anniversary party, where we discover, yep, still can’t agree on how to build a functional relationship.
My mom and dad divorced twenty years ago. Before I left my father’s orbit I used to be the one who kept her up to date on that side of the family. Now our roles are reversed. My dad probably told her my uncle died just before she told me.
And all I can think is that my dad finally stopped trying to reach out. None of his other attempts were genuine. He’d say, “let’s meet for coffee,” when I flew into town but never commit to a time and date. But now even the pretense of trying is gone.
I have no time to think about that. There’s only time for the rhythmic snick snick snick of the cleaver as I slice through spinach, broccoli and carrots. The enormous pot of water on the stove is wreathed in white steam, and rumbles with the vibrations of the boiling water within. Time to cook the noodles.
My husband wanders into the kitchen and I press-gang him into sautéing the vegetables while I pour broth into another pot. I don’t tell him my uncle died either. So many things have to happen at once–the broth has to be hot and in the bowls so the noodles have a place to land once they’re done cooking.
It’s fussy and exhausting work and I welcome the distraction because the fact is, I don’t feel anything about my uncle dying. I don’t know why. Maybe you only get a certain amount of grief in a calendar year. He was the fourth death in eight months; maybe there wasn’t any emotion left for him. I cried my eyes shut when my grandma and aunt died, never thinking that I might have to save some grief for later. No tears for you! Come back another time!
Maybe you don’t get to cry about someone you haven’t seen in years.
I pull the kelp leaf out of the pot of broth and pour steaming ladles-full into four bowls. The timer beeps, and I pull dripping baskets of noodles out of the boiling pot of water. My husband leans away as I spill slippery noodles into broth. My son and daughter lean against the far counter as they watch the pieces go together. The vegetables, green and orange, go on top of the noodles, followed by the marinated eggs and brown pickled mushrooms. I pour a tablespoon of garlic oil onto each bowl and my son leans in and takes a deep breath, eyes closed.
Teresa Douglas is a Mexican American woman living in Canada. She has an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared in P.S. I Love You, Bombfire, and forthcoming in Flashflood Journal.