Kitchen Wars and Christmas Truces (or lack of them)

The kitchen was my domain and I’d defend it fiercely. The more ill I became, the more insistent I was (or “bullying”, as Jo put it). If anyone advanced on the kettle, I’d shoulder-barge them out of the way, shouting, “No, no, you sit down! I’ll make the tea!”

Christmas dinner was a battle-ground. It had been my party piece for years and I did it almost entirely alone. I’d closet myself in the kitchen, stressed and swearing, and chase away anyone who tried to help. Then, with a flourish, I’d produce the full works, including a home-made Christmas pudding! (forsooth!) to great acclaim.

This is the anorexic’s dream. You might not be able to contribute anything personally, you might be an obnoxious little shit who has refused to talk to anyone, but you’ve produced something tangible, a material contribution to a happy Christmas, for which you are praised and thanked. You’ve proved your worth. You’ve justified your inclusion.

Of course, you fear you might be forced to eat the lard-impregnated stodge you’ve prepared for everyone else, and it would taste corruptingly lovely. Luckily, though, in the ensuing food melee, nobody notices that you’re hardly eating. You’ve spent the day deeply involved with the food you crave, yet you can prove your strength by turning away from all that deliciousness, leaving the table to get the gravy, lurking in the background clearing up.

The problem is that Jo’s sister, Sylvia, also has her needs. Because she is single and childless, “family” remains for her what she grew up with: parents and siblings, rather than what we have gathered around us as adults – partners and offspring. Sylvia wants to nestle into the heart of Jo’s home: the kitchen. Distorted by relocation and added progeny, it’s still, to her, a temporal and spatial extension of her original family. In this conception, I’m the interloper: The house is Jo’s; she’s Jo’s sister, and sisters out-rank husbands.

Recently, when staying with us, she came down for breakfast and noticed that I hadn’t finished emptying the dish-washer. Without pausing, she charged at it and started putting things away. I said, “Hey, I was in the middle of doing that!” Sylvia and Jo laughed merrily at this: “Oh what a joke; what a jolly situation!”

I didn’t laugh; I wasn’t joking: it’s not her business. By doing this she is pushing me out of my role. She is making herself more at home than I am.

I think that’s why she treats my parents with such care. She is being proprietorial. She is dancing attendance on honoured visitors to her family’s home.

Sylvia wants very much to spend Christmas with this childhood family. Christmas is its nostalgic festival. Her dream is to make Christmas dinner together in happy companionship. With a glass of wine. How lovely. She makes repeated sallies towards the cooker, with this aim in mind: “What can I do to help? Can I make the bread sauce? I’ve laid the table; if I could just reach over you for the glasses…” She is determined to the point of complete insensitivity. It takes all my anorexic’s unabashed rudeness to beat her off. I’ve even had to resort to physically barring her path to the cooker, stepping right and left to stop her darting past me.

I was defending my hearth.

I was also defending my right to be here, which I have to earn by doing the very jobs she’s trying to take from me.

Poor Jo is stuck in the middle of all this, trying to find compromises. Perhaps she and her sister could make the red cabbage the day before? This will not do, in Sylvia’s eyes. IT IS NOT ENOUGH!!

And Jo has her needs, too. She is a compulsive carer to her family, running around after them and genuinely distressed if she can’t assuage their fears and solve their problems. It makes all this worse for her. (I don’t know where this comes from, but I suspect caring for her mother through recurrent bouts of cancer. And her father is a sensitive flower. I blame the parents!)

In the end, I lost the battle. I’m the one with the diagnosed mental illness that shouldn’t be pandered to, and perhaps sisters really do out-rank husbands. Last year we shared, but, apparently, I was grumpy about it, so this year I was locked out of the kitchen while the women, Jo, her sister, my mum, made Christmas dinner together. It made them very happy. See what an engine of negativity I am? Only by thwarting me can happiness be achieved.

I sat in the hall muttering, “I’m the bad guy?!” like Michael Douglas’s character in Falling Down, and every now and then putting my head on the floor to call through the crack under the door, “Sure, ignore the needs of the person with the Psychological Disorder, why don’t you?!” and “This is deeply sexist, you know! You should be coming OUT of the kitchen!” and “Make sure you roughen the potatoes before they go in the oven.” and “Are you sure you know where the colander’s kept?”

By my standards, I was dealing with it well.

Normally I’d hate myself for acting like this. I’d be mortified and I’d be horrified by having my role and purpose taken from me, leaving me with nothing, making me a useless burden again. But this time I didn’t care so much. Sure, I was being a bit difficult, but that’s the price they’d have to pay for stealing my job. Is this a sign of recovery? Am I more comfortable with myself?

The only time I nearly lost my cool was having to endure my sister-in-law presiding over my table, standing at the head, carving the turkey, saying, “Alistair [my dad], breast or leg? roast potatoes?” and serving people like a decorous host with her guests. I’d have dumped everything on the table, saying, “There you go, you gannets! Help yourselves!”

Ok, “presiding over Jo’s table”.

Ah, well! At least now I get the memoirist’s revenge: objectifying living, breathing people, turning them into my creatures, my dancing puppets, attributing limiting, singular and overly coherent motives to them, reducing their vivid, intense and complex interiority into the hollow simplicity of my self-justifying theories.

(Incidentally, on Boxing Day, my Father-in-law and his wife, and my brother-in-law and his children, came over. I make that 12 people, with my parents. Two people hovered on the outskirts of the happy family scrum, two pariahs, darting in and out with offers to make tea, vying with each other to be the one who hands around stupid mine pies that nobody wants. They were…me and Sylvia. That’s the source of the conflict: We’re in direct competition for the same social niche, because, for different reasons, we both feel peripheral.)

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