Naomi White: Powdered Milk

naomi-whiteNaomi White is a member of the Tuesday night writing practice class. She wrote this piece in response to the prompt, “Write about your childhood kitchen with as much concrete, sensory detail as possible.”

It was a sticky Sunday afternoon in July and we had had just come home from a prayer meeting:  mom, dad, my younger sister Judith, a large handful of people in their early 20’s who lived with my family in what was called a Christian household, and I.  We filled two units of a four-plex in northern Minneapolis, shared meals and prayed together regularly. Family friends lived in the third unit and a trio of aged Swedish sisters lived across the hall from us in the fourth.

Ana, Inga and Regna Gulla were all in their 80’s and had been in the US for 60 years. One was a widow and the other two had never married. Judith and I would occasionally go over for tea parties and to play dress up with their hats from the old country. Smelling slightly musty and covered with netting, sparkling cut glass beads, dyed feathers and silk flowers, those hats transported us to another time and we modeled them while the sisters clapped their soft, wrinkled hands in delight and complimented us in thickly accented English.

I was enchanted and my mother secretly horrified by the enormous free-range cockatoos that flapped through their living room and kitchen, roosted on top of the heavy burgundy velvet curtains, and shat wherever they pleased.  I tried to convince her that our yellow parakeet, Tweety, should have the same privileges, but she disagreed, so he stayed in his cage.

The three sisters adored my dad and showed their love by frequently cooking Swedish meatballs for him (not be confused with Sweet-ish Meatballs, the recipe to which I found in my mother’s United Methodist Church of Hillsboro, North Dakota cookbook a few years back whose main ingredients consisted of a jar of grape jelly and bottle of ketchup).  Their sharing of food wasn’t confined to my dad, however. Regna had a special fondness for wildlife and would leave a daily, orderly row of four still-in-the-shell peanuts on a window sill for the neighborhood squirrels. I loved to sit very still and wait for one to come right up to the glass and peer in while holding a papery shell in her little paws and industriously chewing through to find the peanut inside.

One day, as we entered through the dimly lit, shared downstairs hall and walked into the usually tidy living room, things felt different. Mom spoke first. “David.  Something’s not right.” We all stood still on the orange shag carpet and looked around. Small things. An afghan on the back of a recliner was no longer perfectly placed. One set of curtains hung askew. Several Burpee’s Seed Catalogues that had been neatly stacked on an end table were splayed on the floor. And then we all saw it at the same time.  A luxurious plume of grey squirrel tail sprouted from the hanging plant securely slung in a brown macramé holder near one of the windows.

Mom handed Judith to Mary, a sweet Canadian woman with a cheerful frizz of brown curls, grabbed the movie camera from the closet and tucked herself into a corner to record whatever came next. A thrill coursed through me. We had a WILD THING in the HOUSE.  The sheer audacity of that small outdoor-dwelling creature impressed me. I pulled a kitchen chair into the living room, climbed up and pulled my skirt tight to my legs as I’d seen women do in cartoons. I added 5-year-old encouragement and mock fright to the exciting chaos of trying to trap a panicked rodent who, by now had left the safety of his or her macramé haven and was racing around the living room, desperate for escape.

Tall, formal Air Force Mitch pulled cushions from the couch and attempted to herd it out. Steve with the enormous Adam ’s apple, who played the trumpet in the attic, flapped a crocheted afghan to shoo it out. Dad darted around the room, possibly reliving his college football days, trying to get close enough to the squirrel to chase it toward the open front door, held by bearded John who had promised me he’d grow his beard so long I could pluck the hairs and use them to string a necklace. One of the men’s rogue brothers, Eric, sat in an arm chair in a corner, trying to protect his foot from the mad scramble. He was just staying with us a few months to recover from having cut off his left big toe at his saw mill job for the insurance money. He had black hair and dark, twinkling eyes.  Meanwhile, I was shrieking for the sheer fun of it, pretending to be terrified that the squirrel would run up my legs and get tangled trying to hide in my short, fine, bowl-cut hair.

Finally, our harried and uninvited guest departed in a frantic dash through the front door and straight up the nearest tree, where it perched on a high branch and chattered at us furiously. Mary the Canadian and Air Force Mitch put the living room back into order while Dad put Judith down for a nap. Everyone else dispersed.

I followed Mom into the kitchen for a snack.  She’d left her weekly baking of ten loaves of whole wheat bread and a batch of lemon bars near an open window to cool down while we were gone. At least half bore traces of having been sampled by a set of very sharp and tiny teeth.  Mom wasn’t sure if you could get rabies from eating after a squirrel, so she methodically set about dumping the fresh loaves and several lemon bars into the trash. The squirrel’s boldness was understandable – I sometimes could barely refrain from sinking my teeth into a hot, brown loaf myself.  When mom wasn’t looking, I plucked a lemon bar from the top of the heap and ate the part untouched by the squirrel; I was willing to take my chances with rabies. We scrutinized the kitchen, trying to figure out how the squirrel had entered. And then it was obvious –  the screen door had been chewed through and a squirrel-sized hole made. Several long-ish tail hairs clung to the ragged, bitten edges. Mom picked the hairs off the torn screen, rolled them in a ball with her practical fingers and flicked it into the trash, right on top of the other lemon bars I had been planning on retrieving later. I hid my dismay.

John wandered into the kitchen, saw my downcast face and proposed that he and I make popcorn since bread and lemon bars were no longer an option. Mom agreed, so he grabbed me by the waist, hopped me up onto the avocado-colored counter top, pulled out his air popper and plugged it in. This popper was a gift that had been given to him recently. God told a friend that John needed an air popper and so she’d bought it, not realizing popcorn was his favorite snack.

I loved this man with all the fierceness a five-year-old girl has for someone willing to part with his beard so she can string necklaces with its wiry hair. We shared this popcorn ritual together at least once a week. He would plug it in, I’d flip the switch at its base and the machine would whir to life. I loved smelling the hot air flowing from the mouth of the popper, positioned directly over one of mom’s huge silver mixing bowls. John would measure out exactly one quarter cup of shiny yellow seeds, remove the top of the popper and let me pour the heavy seeds into its smooth black well while my face was blasted with rapidly heating air. I could feel the skin around my eyes getting tight and I’d blink against the rush of heat while watching the small seeds vibrate and dance. When I began to get worried that my eyeballs would dry out or that I’d get hit in the face with a prematurely popped kernel, I’d pull back,  John would replace the upper portion of the popper and we would wait.

There was a small, removable tray for the melting of butter positioned directly in the stream of air and popcorn and, just as the first kernel would come shooting up then ricochet down into the silver bowl, John would cut a generous square of butter from a stick in the fridge, push the pale greasy cube into that small tray and we’d watch it melt. By the time the quarter cup of corn had completely popped, we’d have a pool of melted butter to pour over top. I could see milk solids at the bottom, pale and seeming to bunch together like mean girls at recess, and rich transparent butter fat that would languidly float to the top in silken torpor. John would carefully lift the dish from the popper and, with a practiced turn of the wrist, expertly empty its content over our first batch, which we’d stir and happily sample, while making a second, and a third and finally a fourth batch so everyone could share.

That particular afternoon, we both were thirsty and so John opened the door of the dark brown Kenmore refrigerator with the squeaky door, hoping to find something other than powdered milk to drink. Unfortunately, that was our only option. The ubiquitous brown and orange Tupperware pitchers were in their normal places in the door, topped with cream-colored lids and color-coordinating buttons in the middle to release the seal. John lifted out the orange pitcher and brought it over to me. I pressed down on the button in the middle of its lid. With a sucking sound, the seal released and we both peered in. It was completely full and completely blue. Not watery, transparent non-fat powdered milk blue. Blue-green blue. Selsun Blue blue. Swimming pool tile blue. I’d forgotten about that. I wrinkled my nose, replaced the lid and John put the pitcher back into the fridge.

We decided to drink water. There was nothing about the powdered milk experience that made it even remotely acceptable to me, even at that young age. I hated the faint plastic flavor imparted to it by the Tupperware pitcher, its faint bluish color, what modern foodies would call an “unsatisfying mouth feel” due to the fact that it was a fat-free product, that it was trying to pretend to be milk when really it wasn’t anything like milk at all. The burst of concentrated milkiness would cling to my tongue from a random un-dissolved powder blob, and had its own distinct powdered milk fragrance when the pitcher would be left on the counter too long. Like spilled formula, dirty minivans, warm bottles.

Once, when Mom’s Aunt Jean Smillie (pronounced “Smiley”), who had lived on a farm in North Dakota her whole life, was visiting, she observed mom stirring up two new pitchers of milk and burst out, “But Deanna – that’s cat’s milk!” with all the outrage mustered up by someone used to drinking the unpasteurized whole-fat  product straight from the cow.

The week of the squirrel, mom  allowed me to experiment with a pitcher of milk in an attempt to make it more palatable. Since I always used red food coloring up first and then yellow when making play dough or finger paints or cookies, the only colors available to me in several sticky, squat plastic vials were blue and green. I fished them out of an aged cardboard cigar box where they shared nestled companionably with partially-burnt, frosting-encrusted trick birthday candles (the kind that you blow out but then they relight), an old bottle of silver dragees for decorating Christmas cookies, packets of soy sauce and a few tired twist-ties. With their tops on, they resembled nothing so much as enormous tear drops. I loved reading the back of their grease-stained packaging and seeing how to create different colors. One drop of red plus two of yellow equals orange. Two red and two yellow made salmon.  I had no idea what salmon was, nor how to pronounce it.  Sal-mon?

Anyhow, I had lots of blue and green food coloring at my disposal, so I colored the orange pitcher of already light blue-ish powdered milk a deep shade of teal with a healthy squirt from  both bottles. None of this three-drops-of-blue-and-three-drops-of-green equals blue-green. It turned out to be a truly lovely color. I couldn’t understand why no one wanted to drink it.  Mom was unwilling to throw it away, so I had my very own pitcher of milk for as long as it lasted. I don’t remember if she relented or not (she claims she did), but I do remember despairing at having to drink a whole half gallon of blue-green powdered milk all by myself.  John wouldn’t even help me with that one.

As an adult, I can think of a dozen ways to handle that situation. First and most obviously, down the drain. Second, mint extract, half a gallon of ice cream, a blender and a handful of chocolate chips. Third, mashed potatoes – tell your food snob friends you made it with blue potatoes from Peru. Fourth, use as a base for pureed broccoli cheese soup. Fifth – get it really cold and bring out a plate of warm home-made cookies. No one will even notice and if they do, they won’t care. Sixth…well…nothing else is occurring to me, so perhaps there are only five good uses for half a gallon of intensely colored powdered milk.

If you ask my mom about this, she’ll be indignant and maintain that she only started using powdered milk since her voracious milk-drinking habit created exorbitant bills with the milkman who made daily visits in those days. She’ll claim we never had to drink it straight, that she always mixed it half and half with regular milk. However, I have my doubts about that claim and, furthermore, maintain that one must never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Naomi White is a local high school Spanish teacher who has been writing stories since second grade when her homeroom teacher, Mrs. Buccos, discovered the fact that she was a story-teller and encouraged her to keep writing.  She lives in Santa Cruz with her three foster children and is excited about writing becoming a more intentional part of her life.

1 thought on “Naomi White: Powdered Milk”

  1. Naomi, I loved hearing this story out loud, and it’s really wonderful to see it in print. It’s just a terrific story. Thank you, Wendy.

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