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Checking out sounds, rhythms of home


IT WAS AN ordinary day in the workweek, but I didn't go to work. Instead I stayed home, taking medicine and naps, going through the winter ritual of recovering from the flu.

For some reason -- maybe it was a break in the normal routine, maybe it was a side effect of the medication -- I became keenly interested in the rhythms, sounds and aromas surrounding a day of household meals.

Meals struck me as the main event of the family circus, the nerve center of the domestic enterprise.

The day began with the aroma of coffee. It wafted up the stairs, greeting our family of four as we lumbered to the kitchen for breakfast. On weekends, coffee-making is a leisurely activity. It doesn't commence until an adult manages to shuffle to the kitchen.

But on weekday mornings, time is tight, and the coffee maker, like the alarm clock, is prepped for action the night before. When I woke up, I had a difficult time remembering what day it was, but the aroma of coffee verified it was a Monday.

The kitchen stirred to life, producing more aromas. Toasted slices of bread -- some for breakfast, some for school lunches -- flew from the toaster. Oranges were sliced, sending a scent of the tropics into the dim Baltimore morning.

At the kitchen table, there was little in the way of conversation, but there was some noise. Bowls of cereal were crunched. Sections of newspapers were shuffled.

Over at the stove, the kettle of water whistled, signaling it was ready to be added to a powder to produce a cup of commuter's hot chocolate. The chocolate would be sipped in an insulated, lidded cup by the younger of our two teen-age sons as he rode to school.

Sometimes on car-pool mornings, the cup holders in our car runneth over. One side of the device holds my insulated, lidded cup of coffee, and the other holds the kid's insulated, lidded cup of hot chocolate.

But this morning was a one-commuter-cup morning. I would not be driving. Abruptly, the breakfast eaters pushed away from the table. Books, bags and lunches were gathered. A brief announcement was made of the evening's logistics -- who was getting picked up where. The kitchen door slammed several times.

Breakfast, the first feeding of day, had ended. The house was suddenly silent.

The quiet was unsettling, especially as I was sitting in the kitchen. Kitchens are at their best when they are in a hubbub. So I did my best to add clamor. I ran the dishwasher and made considerable commotion by pulling a frozen chicken from the freezer, hoping it would thaw in time to be supper's star attraction. I also baked a couple of loaves of bread, filling the house with soothing, yeasty odors.

I slept through lunch, napping on an upstairs sofa as a strong afternoon sun streamed through the windows. I didn't mind. Lunch with friends can be a tonic. But a lonesome lunch is often just the opposite, a downer.

As sunlight faded, I resurrected, reappearing in the kitchen just as one of the kids returned from school, letting himself in the back door. It was about half past 4, the shank of the afternoon. In the adult world, this is often the time of day to make a final push, a concentrated effort to accomplish something before heading home.

For kids arriving home from school, it is time for refueling. This 13-year-old kid had an empty tank. I watched as he pulled leftovers from the refrigerator -- roast beef, potatoes, gravy -- and reheated them in the microwave. For an adult, this amount of food would constitute the last meal of the day. But for a growing boy, it was a mere pause on the road. I knew he would be back at the table two hours later for supper.

The kid went upstairs to wrestle with the vagaries of eighth-grade mathematics. I stayed in the kitchen wrestling with the partially frozen chicken. As I struggled, trying to remove the neck and hearts from the center of the bird, I thought that if I ever had to hide the Hope Diamond from a gang of thieves, I'd stick it in the middle of a chicken, along with the heart and gizzards, and freeze them. It is an extremely inaccessible spot.

Eventually, I got the chicken thawed. Then I stuffed it with oranges and onions, sprinkled the bird with orange juice and put it in the oven, filling the kitchen with pleasant smells -- and me with great expectations of a pleasurable evening.

At 6:30, the chicken was roasted, the couscous fluffed, the bread sliced, table set and salad spun. The small culinary symphony known as supper was ready to begin, but the audience was missing. Our older son and his mother were not home yet. Supper sat on the stove, while the cook steamed. I reminded myself of the many times the roles had been reversed, and my late arrival had held up supper.

I switched on the television news to see what the rest of the world had accomplished during the day. Not much. Monica Lewinsky was in Washington again, and being questioned again. The only new information uncovered seemed to be that Monica likes Caesar salads. She had one for lunch.

A little after 7, car doors slammed, the kitchen door opened, and the second shift arrived offering explanations -- got stuck at the office, traffic was slow -- and announcing they were starving. The call, "Supper's ready," brought everyone to the kitchen table.

There, the chicken was devoured, couscous inhaled, the salad savaged. In a little more than 30 minutes, supper was over. Apparently, it was a success. Every one took second helpings. But no one noticed the orange peel I had stuck under the chicken skin. This was a weeknight meal, where food was fuel, not art.

Once again, family members abruptly pushed away from the table. Duty summoned them to upstairs computer terminals and schoolbooks. I stayed in the kitchen, loading the dishwasher, wrapping up leftovers, assessing the day.

The day had produced a couple of loaves of bread, a roast chicken and maybe a new insight or two into the elemental rhythms of daily life.

Pub Date: 02/10/99

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