I could always smell food even before it was on Mama, my paternal grandmother’s green Formica dinette in her Harlem apartment as a child. I’d lie awake on a Saturday morning having spent the night on the foldout bed in the livingroom. Before I heard her slippered feet shuffling on the worn spots of her brown linoleum, I could smell the crisp apple wood bacon, the griddle cakes, and the scrambled eggs. Mama said it was because I was born with a third eye just like her. She said she knew from the day I was born I had inherited the gift of being able to evoke images, see and smell things before they were palpable because at only a few hours old I was trying to raise my head to see what was around me.
My father had died when I was seven in a car accident a year after he and my mother got divorced. I’d go to Mama’s after school and on weekends because my mother was always working. She was a teacher at the School of Performing Arts on West 46th Street. I didn’t mind going to Mama’s. I loved her and I loved her food.
At home I never smelled anything except the smell of a can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli burning in the pot my mother forgot about. I lived on Fruit loops and milk in our Brooklyn apartment but at Mama’s I had my fill and then some.
Mama always played music when she cooked. I’d brush my teeth and make my way to her Formica dinette and get baptized in her rendition of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come. It was my father’s favorite song and after hearing it so much it became mine. “I was born by the river in a little tent, Oh and just like the river I've been running ever since, It's been a long, a long time coming But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will…”
Afterwards we’d clean off the dinette and Mama would spread out her photo albums on it.
She’d show me my father’s baby and school pictures and pictures of the two of us together. I always took them out of their plastic sleeve to get a better look at him, spreading them on the table like a set of oversized dominoes. Mama shared the good parts about him that my mother forgot about after their marriage failed.
Though I wished my mother had a different opinion of my father; that in death he had redeemed himself to her; I was at least grateful that she never stopped me from spending time with Mama. So I never told her when we went to Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn to talk to him and put flowers on his grave because that might have ended my visits. But at times I felt that she should know but to avoid telling her I’d stay in my room and immerse myself in words; books, magazines, newspapers. I devoured them all.
Twenty years later, no longer worried about spilling secrets to my mother; I am thankful for my reading habit. If I hadn’t been an avid reader I would never have come across the article in the New York Magazine called, “Secrets of The Deep,” by Christopher Bonanos. It was about the things that lie beneath the New York Harbor. Under number eleven was a Formica Dinette found in the East River on 16th Street.”
Some things you don’t need proof of when you feel it in your gut. I knew that was Mama’s Formica dinette. I closed my eyes and could envision it with the metal band around its edge and the tubular chairs I sat in awaiting my breakfast on Saturday mornings. I could hear her singing.
I could see the framed picture of Jesus overhead and a bowl of plastic fruit in the middle of the table and a portable radio on the far end. Mama’s dinette was seasoned with a heap of memories just like her heavy black skillet. Each year that passed even as she grew old she created memories for me even when I grew old enough to stay home on my own and only came every other weekend.
“How’s school Jacqueline?”, “Now help me snap this pound of string beans.”
“Hope you’re not thinking about a boyfriend yet,” she said when I turned fourteen. “You got time for that now get the jelly jar top to help me cut out these biscuits.”
I could see Mama just as clear as the day sitting there quiet at her end days tired and still mourning my father. I had thought Mama’s Formica table would be in her house until I knocked on her door one day and she didn’t answer and I found out she had gone to Heaven. But one summer day she decided it was time to get a new dinette set. She wanted something bigger for Thanksgiving dinners when her family came over. I went with her to pick it out.
“Not that one,” I said when she pointed to one she liked.
“Not that one,” I said when she pointed to another one.
Finally after an hour of browsing and me saying no to all of her choices she sat down on a sofa and told me what I needed to hear. “I’m getting a new table but I’m going to save my old table for you for when you get your first apartment.”
When the new dinette came, Mr. Earl, Mama’s landlord, having learned she wanted to keep the old one for me, said he would store it in the basement for twenty-five dollars a month. When he and his son came to move it I let my fingers graze the top of the Formica and didn’t want to let it go. Once I even attempted to sneak down to his basement and see it but the door was locked.
After I graduated from college Mama died quietly in her sleep. Mama’s brothers and sisters cleaned out her apartment and I figured Mr. Earl gave them her Formica dinette along with her other belongings. I was glad that when she died I had a boyfriend who loved me as completely as she did. My mother didn’t like him. Mama would and she’d tell me all about his good parts if she had been alive.
I’m ninety-nine percent sure that Mr. Earl pocketed Mama’s money for all the years she trusted him to watch over her Formica table. I am sure along with his son in the covering of the night he loaded it in his old pickup truck and threw it in the East River. As greedy as he was he probably doled out the same fate to countless other tenants in his Harlem building. Miss Leslie in Apartment 309 right above Mama, her oak dresser that she told Mama was in the basement. Mr. Brown in Apartment 211, the golf set he was saving for his grandson. Mrs. Harris in Apartment 413; her Singer sewing machine. Mama’s Formica dinette, and in all probability her neighbor’s cherished belongings, was in the East River.
I had always thought of the river as being agitated and raging but now I thought of it as being calm. Calm because a piece of Mama, labeled number eleven was down there and every now and then she visited it with my father and told him daughter stories, and serenaded him with their favorite Sam Cooke song and all other existence beneath the sea became motionless.