I’m making Cornetti, grating orange zest, and adding it to the dough.
While I do so the children are arguing about which way up the forks and knives have to go in the dishwasher cutlery basket.
My daughter says that the only reason she doesn’t load the dishwasher is that my son complains that she doesn’t do it properly.
“If I put the plates in you just rearrange them until you have them the way you want them,” she tells him.
“If you don’t put them in properly they won’t clean,” he says, containing his annoyance quite well.
It’s a familiar conversation and one in which I am caught in the middle because I agree with my daughter but also understand my son’s frustration.
The fragrance of zest takes me back to a time when I was a child and my father used to peel me an orange every evening. I don’t recall how the ritual began.
He would sit on the stairs or sometimes at the top of the cellar steps where he had been polishing the shoes, and he would shave the peel off with his knife in one long piece. Then he would segment the fruit and put the pieces in a dish.
When I got older I didn’t want an orange anymore but my father still peeled one, sometimes eating it himself but mostly leaving it segmented in a dish where I’d find it in the morning, its skin hardened and dry.
My mother would not contain her exasperation,
“Why do you keep peeling him an orange? He doesn’t eat it.”
“Because I want to,” he’d say, stomping off up the stairs, often slamming the kitchen door behind him.
After my son has packed the dishwasher and I’ve asked my daughter to wipe the table, a task where the method is unimportant to anyone, she shows me a post on her Insta feed.
It’s from a woman who had found herself stuck in a rut unable to do anything to help herself until her therapist, trying to get her wheels turning, asked her,
“What problem will you think about when you get home?”
“The dirty dishes,” she said.
“They’ll be in the sink piling high, with food dried on so hard that the dishwasher won’t clean them unless I run it twice, and I can’t run the dishwasher twice.”
“Why not?” her therapist asked.
At that moment she realised that she didn’t know whose rules she was living by and, once that was clear, she was liberated to stop living by them.
My mother didn’t understand why my father wanted to keep peeling the oranges
My daughter doesn’t understand why my son needs the forks to be the right way up.
My son doesn’t understand that my daughter couldn’t give a stuff about the forks.
None of us know anything about the rules other people live by or why.
In it, she describes the beauty of trivial pleasures, like peeling an orange.
Years after his death it became plain that my father had been largely unhappy and that maybe that single thin curl of peel gave him something that the rest of us couldn’t see.
As Cheryl Strayed once wrote in “Tiny Beautiful Things” to a man wondering about how to live by rules he couldn’t understand and didn’t need to observe anyway,
“We’re all going to die, Johnny. Hit the bell like it’s dinnertime.”