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Esther Aarts
Esther Aarts

The Adjective That Best Describes Real Life

Maybe you feel the same?

Yellow petals lay across the blue top of the dresser in my dining room that holds linens. They are brittle and curled, and I can’t recall when we had flowers that color. How long had the petals been there? Was it Thanksgiving? That was months ago.

I don’t move to sweep the petals up. I don’t even consider it, and for a moment … I wonder why. What’s wrong with me that I don’t notice or care about little messes like this?

But then I am back to the task at hand, sorting through boxes from my childhood before my own children return home for the day. Through pictures and postcards, letters and report cards, I piece together the bits I’ve largely discarded from my memory: the laughter and the tears, the darkness and the light. A true life is filled with these contrasts.

In childhood, the days were long and the responsibilities were minimal. Someone else was responsible for not just making the meals, but also purchasing all the food to make them. Back then, opening the fridge meant clean shelves with neatly stored food stuffs — because someone else made it so.

My fridge isn’t clean. Yesterday I found a stray hair from my daughter’s head dangling from a shelf, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how it got there. I removed that promptly.

The shelves aren’t sparkling. I am trying to avoid saying they are dirty, but the truth is they are. Not horribly so, but it’s still not the clean fridge of my childhood.

In the drawers, forgotten vegetables rot. In the door, a garden of condiments and salsas lurks. Only the cheese drawer seems relatively OK, but even that sometimes hides a forgotten package filled with mold.

Why am I like this? More importantly, why am I not like my grandmother — the woman who made sure the fridge always sparkled? Or my mom, who did it too? I have to admit: my life can be described as messy.

The answers aren’t in my photos. But in between the compliments on my schoolwork and the suggestion that if only I applied myself my grades would shine, there are some hints. For the things that interest me, I am all in — that’s why I cook creative meals and write so much. But for the things I am not interested in, my effort wanes. So many teachers said so. And it’s still true.

I don’t remember ever seeing anyone cleaning the inside of the fridge as a child. But perhaps, much like the school lectures I have long since forgotten, I just don’t remember. I mean, they must have. I didn’t know fridges could even look dirty like this until mine was. For someone who cooks as much as I do and writes about food, it’s horrifying how bad I am at ensuring all the leftovers get eaten, the veggies used and the shelves wiped down regularly. It’s also alarming how little I typically care about it.

There are so many other things to do, worry about, accomplish. Cleaning my fridge isn’t a priority for me.

That’s really it, isn’t it? In the refrigerator of my childhood, there were rarely leftovers. My grandmother made a practice of making only what we could eat in a single meal. Or maybe there were leftovers, and we just didn’t keep them. I don’t really know.

In my mother’s house, there were sometimes leftovers. Those coveted containers would become my stepfather’s lunch or my snack. We’d vie for them, hoping the other wouldn’t remember they were there. My kids eat leftovers. The best dishes are scurried away, ready to be reheated for lunch. But some never get eaten: the spare vegetables I didn’t roast or dress in a memorable way, the leftover taco meat or cilantro lime rice, the forgotten shards of shredded lettuce or finely diced fresh tomatoes. No one wants them.

I wish we had a compost bin. When I was first separated and learned that fridges don’t clean themselves (read into that what you will), I swore I would get the hang of home care. Eight years later, I am not sure I ever will.

Maybe that’s OK. Maybe that’s who I am. Maybe after all these years, I need to shed the shame I felt reading the teacher comments on so many things and instead embrace that I am perfectly imperfect — and that’s all right. After all, real life is messy. And so am I.

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