It is August. I am lying on my Marimekko bedspread in my room at home and the house is filled with the smell of ratatouille. My mother makes a huge batch every year at this time, and my parents eat it with everything and serve it at dinner parties until the well runs dry and the last scrap of eggplant has been devoured with a forkful of rice. She makes it on a Saturday, listening to the Texaco Metropolitan Opera broadcast while my father sits in his office finishing the syllabus for Humanities 105 amid a pile of books about Renaissance art. I passionately hate the opera, which is why my door is closed and I have headphones clamped over my ears. She will store the stuff in a huge pottery bowl, a bumpy, nubbly thing in ombre creams and browns. I find it a little déclassé, that bowl, just as I am occasionally troubled by the fact that we do not live in a house with both a living room and a family room. It is, I understand in some vague way, part and parcel of having parents who spend money on trips to Europe and Maine and drive used Ford station wagons, who listen to Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and take me to McGovern rallies.
I will not eat the ratatouille, having taken my requisite “no thank you bite” some time in kindergarten. I think it is gross, slimy, dark and clumpy. I do not eat eggplant except when my mother makes her famous Eggplant Soufflé which converts many eggplant haters over the years. She is good at that, cooking things people usually hate and making them into something disarming and sublime. I will gladly eat the eggplant soufflé, and the garlicky grilled lamb in pita bread, but I can’t bring myself to eat her ratatouille.
The smell, though, the slowly cooking zucchini, tomato, eggplant, onion and garlic, is a fragrant index finger pointing me towards fall, school, cooler air, bags of apples, and new clothes in hunter green and deep burgundy. Lying on my bed I am surrounded by the Back-to-School issues of “Seventeen,” “Glamour” and “Mademoiselle.” They came out in July, while we were still in Maine, living in a cottage on Boyden Lake. I bought them at the Rexall when we went into Eastport to do laundry, buy groceries and get books out of The Peavey Memorial Library where I checked out and read all of the Nancy Drew mysteries every single summer until I started college. I had sat at the dilapidated table in the cottage paging earnestly through the extra-thick, glossy grails of fashion over and over again, asking my mother to look at the bell bottoms I liked, or the sweater with the little belt at the waist.
We could not shop until we went home again, but I could plan, bend back corners, change my mind, and imagine myself strolling magnificently into orchestra or algebra in my Levi’s cords, Famolare shoes and cute sweater. I am not particularly cute, but I feel my annual surge of hope as I look at ads for Love’s Fresh Lemon, Twice As Nice shampoo, and Clearasil. I have been swimming in the lake all summer, and walking the mile to get fresh water from the Artesian well at the main house, my hair is lighter from the sun and my skin looks better with a light tan. Lying on my back, pushing aside the spine of a magazine, I check my stomach – it feels flat. It’s a good start, and with the right stuff I will make my curly hair into golden Farrah feathers, my spotted skin into the rosy, glowing face I see in the Bonne Bell ads and my hearty peasant body into something long, lithe and covetable in a leather jacket and a little dab of musk.
We will have shopping trips, my mother and I; we will go to the Jacobson’s Miss J Shop for sweaters, upstairs to buy shoes, and then to the Levi store for bell-bottomed cords in colors reminiscent of the hated ratatouille. I will get my hair cut at Staci’s Swinging Coiffures, where Sally will purse her glossy pink lips and remind me that “curly haired gals” need to be sure to blow dry all the moisture out if we want our hair to stop frizzing by lunchtime. Despite her earthy, lefty habits, my mother is the daughter of a Hungarian Princess, and she understands the transformative power of having shiny hair, beautiful clothes and a dresser covered with perfume bottles.
I will call my cello teacher and set up my lesson time for the school year, and I will start practicing again in earnest, after months of sitting on the deck at the cottage and playing Bach suites because I like the way the notes seem to float out across the woods and over the lake, reaching the loons, and unseen people rowing out to see if they can catch some fish for dinner. I will begin calling my friends, riding my bike to their houses to make sure that the delicate filaments of adolescent fellowship are still strong enough to bear the weight of a new school year of crushes, algebra tests and the lunchroom jungle. I will buy new notebooks and write my schedule on the back of one with dashes for each unexplained absence I am permitted. I need to be able to mark them off as I go, and to use my entire allotment of absences in math, science and social studies; I will never miss a day of orchestra or English.
I do not know then, cannot imagine this life where I am the mother, the cook, and the arbiter of school shopping. I have become a lover of opera, of eggplants, of Bohemian living far from the showy, unused “living rooms” of the suburbia I once envied. I am planning to make ratatouille this weekend, using my mother’s recipe. I feel that change in the air, the pulse of summer lassitude quickening to autumn’s insistent rhythm. My own child will not eat ratatouille, and he will flee to his room when I plug in my iPhone and blast “Tosca” through the kitchen speakers. He will not be looking at magazines, though – he is not a reader, not a musician, not tormented by dark doubts about his looks or his place in the world. He will be playing Xbox Live and texting, and scheming to buy new bearings for his longboard. It is different, and it is the same, the years of my life bound together by the smell of roasting vegetables, the silky ascent of a soprano voice, and the change in seasons.
I wonder if she still has that bowl.