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Looking Back

by Jo Page on May 19, 2011

We were 23, in love, flat-broke vagabonds who’d wandered into Aberdeen, Wash., lumber country right on the Pacific. We were looking for jobs doing anything we could, not realizing the deep recession had hit the lumber industry particularly hard. Nobody needed wood. Everybody needed a job.

Blithely immune to all this, we rented an apartment, pounded the pavement and actually did manage to find work. I sold menswear during the holiday season, then worked interviewing applicants for a low-income energy assistance program. We made a couple of friends; we found a good place for pizza. I budgeted $35 for food each week and cooked straight out of Laurel’s Kitchen and The Moosewood Cookbook.

Money was tight, the apartment was cold, it never stopped raining (after all, there is a rainforest just a few miles north of Aberdeen), but that didn’t matter so much. We were making a life, getting started. There would be time for real careers and solid incomes later. For now, we were content to live like young, dumb, hapless fools.

But we were also experimenting in what it meant to be grown-up. We found ourselves a doctor and a dentist. We saved up enough money to buy a dining set and a sofa from a secondhand shop. And one time, we drove over the Grays Harbor Bridge to go to the South Shore Mall because Penneys was having a sale on kitchen ware. There wasn’t much I really needed, but I wanted some things. To prove I was a woman with her own kitchen supplies, not random items pooled together with other housemates.

I bought a cutting board. I bought a brown Pyrex oblong baking dish.

The cutting board was wood, but on the thin side. And on the small side—maybe 12 by 20. The Pyrex dish was ugly, but just right for enchiladas and brownies and bulgur casseroles and the zucchini-crusted pizza that we loved.

I was sure that I would find a better, larger, thicker cutting board later in life. Maybe even a butcher block. I knew for sure that one day I’d have an assortment of Le Creuset cookware in those lovely, eye-popping colors.

Just last night I chopped the onions and the peppers and grated the cheese on that cutting board I bought over 25 years ago in Aberdeen. Just last night I tucked the filled, rolled enchiladas into the Pyrex dish and covered them with sauce. And it struck me: those items, which I thought were impermanent, stop-gaps on the way to full and sophisticated adulthood had come with me through every move I’ve made since leaving Washington state, through two divorces, through raising two children.

How had that happened? Where had the time gone?

It’s not that I can’t afford to buy those things (OK, Le Creuset is a little out of my price range, but they have those knock-offs at Marshalls). It’s more the case that time went by so quickly. I grew into adulthood and moved through adulthood and now stand, slack-jawed and amazed as my daughter’s cusp on it themselves.

It’s all a little unsettling.

A few years back I splurged on a set of All-Clad cookware, retiring the starter set of Revere Ware my mother had given me when I moved back east for graduate school. I felt the All-Clad was testimony to the fact that I had arrived. But I’d arrived at nothing. Life is like those moving sidewalks at airports: It doesn’t stop, it just keeps moving.

I’m not being morose in saying that. Or profound. I’m simply astonished at how long I’ve been an adult, not really noticing the passing years. Not really noticing that, though I do have other, nicer cutting boards and plenty of baking dishes, I keep reaching for the ones I bought in Aberdeen at Penneys, the ones that seemed so provisional at the time.

I know the cliché. And it’s true: The best things in life aren’t things. But things have meaning. Rilke knew that—in his so called Dinggedichte or ‘thing poems,’ objects have a vitality to them occasioned by their relationship to the one who experiences them.

I’m not saying that my old cutting board and Pyrex dish have anything to do with “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” But when Rilke writes in The Book of Hours ,“I live my life in growing rings/which move out over the things around me,” I feel I understand what he means. And when he finishes the poem by asking “And I still don’t know: am I a falcon, a storm/or a great song” I feel a similar wonder.