Water, Wine & Marinara

Kira O’Brien, Pace Center for Civic Engagement

Princeton Writes Prize

2018-2019 Staff Essay Contest


In my family, the kitchen is its own stage, where the performers come together as a rambunctious, volatile, and loving ensemble. Behind the tower of pots and pans, welded together with cold marinara, there is a spotlight my aunts walk into each holiday season. You can just barely see it over the lip of a wine glass reaching out to be refilled, but it’s where my aunts walk out on stage, ready to orchestrate our family.

The kitchen-stage might be at my grandmother’s or Aunt Tessie’s on Sherman Street. It could be at Aunt Dottie’s in New Jersey or Aunt Cookie’s on Long Island; no matter what the venue is, if the family is gathering, the show must go on. Bubbling lasagna pans, a steaming turkey, and bowls heaped with salad all go parading out to our waiting family.

There is a special magic that happens after dinner, as the kitchen prepares for its encore in the few short moments between the hours of cooking and the rapid return of empty plates stacked high, cutlery clattering to the floor. The kitchen is where all my aunts congregate around heaping plates and cups in a sacred time and space, where they could remember to be just “The Sisters,” recounting stories and recipes from generations ago. This is the place where I learned my place in the cast of my family.

When I was a child and the youngest cousin in a large and boisterous family, the holiday kitchen was more like a circus. Ducking and weaving between legs and away from oven doors, I prowled around the big top. Perched on a chair with my chubby legs swinging below like a trapeze, I observed the rituals of my aunts: ringmasters deep in their element. I was mesmerized by the way they navigated the space between and around one another, the way they danced to a rhythm only they knew. I was audience to many hands acting in concert to bring my family together around a meal and a moment. Every so often they’d bend over to scoop me up, so that I could watch them cook or taste a sauce. In learning these recipes, which travelled through time and space to arrive in this kitchen, I became able to speak the secret language of my family, one that would earn me a spot on the stage one day.

As I grew, my role in the kitchen changed, and I began to learn what it means to be a part of that performance. I moved up in the ranks, from having to be told to clear the table to eagerly trying to get a space at the sink to be among the women and no longer seen as a child. I desperately wanted to insert myself into the chorus of scraping, washing, drying, and stacking dishes as the evidence of the meal quickly vanished. I watched them, decked out in their holiday dresses, rolling up their sleeves to plunge their able hands into the dishwater. Those hands, decked in rings and cracked at the palms, often sneaking around my waist or onto my shoulder as they tilted my head towards theirs and bestowed secrets of our family.

These women are the titans of our family: immovable and unflappable. Stewards of the stories of our history, they bestow wisdom on my cousins and me in small doses; after all, a magician never reveals her secrets. Their time together in the kitchen illuminates and models for us the many values and beliefs that bind us. It’s shown in the way they come together, regardless of the time and distance and regardless of the differences and disagreements, to act as one in this kitchen. I learn the value of tenderness from the way they pull us towards them or bend down to sneak a treat. I see what it means to care for others in the way they methodically pack up leftovers, knowing who has to work nights the next week, or if someone is allergic to Brussels sprouts. I know what it means to make space for another’s feelings, as Aunt Dottie teaches a 12-year-old me how to shave asparagus so that my grandmother can weep for the loss of her husband upstairs. She sat with me as I stripped the stalks of their stringy outer layers, knowing that I was butchering the vegetable past use, but knowing also the value of giving me a way to feel productive.

It was in these kitchens that I learned what we will not tolerate as a family. I learned that we do not exclude people in our family, that we make room and make welcome, and that an extra seat can always be brought to the table. My aunts showed me that we do not give up when the chemo gets hard or the bills pile up; that this is when we meet in the kitchen over long meals with many leftovers because in our family, the show must go on.

It was between scraping plates, with heads bent over sticky countertops, I learned that we do not give up on our partners or our friends, no matter the vice they are victim to. I learned to ask for help as I also learned to ask how I could help others. I learned all this under a cacophony of sound: clattering, banging, and the muffled thwack of a sharp slap on the shoulder, wiping down a counter, or leaning against the stove with an almost empty glass of wine or dregs in my coffee cup. My cousins and I watch them from the sidelines, occasionally testing out what it would feel like to stand in their shoes.

As the years pass and it starts to take more effort for my aunts to get out of their seats, my cousins and I start hopping up a bit quicker to clear the plates. I notice the skin of my aunts’ hands becoming crepey, flexing their fingers to loosen them before plunging them into the sink. I notice my hands have changed as well: my fingers longer; my own wedding band appears. The kitchen has changed as well, with new faces smiling up from Christmas cards. And as I watch my cousins take the reins of the kitchens from their mothers, I see what it means to carry a torch for another and become a steward of our family narrative. I look at my cousins, now with babies on their hips, taking over the traditions from their mothers like two hands tugging on the brittle legs of a wishbone.

This November, I will step into the spotlight and become a ringmaster. My kitchen will become the stage where generations of women in my family will gather. The prospect terrifies me, as it would anyone taking on her first solo performance. But in my family there is no such thing as “solo.” As I walk onto that stage, I have generations of women standing with me, stewards of our strength and our secrets. Because in my family, on our stage, blood is thicker than water, wine, or marinara.

Listen to Kira O’Brien read her essay here.