Fiction | Short Story

Viola’s Potatoes

A recipe born from necessity

Viola’s Potatoes


crouched behind the hedge as close to the ground as she could get. It was hard
to move in the winter coat and leggings Nana had stuffed her into. She had to
get low enough so that the bus driver would pass by her. Molly thought that if
she fell she’d be like a turtle on its back and never be able to right herself.
The merciless wool of the leggings made it almost impossible to bend her knees
and the boots over her tie shoes held her ankles rigid. The kid across the
street had polio and wore leg braces that slowed him down almost as much. She
wondered why he just didn’t put on boots over his shoes. It was probably easier
to walk in the braces, that’s why.

sighed when she thought of her boots. It was almost impossible to grasp that
stupid little pull on the zipper with her chubby fingers and if you left the
zipper down you were guaranteed to fall on your face and if you fell on your
face you’d suffocate in the snow. If the leggings and the boots weren’t enough
of an impediment to mobility, Nana added the winter coat which eliminated all flexibility
in Molly’s torso and arms. She felt like a giant stick figure. Even if she
could overcome all of these restrictions, Molly then came face to face with the
next obstacle in her day, the steps on the bus. They were impossible to
navigate without bending your ankles or knees. The driver would get so
impatient watching her struggle that he would lean over and grab Molly by the
collar of her coat and fling her into the front seat. Ordeal number two was
getting off the bus. The first few times Molly just stood on the top step and
hurled herself off and hoped for the best. Some teacher would always pick her
up off the ground. Some days she landed in a puddle, not a good omen for the upcoming
day. Molly finally figured out a less destructive method. The older kids always
pushed past the little ones to get off the bus first. She would slip in between
two big kids as they barreled down the aisle, the center of a kid sandwich,
elevated between their equally bizarre winter wardrobes. She would get swept
down the stairs and off the bus in a furrow of snowsuits. On a good day she
would land on her feet. Winter was hard for Molly.

that school was a picnic. Although the journey there was fraught with danger,
her anxiety over the return trip dominated her day. Molly dreaded lunch time
because that was followed by nap time which gave her twenty uninterrupted minutes
to stew over the likelihood of missing the bus home and having to sleep in the
cloak closet. Viola had made it clear to Molly that if she missed that school
bus in the afternoon she would have to spend the night at school because they
had no other way to get her home. Hence, Molly’s terror about the gauntlet of
winter clothes she needed to run to catch her bus. All of the clothing and
additional paraphernalia that terrorized her morning and movement now had to be
done in reverse. Nana was capable of bending her body in unnatural directions
in order to get everything buttoned, tied, laced, zipped, and secured. Molly
was not. Winter was proving to be too long.

there was the rabid race with thirty other five year olds to the closet doors.
The doors, along the back wall of the classroom, were in a series of panels
which swung open on a pivot. She knew she had to get there quickly if she was
going to collect her clothing, but get there too soon and she would get
walloped in the face by the door as it opened and then flung across the room.
Molly would go from first to last with one twist of the door. Then she would
never be able to get her stuff off the hooks and she’d be left with three
mismatched boots, all lefts, none of which were hers. The teacher wouldn’t
allow any child to leave without boots so she would have to squeeze her feet,
socks, shoes, leggings, into two left footed ones, and figure out a how to pull
up two leftie zippers. Thank god the hat and mittens were attached to the coat.
Molly would hobble along with two left feet, unable to bend a single body
joint. Then she would stand at the door of the bus and wait for the driver to
scream at her before grabbing the front of her coat and hurling her up. She was
actually jealous of the kid with polio because he was placed on the bus first. Her
humiliation would be complete once they arrived at her stop. She would wait to
be the last one off, and then throw herself from the top step. Another awful
day had come to an end. All the other kids had walked away and only the boy
with polio was left to help her. The irony of this was not lost on Molly.

entire year of her life was dominated by winter clothes. Molly knew she was
never going to survive this much trauma on a daily basis for much longer. She
had no idea why she went to school. Was something supposed to happen once she
got there? By the time she recovered from the wretched events of getting to
school, it was time to start fretting about getting home from school. It was a
giant endurance test. Molly figured that the purpose of school was to teach you
how to get there and get home alive. If, after one year, you survived, they
would promote you to the next grade. That grade would require you to master
some additional life skill which she was certain would kill her if this didn’t.

the solution appeared Molly was pleased with the simplicity of the plan. She
was also a little annoyed with herself  for
taking so long. She’d wasted weeks wearing two left boots and flying off the
top step of the school bus. If she didn’t go to school in the first place, then
there would not be any need to catch the bus to come home and that would eliminate
all of her anxiety. Come spring, things would be okay. Every morning Molly
would hide behind the hedge till the bus pulled away and then she would wander
home. The other kids never gave her away because they admired her and frankly,
were a little afraid of her. Molly became a little kindergarten legend.

lived with her Nana, Viola, who had grown up on the Watchung Reservation. That
is only important because it shaped the way Viola navigated the world. She had
a healthy disrespect for convention. Essentially, she didn’t see how rules and laws
pertained to her, or Molly. They had never helped her so she was not about to
let them hinder her. Viola had been an outsider her whole life and wasn’t
interested in fitting in this late in the game. She had to stick around long
enough to get this child grown and make sure that Molly had what she needed to
survive. Viola wanted Molly to be resilient and independent and strong and more
than a little smart. If Molly was going to be a woman in this world she would
need everything Viola could teach her and Viola would teach Molly plenty. Each
was the only person the other one had in the world and they were devoted to
each other. From the time she was three Molly had been with Viola and that is
when her memories began. Whatever came before that was long gone and of no
importance. Right here, right now, is what counted.

Molly started kindergarten Viola was eighty years old and had been in a wheel
chair for five years. This never caused a problem because she could maneuver
that thing with the skill of an air force pilot. Whatever she could not do,
Molly could. She grew up thinking that every kid owned someone in a wheelchair
who would lift you to counter tops and cabinets. She didn’t remember any other
way. This was her normal. They were an impressive team and loved each other
with the ease that other people breathe. All of this explains why Molly could
figure things out and found nothing odd about throwing herself off the bus. You
just do what it takes to get the job done.

accepted the story that Molly had missed the bus and there was nothing to do
about it. She would just have to stay home. Viola was pleased that Molly had
figured out a plan as quickly as she had because Viola was getting a little
concerned about those nose dives off the bus steps. She came up with the hedge
plan pretty quickly which confirmed to Viola that Molly was a sharp cookie.
There was much to teach Molly in the time remaining to Viola and school was
getting in the way. Molly and Viola spent the rest of the winter together just
as they always had, with Molly reading to Viola, who had taught Molly a year
ago. By the time spring rolled around, when the school people came hunting for
her, she had learned to print. But that was not all Molly learned that winter.

lived next door and was Viola’s friend, or at least Marta thought so. It was
hard to tell with Viola, she played things close to the vest. Marta felt badly
for the old lady, raising such a young child with no help, not that Viola needed
help. She never needed assistance with the little girl, who Marta adored. She’d
never been blessed with children, at least not yet. There was still time
although she wasn’t sure if Emil would be a good father. She couldn’t allow him
to be as …rough with a child as he was with her. He wasn’t a bad man; he just
wasn’t a good man. That was the price she had paid to get out of Poland during
the war; Marta thought of it that way – barter, a transaction. She lived in a
little cape cod in New Jersey on a quiet street with a volatile man who went to
work every day and paid all the bills. She kept his house, washed his clothes,
ironed his shirts and cooked Polish food for him and every time he belted her
Marta would think how much worse it would be back in Poland. Barter. What else
could she do? She knew very little English and who would care anyway?

a week Emil would drive Marta to the grocery store where she would buy their
food and whatever the old lady needed. He didn’t understand why she bothered
but as long as it didn’t interfere with his life it was okay. What he didn’t
know was that Viola was teaching Marta English and keeping an eye on him. Viola
recognized the signs and she knew how to take care of him. She’d have to be
careful this time because she wasn’t on the reservation anymore. Things were
different out here.

looked forward to the afternoon when she would bring over the groceries and
while putting them on the shelves Viola would teach her English. Marta learned
to read along with Molly and after that the printing was easy as pie. She knew
they were fearless people and hoped it would rub off on her. How else could
that little girl throw herself off the bus everyday and who else could she have
learned it from? Sometimes she would have a little trouble hiding the bruises,
but Marta thought she managed it pretty well. The black eye was easy to hide
with makeup. Viola never said a word but sometimes Marta would catch Molly
looking at her very intently. The child would crawl up onto Viola’s lap and
whisper in her ear.

“Today, Nana?”

Sometimes Viola would
shake her head “no.” Sometimes she would give Molly the go ahead.

“Yes, today you should
use a bit more turnips with the mashed potatoes. Can you fix this while I talk
with Marta?”

Molly would race off to
the mud room for the potatoes and turnips. She would bring them back and Viola
would prepare them for the pot while Marta put the water on to boil. They would
cook and the women would talk. When it was time for Marta to leave, Viola would
give her a bowl of mashed potatoes that Molly had prepared. Molly knew that an
increase in turnips signaled an increase in other ingredients as well. Marta
was always amazed at how smoothly Molly could blend the turnips into the
potatoes. Viola had taught her well. It did seem, however, that lately Molly
was increasing the amount of turnips. No matter, Emil always loved Molly’s
mashed potatoes with turnips.

“You are too good to
us. You don’t have to make these potatoes for us.” Marta would smile, take the
bowl and stroke Molly’s curls before she would leave.

“Oh, but we do,” Viola
would say. “And remember what I told you before…”

Marta would laugh and interrupt,
“I know, I know.  No potatoes for me.
Turnips are not good for a woman wanting to have a baby. But they smell so
good. Could you make them once without the turnips?”

“No!” Molly and Viola
answered in unison.

“Besides,” Viola
continued, “Emil likes the turnips. We’d hate to disappoint him.”

poor Emil had something wrong with his digestive system, a delicate stomach
perhaps. Sometimes he vomited after eating, not always but he seemed to have
difficulty digesting things. The doctor could find nothing wrong and told him
to chew more carefully but his distress seemed to be more and more frequent. When
Marta broke her arm Viola sent Molly over with an extra large serving of mashed
potatoes. Emil must have eaten in a rush and not chewed carefully because he
was sick differently this time. The diarrhea lasted for close to a week. He was
not quite himself for almost another week after that.  At least Marta’s arm healed quickly and that
was a blessing.

returned to school in the spring and summer arrived just in time to keep her
from going stir crazy. So far they hadn’t taught her anything new and she’d
rather run in the fields behind the house and collect berries for Nana. Warm
weather clothing made it harder for Marta to disguise her clumsiness. With each
passing month she grew more and more ungainly. Viola had been right.
Eliminating turnips had been the trick to getting pregnant. Viola was now
concerned about Marta’s ability to stay pregnant. She needed to be more careful
if she was going to bring this baby to term. Viola disagreed with Marta about
Emil not being a bad man. She though perhaps Marta was too forgiving for her
own good. Viola well remembered her own “awkwardness” and how it had ended her
pregnancy.  After she had lost that first
baby she wasn’t about to let anything, or anyone, jeopardize her next one.  Just about the same time she perfected her
mashed potatoes with turnips recipe. She always told everyone the turnip was
the secret ingredient but that wasn’t exactly true.

had invented her recipe by accident, but perfected it by intention. Like Marta
she was young and married a not so good man in order to escape. Like Marta she
found herself stuck in a world that wasn’t shocked by the bruises her
clumsiness caused. One afternoon, after a particularly brutal night, Viola was
in the mud room mashing potatoes for dinner. Her anger was so overwhelming that
she pulverized that bowl of potatoes. She slammed that masher down and banged
it so hard that the counter shook beneath her rage. Her eye was swollen shut
and, in all fairness to Viola, she didn’t see the bar of lye soap fall off the
shelf and mashed a corner of it in before she realized what she had done. She
stopped immediately and pulled out the bar and was going to start over with a
new batch of potatoes. Then Viola thought that the addition of a turnip might
mask the taste of the lye and also slow down her husband a bit. Of course at
dinner that night she deferred to him and the fool put away extra helpings. For
the next couple of days he was too sick to raise himself out of bed much less
raise a hand to her. God knows he had it coming.

life continued like that for awhile. She figured it out for herself because
society never gave her a method of recourse. Viola now knew she had a means of restraint
and retaliation, she was not powerless. A jury of women would have found her
innocent. With every addition of lye, she would increase the number of turnips.
Before her pregnancy she only made the potatoes to slow him down, give her a
breather. When she became pregnant again she knew too much was at stake. Viola
knew what had happened the last time and it would not happen again because
there was a simple remedy. So the next batch of mashed potatoes was mixed with
an unusually large number of turnips. Everyone thought it sad that she was such
a young widow, and pregnant too. They marveled at her strength. Viola would
pinch herself so she wouldn’t laugh out loud.  She carried this pregnancy to full term and
raised her child in peace. Last winter in between reading and printing, Viola
taught Molly the recipe for mashed potatoes and when it was necessary in life
to add turnips. Molly knew the difference between right and wrong and now, what
was necessary.

came over one afternoon and the makeup around her jaw had smeared in the heat
of the day. Now the time was right and necessary to help Marta correct a wrong.
The time for merely slowing Emil down had passed. This time Molly mashed all
the ingredients on the kitchen table in front of Marta. This time Viola added
the full dosage of turnips to keep Marta safe. Not a word was spoken among them
because it wasn’t necessary. All three knew that later that night, when Molly
brought over the bowl, Emil would eat the potatoes, and he did. All three knew
he would never hit Marta again, and he didn’t.

they buried Emil, but before the baby was born, Marta sold the house and moved
in across the street. Her daughter became a little sister to Molly and they all
lived together for a long, long time. Viola died when Molly was sixteen because
she could. She had taught Molly everything she would ever need to figure things
out in her life. Molly in turn taught her sister.

two women grew up to be good people and fearless mothers. Life came and went
with the usual ebb and flow of events. Sometimes they made mistakes, like their
mothers and grandmothers before them. When you know the difference between
right and wrong and when certain things are necessary, it is possible to lead
very ordinary lives in extraordinary ways. They both taught their daughters to figure
things out, be brave and dive off the top step when it was necessary to save
yourself. They both added turnips to their mashed potatoes and taught their
daughter to, also. The flavor of a turnip could cover a world of culinary
mishaps. At family gatherings someone, although never the husbands, would
always beg for stories of Viola and her legendary turnips because it was such a
great family myth.  Molly let them think