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Arizona is having a particularly warm winter, but still: when I crawl into my recliner at night to watch TV, I want a blanket. I want to cuddle under the blanket, cozy and safe, and pretend that it’s cold and wintry outside, like back home in Minnesota. Lately I’ve been turning the air conditioning on to achieve this chilly effect, and using my lightest blankets to snuggle under…not the heavy knit afghans my grandmother made, and most certainly not a full-body fleece.
Last night the Blanket Selection Process was well under way when I picked up an old blue chenille that I keep folded on the couch, tucked behind a pillow. I shook it out and noticed how thin it was—perfect for the light flurries that were not taking place in my living room. Then I noticed that I could see through it, so I held it up to the light and found that it was worn out, just a large sheet of looped blue thread really, my blanket now a blue cobweb.
I should have seen this coming, I thought, chastising myself. I need to throw this out and get a new one. What kind of a homeowner am I? I’ve given this to guests!
After folding up my cobweb and tucking it back under the pillow—because old worn-out anything gives me comfort, I confess—I thought back to my first domestic mistake. I was eleven years old, in the sixth grade, and had volunteered to make supper by myself for the first time.
The circumstances were odd because my mom always made supper, but my older siblings were out of the house by then and she had finally taken a part-time job working at the Hallmark store downtown. This winter night she had to work late, so it was just my dad and me, and I wanted badly to please him with a warm, home-cooked meal after his long workday out in woods, just like my mom would have done if she’d been there.
I charged myself with the task of making macaroni and cheese.
I read the directions on the box and understood what was involved: a pot of boiling water, a packet of cheese powder, the macaroni, some butter, some milk. We had all of that, so I got busy setting these items out assembly-line fashion so that I would not forget a step. My dad arrived home and hovered around for a few minutes, making sure to remind me not to tip the pot of boiling water on myself for the love of God and You don’t need to use a knife, remember that: NO KNIVES. He shook his head “no” violently while pointing at the knife drawer to emphasize his point. I got it.
My dad retreated to the family room with his briefcase; I would call him when supper was ready, just like my mother had always called us.
I read the directions on the box one more time before pouring the noodles into the boiling water. I set the timer for ten minutes longer than recommended because I remembered that my family liked their noodles very soft. I carefully poured the milk into a measuring cup and spooned an extra-large piece of butter off a stick from the fridge, because I remembered that my family liked lots of butter, plus I was not supposed to use a knife. I used scissors to cut the top off the cheese packet, no ripping or tearing for me. This was an endeavor in precision.
When the noodles were nice and plump, I removed the pot from the stove and added the butter first, then the milk, and finally the powdered cheese. I stirred and stirred, waiting for this mixture to turn into the gooey pile of macaroni and cheese that my mom sometimes made—not often, just for special occasions. But no matter how much I stirred, for some reason the cheese was not clinging to the noodles. Nor was the cheese or the milk.
“How’s it going in there?” my dad shouted from the living room.
“Pretty good!” I yelled back. “Just a few minutes!”
Probing the depths of my scientific knowledge, I tried to figure out what was wrong with the macaroni and cheese. Had it been a flawed box, or a cursed box? Had it come from that movie where the girl’s head spun around and they had to call a priest? What was wrong with this box of macaroni and cheese!? Although I was having my first-ever anxiety attack, I knew that I could not be responsible for this outcome because I had followed the directions to a T.
I quickly set the table for two, put out the salt and pepper shakers, and called for my dad. With my heart in my throat, I watched him round the corner into the kitchen looking proud and cheerful: his baby was growing up, making supper for the first time. He came over to where I was still standing, staring into the pot of macaroni and cheese.
“Something went wrong,” I said, dying a little.
“Well honey,” he said, peering into the pot, “you forgot to drain the water.”
Drain the water? I looked at the box again, that rotten box with the bad directions, and there it was, the second step: “Drain.” I had never used a colander before; colanders did not exist in my eleven-year-old worldview—only pots and fry pans. I must have blocked that step out, and now we had macaroni and cheese soup.
Dying a little more, I asked, “What are we gonna to do?” I waited for the words “throw it out.”
“We’re gonna eat it!” my dad said.
He told me to go sit down and I did. Somehow he got the noodles out of the water—the bloated, orange-tinted noodles—and into bowls. He set one down in front of me and one at his place, then we said a prayer and dug into our essence of macaroni and cheese.
I had the habit of asking my dad what food needed pepper and what needed salt. At eleven, I had not yet developed my own taste or standards for seasoning; I always watched my dad to see what he did with the shakers. This time was no different.
“Does it need salt?” I asked.
“Yes, it definitely needs salt.”
“Does it need pepper?” I asked.
“It needs quite a bit of pepper,” my dad said. “It’s already very tasty, but pepper will help.”
He asked me about my day, as my mother would have if she’d been home, and when we were done eating he cleared the table, again just like my mother. He excused me and I bundled up before running outside into the freezing cold of a winter night, the air biting my cheeks and nose. I went to sit with our dog and cried into his fur.
Thirty years later, I hold onto a worn blue blanket just like I hold onto my macaroni and cheese story. My dad taught me to make the best of a bad situation, to not waste, and to find new uses for what others might throw out. I have big plans for my blue cobweb, now resting on my couch, waiting to help me spin and spin again.