Ruth loved flour. Mother loved the kitchen. And I loved Ruth and Mother. I grew up at the large kitchen table, watching Ruth sift flour and mix various kinds of dough. I learned to walk while holding on to Mother’s skirt as she chopped onions, boiled potatoes, and minced meat.
My mother, a beautiful cheerful woman, always sang in the kitchen, often old songs by Frank Sinatra: Fly me to the moon, Let me play among the stars . . .
On Ruth’s lap, I was coddled on her oil-spotted sarong that always smelled of spices. On Mother’s lap, I napped on the expanse of her slickly ironed skirt. Sometimes, when I wet myself, Mother would suddenly jump up in horror to find her skirt stained and smelling of urine. But Mother had her own special way of dealing with such events and never made me feel guilty for what I’d done. “Such a clever girl,” she’d say. “Just look at the little islands you made!”
It was Ruth, of course, whose job it was to clean and dry the island creations I left on the mattress, Mother’s skirts, Ruth’s sarong, and even the carpet. Years later, when talking to me about my childhood, Ruth spoke in an Ambonese dialect with no less humor than Mother’s own: “When you were a little girl, you made an island shaped just like Java!”
Quite likely it was only in Ruth’s imagination that my urine stains resembled a map of Java. I seriously doubted that Ruth had any idea of what Java looked like. But if her imagination could make us laugh, there was no reason to object.
Ruth, in fact, had something of an obsession with Java which had begun with stories she’d heard as a young girl from old women in her village—women whose husbands had once served in The Royal Netherlands Indies Army, and who, in the 1940s, throughout the war for independence, had accompanied their husbands from one large city in Java to the next. Even as a girl, Ruth told me, she had dreamed of riding a train in Java.
“Then why, when you left Ambon,” I asked, “why didn’t you go to Java?”
In our spacious kitchen, Ruth recalled her reasons: “I always got seasick and the trip to Java took such a long time, I decided it would better to come with my uncle to Makassar, which is much closer.”
I grew older until finally I reached the age where I was able to help beat the dough, slice the onions, peel the potatoes, and help Mother fill the orders she received for various kinds of cakes and foods. I spent so much of my time with Ruth sifting flour, I fell in love with flour too. I imagined the powdery substance flowing through the sifter to be snow falling on another part of the world—like I had seen in picture books and on television.
“Look, Ruth, this flour is just like snow.”
“And what is ‘snow,’ young miss? I don’t know.”
“You know, Ruth, that soft white stuff like shaved ice in foreign lands.”
Clearly still not understanding, she asked me, “Is there snow in Java?”
Snow in Java? I laughed out loud. In Ruth’s imagination, I supposed, Java was the farthest place in the world where everything was to be found. This loyal helpmate, raised on the coast of Ambon town, had been with our family a long time. Her thoughts, her life, even her manners, were simple. All she loved was flour, which, as it danced in the air when falling from sifter to bowl, must have reminded her of the white sands of her hometown— sands that, years later, were stained with the blood of sectarian vengeance, creating a rancid stench that wafted through the coconut-covered island.
Ruth, who had come with her uncle to Makassar, had found a simple form of service: to be my caregiver! Mother met Ruth at the maternity hospital where I was born and where she was working in the nutrition section and the hospital kitchen. Mother offered her the job of caring for me, which she accepted. And then, even after I was out of diapers and able to walk, she decided not to leave me—nor did Mother want her too after the marital storm that shook our home.
In the late 1990s when unrest broke out in Ambon, with both Christian and Muslim militia forces spreading death and destruction, Ruth, who was getting on in years but still sifting flour in our kitchen, cursed with teary eyes the hateful and abhorrent images of the island on television: “Why are they killing each other? Why?”
In sadness and in anger Ruth slammed the bread and doughnut dough as hard as she could against the table. As the days passed and as the destruction in Ambon mounted, the breads Ruth made became more pliable and soft.
“You’re becoming an expert at making rubber bread,” Mother commented, describing in simple terms Ruth’s reaction to her sadness and anger.
The bread and doughnut dough that Ruth produced in the kitchen while watching the horrible scenes of destruction in Ambon became the most pliable dough she had ever produced. …But don’t ask about its taste! On the tongue of my imagination, the strawberry jellyrolls that Ruth made had a rancid taste of blood which turned my stomach.
Our kitchen became ever busier. Every day, it seemed, the orders increased, a large portion of them coming from government offices. Apparently, government offices could no longer hold meetings without first having their food paid for by the state, or so it seemed to me. Numerous government officials came to negotiate catering services with my mother.
The government people would bend over in discussion, look back and forth at each other, and then cough. Sometimes they’d pretend to be busy punching the keys of their calculators, toting up figures like a grade school child in a mathematics examination, after which they’d say, “Gosh, I’m really sorry, Mrs. Andis, but the budget for our meeting is only five million rupiah. Do you think we could get a discount?” Or: “How would this be, Mrs. Andis, if we pay for three months in advance so that this month’s bill is combined with the budget for the next two months’ meetings? There would be a little advance for you…”
Mother always smiled patiently while dealing with her clients’ requests. She even maintained her calm decorum when one government official came to her and, after clearing his throat loudly, handed her an empty receipt: “Excuse me, Mrs. Andis, but would you mind not filling in the receipt? Just your signature will do. That will be all right, won’t it? For our upcoming meetings, we’ll be sure to order all our food from you.”
Peering through the kitchen window as the man walked away, Ruth shook her head and grumbled: “Those government guys. The only thing they ever want is a discount.”
Ruth, Mother, and I immersed ourselves in our work in the kitchen we loved so well. Every day was a new menu. On a daily basis, flour, vegetables, and meat filled our lives. Of late, however, something strange was happening. Why did Mother’s eyes water when she was dicing shallots? Was she crying? Why did she slap the dough so hard that it made the table shake? Was she angry? Why would she be crying? At whom might she be angry?
Mother stormed about in the kitchen, making the whole place shake. I thought the ceramic floor tiles might crack beneath her anger. The sound of pots and pans, clanging together, hurt my ears.
Mother’s catering business was flourishing; our kitchen ever more busy. Why then was she in such a bad mood? The pounding and beating of kitchen utensils made even more of a racket than normal. Both Ruth and I sensed a warning flag.
There was tension in the kitchen but Ruth and I did not raise our voices. There was too much to do: flour to sift, butter to melt, bars of chocolate to be finely grated, chickens to be fried, and red chilies to be ground. Meanwhile, men in government uniforms kept coming to our home, bringing with them blank receipts, asking for discounts, placing their orders, handing over more blank receipts, placing more orders, and so on, unendingly, like a water wheel.
Ruth and I were capable of filling all the orders that came in and could have just gone on doing our duties, speaking to each other in lowered voices. But now, for some reason, Ruth had lost her initiative, her spirit, and her spontaneity.
My dark-skinned Ruth with her chiseled features, who had taken care of me since I was a child, chose to bury her head in the flour basin. Only her hands were busy, rubbing the flour between thumb and index finger to test its fineness. The fine white powder would fall freely through Ruth’s fingers, back to the bottom of the basin.
For days we watched Mother’s ever-odder behavior. She still took the orders of the government officials with a blank look instead of a pleasant smile. My beautiful mother, who was usually so cheerful and clever in conversation, had become a roaring lioness, ready to pounce.
When I greeted her in my standard fashion, singing “Mother, how are you today?”—a line I’d picked up from one of my favorite songs—she shouted at me, “Don’t ask! Just take care of the food orders!”
Mother’s harsh voice made me reel and I retreated hurriedly to the corner of the kitchen, fluttering about like a cockroach hit by bug spray. This was only the second time I had seen such a transformation in Mother. The first had been years ago when she had chased my father from our home after discovering that he had taken another wife. I was quite young at the time, just six years old, and don’t remember the incident all that clearly. What I do remember is Ruth and me waiting inside the kitchen, with Ruth trying to distract my attention from the loud voices in the living room by feeding me a jarful of chocolates. (I cried and felt hurt and since that time promised myself never to eat another chocolate in my life!)
This time the reason for Mother’s bad temper was obviously something else. And on the fourth day after the kitchen had become a tension-filled battlefield, Ruth finally opened her mouth: “There’s a real problem this time…” she began, as she whispered news of the tempest that was making me shake.
I would find it difficult to believe anything bad about my mother. She was my mother, after all, and I was proud of her. Also, other than Ruth, she was the only person in the world with whom I could share my feelings. It now seemed, however, that Mother was not always able to share those same feelings with me.
Mother was a beautiful woman who loved our kitchen; who created one dish after another with love and devotion; and who now minced meat, shrimp, and onions as if trying to cut away her very past. It seemed she was in a dark and mysterious cave, emitting no light to reveal what was held inside. Just as she kept her very best recipes to herself, she also locked up her personal life.
“Is it true?” I asked when Ruth had finished.
She didn’t reply.
“Tell me, Ruth. Is it true?”
The following day I asked Ruth the same question, but once more received no reply. Ruth’s face was pale as flour.
“Is it true?”
I wasn’t going to give up. I peered at her, my face surely as pale as hers.
In the two kitchen windows where panes of blue sky usually appeared, were now dark and rolling clouds. From the corner of the kitchen a cockroach appeared, bearing bad news. Broccoli, carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, and string beans began to smell and rot. The refrigerators hummed in loneliness. Our beloved kitchen was weary and disheveled, like a lovelorn girl who hadn’t bathed for days.
“Is it true, Ruth?”
Ruth kept sifting the flour and I kept repeating my question until Ruth looked even older, her head almost covered in white hair, as if the basin of flour had been dumped on her head.
The rumor was that Mother was the mistress of a high government official, that being the reason, of course, she had been awarded contracts for food services. This rumor now hovered in the kitchen air, transforming into oven soot and char, black and disgusting.
The days when Mother cried while slicing onions and the days when she pounded the dough with anger were the same times when she was weary from bearing those secrets alone. She was exhausted from having to fend off the stories of how she had gotten her contracts after a series of affairs with government officials. Amoeba-like, the rumors spread, faster than light, multiplied. (But who wouldn’t be entranced by my mother? She was a woman blessed with a natural beauty that did not fade with age; a woman with an aura of enchantment, who took very good care of herself and dressed like Audrey Hepburn—she was forever wearing the kind of dress that the film star wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.)
Our kitchen entered a transition period. As the rumors grew more pointed, the atmosphere changed like oil in a wok, bubbling and hot. Yet Ruth remained silent. And I, in the end, finally yielded, stopping my questions, and choosing to follow Ruth’s example by pounding the bread dough as hard as possible.
When Mother finally stopped crying, and stopped roaring like a wounded lioness, she invited Ruth and me on a trip around Java. This was a surprise, a kind of therapy for the three of us who had been overtaken by rumors and anger in the kitchen. Ruth was so incredibly happy, she screamed in delight on the plane, as she pointed toward the obscure outline of Java’s coast: “What did I tell you, Kalyla, the island’s shape is just like the piddle you made as a baby! Look!”
That was the last picnic the three of us had together. A few months later, Ruth died suddenly of a heart attack. Mother and I escorted her body back home to her family in Ambon. Ruth, that strong woman who had cared for me tirelessly, was buried not far from the sands of the Ambon coast, a strand as soft and white as the flour she had loved so well.
As for me, I spent my days trying to guess the secrets of the black soot and char that hovered about my mother’s eyes. I tried to find a way into my mother’s secret cave. After Ruth was gone, the beautiful woman who was my mother spent more time conversing with the flowers that she grew than with people.
In the morning, before the flowers had opened completely, I would watch Mother stroke the leaves of her begonia and chrysanthemums. From the window of my room, I would sometimes see tears fall from my mother’s eyes onto the leaves. Her teardrops became one with the morning dew.
Our kitchen fell quiet. Finally, our kitchen died. All that was left there was me, daydreaming at the large wooden table in the middle of the kitchen, juggling my memories, both the bitter and the sweet. The kitchen wall seemed to be a movie screen on which appeared “The End.”
Now I too am a caterer who people say is just as beautiful as my mother. What distinguishes us is that I am quick to anger and will not hesitate to spit on a blank receipt that some low-level official tries to hand me or to curse out a high-level official’s assistant who tries to arrange an assignation with his superior, and will blow up when an official tries to fix prices. I have no smiles for them, not like the ones my mother showed them so many years ago.