It all began Wednesday afternoon with the preparation for Thursday’s big dinner. The ingredients for the stuffing had been sautéed, the ‘first course’ soup bubbling on the stove. Pies baked and vegetables washed, the only thing left to do was peel the potatoes.
Peeling potatoes. If I have peeled one potato in my lifetime, I have peeled millions.
Being the oldest in an Irish house full of five children, we ate mashed potatoes every night. I mean every, single night, without fail. Sometimes mashed by hand, other times with the mixer, it was the secret ingredient for stretching the food budget for a limited but rambunctious family. My three sisters and my brother all had specific duties when it came to mealtime, but since I was the oldest and a girl, I was given the responsibility to peel the potatoes.
I actually looked forward to this job, since it gave me a sense of accomplishment. I became quite adept at de-skinning the spuds, whipping out a five pound bag in under five minutes. I also developed my trademark method of slicing the skins off quickly, handling the peeler by scraping away from me, rather than towards me, as was traditionally done.
Sitting on a stool in front of the kitchen garbage can, silver peeler held in my right hand, I would systematically turn and slice the potato held in my left until it stood white and naked, shimmering under the kitchen lights in all of its potato glory. The tip of the peeler swiftly dug out the eyes of the most stubborn interloper, creating craters envious of any man on the moon. Whether the snow fell silently on the ground or the rain slapped loudly against the kitchen window behind me, I sat there and peeled potatoes. The cool afternoon breezes of summer wafting through the screen door beside it, or the sun streaked beams of spring danced across the linoleum floor like an invited ballerina, I sat and peeled potatoes. It became a time of pondering, wondering and dreaming, long lasting and ever present in my memories.
I’ve noticed over the years the transition of the lowly potato peeler. From a slim and somewhat feminine looking piece of metal, it has become refined and bulked up into a black, thick handled Adonis. Handles which now have grips, so as to avoid the once common journey into the trash along with the skins, as the peeler became airborne once my pace picked up.
I’ve peeled potatoes during the greatest events in history, dragging the kitchen trash can into the living room to sit in front of the one television set we owned. As a young girl whose feet barely touched the ground, I sat on the couch and watched from the corner of my eye the sadness in my mother’s face as she watched President Kennedy’s coffin pass by Jackie and her children.
I sat in disbelief and watched the Challenger explode on that cold winter morning, while my own babies played on the floor, unaware of the changing of history at that moment.
I’ve sat in darker kitchens and peeled them silently, tears streaming down my face as I prayed for those who needed it and even those who didn’t.
I’ve sat and peeled them while admonishing angry teenagers, angst filled voices screaming over the sound of the slap slap of the skins into the trash. They yelled, I peeled. They stamped their feet and slammed their bedroom doors, and still I peeled. When I really wanted to throttle them, I peeled and peeled and peeled.
I’ve peeled potatoes as therapy, watching the skins pile up on the countertop as metaphors for the challenges in my life. Day after day, I would peel them away until they no longer had any power over me, becoming dark piles of yesterdays that went to the trash can outdoors and hauled away.
Countless mounds of white sustenance when all I could afford to eat as a single mother, they sustained me and those who needed me to stay healthy and strong. Even as my children grew and left to create families of their own, I peeled potatoes for one and was happy with the task of the day, a warm reminder that some things never change, that everything changes, and it was going to be all right.
Then suddenly, society’s outlook on the potato became slanted. They were now considered nuisance carbohydrates, adding unneeded pounds to those trying to lose weight. It was time for me to back away from my old friend, leaving behind my once trusted confidante and friend.
I didn’t peel a potato for nearly two years, freeing up my hands to do other chores at dinner, and finding other outlets to occupy my time. I always felt something was missed at mealtime and I was right.
Slowly and steadily, I worked the potato back into the menu, for I now had a welcome partner at the table and who enjoyed them as much as I did. It was if the world had been slightly askew, but now righted itself, with the return of mashed nirvana to my table.
Watching me grasp the peeler again in my right while I looked at the small mound of potatoes calling from the plastic bag on the counter, he gently touched my other hand and offered to start peeling.
“That’s okay.” I answered softly. “I like peeling potatoes. It’s what I do.”
I must have peeled my millionth potato this Thanksgiving week, and I can’t imagine starting the holiday doing anything else while anticipating peeling many more in the years to come. Little faces now watch me curiously as Nana begins the afteroon again with getting ready for dinner, curious but not yet ready to assist in the duty.
When it finally is time to hand the peeler to someone else, I will sit back and watch with a smile, as the skins pile up on the countertop, signaling life continues on. I don’t think it can get much better than that.