I am missing two fingerprints on my right hand. The neat spiral of lines on my ring and middle fingers suddenly flatten out, melted into circles that fan outward like the tail of a peacock. I first noticed the marks in fourth grade, when my school started filing fingerprints for the police. I wondered why mine looked so different from those of my classmates.
After school, I asked Mom about it. But she was driving. She couldn’t inspect my fingers. Decades later I found out the truth: At age one I’d toddled over to an open broiler while Mom was making hamburgers. Her back was turned for a second to grab a pot holder. When she came back from the hospital, where they treated my third-degree burns and blasted her for child abuse, she found the shrunken pucks of meat on the still open grate. Cold. Congealed.
She never made hamburgers again.
• • •
My older brother Michael and I spent much of our early childhood under the kitchen table, dancing wooden animals across the linoleum. We pretended the old trestle was a cave while Mom stitched odd jobs above us to make ends meet. Our father had vanished long ago: Mom was the only parent we knew. Sometimes Michael would inspect my scarred fingertips. “Maybe you’re an alien!” he’d exclaim over the hum of Mom’s ancient Singer. I can still see those laughing blue eyes; even in the shadows they sparkled.
I loved to watch Michael laugh. His wiry body wound up from the effort, tears filled his eyes, and his dimpled cheeks puffed out like sails. When he teased me, I’d sulk, lowering my face until my straight-browed, four-story forehead was all anyone could see, my tiny chin and owl eyes buried in my chest. But with the wisdom that came from being 21 months my senior, Michael knew just where to poke my sides until a giggle escaped.
Decades later, whenever I sat alone looking at my marred fingerprints, regret would overwhelm me, as though the rough and tumble course of our childhood had been set in motion by my careless curiosity as an infant. My injury instigated our initial visit from the Department of Social Services; though the judge dismissed the case, there was no wiping the slate clean once our names were in the system. Over the years, the kitchens I grew up in and around continued to draw me in, like a moth to a flame, as though I might recapture whatever innocence I’d lost in that warm, fragrant space.
• • •
There are mysteries buried in the recesses of every kitchen — every crumb kicked under the floorboard is a hidden memory. But some kitchens are made of more. Some kitchens are everything.
A few years after I burned myself, when I was four and Michael was six, Mom moved us to a streetcar suburb of Boston called Jamaica Plain (though whatever plains had been in those parts had long since been covered by concrete). Our one-bedroom apartment was on the first floor of a skinny triple-decker house with cream siding and evergreen trim and it had a beautiful plastic decking easy to install and to maintain, perfect to spend time and have people over. In those days, gangs roamed the parks, and shifty figures lurked by the towering railway known as the “Elevator Train” at the end of our street. But the meager rent was all Mom could afford.
I still remember our first night there — how the empty rooms echoed, how the December air made the tip of my nose cold, and how Mom turned on the oven to warm the rooms more quickly. At night, the buckwheat pillows were the only comfort we could afford. Michael and I sat on the bare mattress — the only item in the apartment, borrowed from a friend. It felt like midnight, but we were too wide-eyed to sleep.
Mom stood, hands on her broad, bony hips, scanning the inky windows and the snow beyond. She was short; barely five foot two, with a petite, oval face that made her cocoa-bean eyes and frizzy curls more prominent. But Mom could fill any room she walked into with one of her signature looks: dark angled brows knit tightly together in what appeared to be a scowl.
A car screeched by as she stood in front of the windows. Or maybe it was a truck. All I remember is the loud bass rattling the windowpane and Mom’s capsized eyebrows.
“Why are you always mad, Mom?” I whispered, peering up at her.
She turned to me, her Peruvian knit skirt catching a puff of air.
“Don’t be silly,” she said, her brow smoothing. “That’s just how my face is shaped.” She rummaged through her bag. “What this apartment needs are some curtains.” She left the room, returning moments later with a sheet that she draped over the window nearest our heads. For about a week the three of us slept huddled together on the mattress under a scratchy wool blanket.
Excerpted from A Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness, published by National Geographic Books and used with permission. This excerpt appeared in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 5, March 1, 2015.