My mother’s molcajete.

There are certain items in my parents’ house that are downright totemic.

On a shelf in their study, an official US Post Office scale from the 40s, its elegant detailed dial stilled after decades of bearing & measuring the heft of countless packages, ounce by ounce. My grandfather’s–my dad’s dad.

Under the bar connecting the kitchen to the living room, an iron & smoothed wood sewing machine with a still working foot pedal from the 30s, a real conversation piece. Miles of fabric have burnished the metal guide brackets to a crisp silver gleam. My grandfather’s–my mom’s dad.

Two men, fifteen miles apart their entire lives. Lives of honest work with their hands, with these tools. Work the town depended on, where everyone knew everyone by first name. Generations along those dusty Starr County streets.

And then there’s mom’s molcajete.

Boutique kitchen shops sell the smooth white marble variety, a device better suited to a medieval apothecary than a Mexican kitchen. They call it a mortar & pestle. We call it a molcajete, although technically it’s supposed to be called a molcajete (the bowl) and a tecolote (the grinder). I’m not going to call it that–we never did, never will.

People walk by the molcajete there on the kitchen island. (What a lovely word for this space in our homes–island. I don’t know what they call it in other languages in other homes. This spot that isn’t the fire, isn’t the water of the kitchen. An island of food in the ocean of family, an island of fecundity & fellowship.)

On the kitchen island, a squat rough small volcanic thing. Look close & I’d swear you can see remnants that can never be ground or washed out. Maybe a sharp corner of anise or an eyelash-thin thread of a garlic peel. The pepper pops under her strong loving hand, leaning her whole body into the rotating motion–deep from her shoulder through the palm of her hand, willing the pieces unmeasured into perfect proportion. Decades & generations of family later, everything she creates is always just right.

The rice begins to steam. Mid-conversation, mid-instructions to my father, she sidesteps from island to flame, scraping the pasty earthiness into the pan. A quick stir and then back to the sink. A tablespoon of water to eke out the last little bit before the onions & peppers get sliced and added. My sister & I argue over the rice that gets overdone at the bottom of the pan, the rice that peels off the rest like its own thin rich bloodbrown cake of flavor & motherly love. (She overcooks it deliberately now. Just for us.)

And after dinner, it sits where it began, a low peak on the center of her island. Pockmarked & uneven, blackened & alive, fragrant with the subtlest power.

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