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first person

Illustration by Wenting Li

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Some of my earliest memories are of helping my mom in the kitchen. Actually, trying to help is probably a better way of putting it; I mostly remember being told to be careful, that I was doing things wrong, that I was going to ruin whatever we were making. Baking with my mother taught me that in order to be worthwhile I had to be perfect, and being perfect meant being obedient and quiet, making myself small.

I learned where to stand – not so close that I’d be in my mother’s way, but close enough that I couldn’t get into any mischief. I became an expert in handing over the right measuring cup at the right time. Sometimes I even got to do the dishes – but only if I was careful not to splash and make a mess. I became a perfect kitchen helper, always in the background, watching and waiting for instruction. And that worked great, until the times when my mom fell into depression and stayed in bed for days at a time. Then I was left to fend for myself.

By the time I was seven, I had mastered marshmallow squares and no-bake macaroons. I took pride in my kitchen prowess, especially after I discovered the secret to an elevated Kraft Dinner (frozen peas!). Being independent in the kitchen made me feel creative and competent – until mom got up to take her meds. I’d always save her a few bites of whatever I’d cooked up, but the only thing she ever acknowledged was the mess I’d made. She’d look at the crumbs on the counter or dishes in the sink, shake her head and go back to bed without a word. I wasn’t as impressive as I thought.

As I got older, I cooked less and less. When mom was sick I’d sneak a credit card from her wallet and order pizza. I moved out at 17 and that Christmas, my mother bought me enough kitchen supplies to run a small restaurant. Where she got the impression I’d have the confidence to use an immersion blender or silicone loaf pans, I don’t know. Everything sat untouched. On the rare occasion I had company, food came from the store; I couldn’t risk making something myself and revealing my incompetence.

It wasn’t just about the kitchen, of course. The fear of being found out seeped into every area of my life, and I grew into a woman afraid to make a move in case I got caught making a mistake. At work and in relationships, I strove unconsciously to be what my mother had taught me was ideal: obedient, quiet and small. Few would consider that a recipe for a fulfilling life, but it got me through the day without things crashing around me. Until it didn’t.

One lazy Sunday a few years ago, a newish boyfriend suggested we make scones. I was terrified. It had been years since I’d been mom’s helper in the kitchen. The stakes were high – what if I made a mistake and he realized I wasn’t nearly as impressive as I’d fooled him into believing I was?

The scones turned out pretty well, but the guy still ended things not long after. I was devastated. I thought I had been the perfect partner, both in the kitchen and in our relationship. I followed his lead, never asked for anything and was always there when he needed me. What more did I need to be or do for him in order to be worthy of love?

I was asking exactly the wrong question, of course. What I had learned standing next to my mother in the kitchen ­– to sacrifice my own desires and impulses in favour of shaping myself into what I imagined others wanted – had stuck like a muffin in an ungreased tin. And it kept me stuck living in constant fear of being found out.

The only way to unlearn the lessons was by trying a new recipe.

I decide on banana bread. I check and double check that I have everything I need, reciting the recipe like an incantation: flour, butter, sugar, baking soda, vanilla, eggs, bananas. It feels like I’m about to cast some sort of spell. Maybe I am.

I crack the eggs into a bowl, separating the yolks from the whites; I mash bananas; I whisk and combine and stir. And just like when I was seven standing on a chair making marshmallow squares, I start to feel confident and creative. Inspired, I toss some chocolate chips into the batter – maybe they’re the secret to an elevated banana bread.

I begin dancing to my playlist, moving my hips to pop anthems celebrating independent women. I don’t realize I’ve gotten lost in the music until a cloud of flour flies up from the mixer, covering me and the counter in a fine white dust.

I stop, suddenly still as the voices in my head berate me for being so careless. I half expect to hear my mother’s voice chastise me for the mess I’ve made. For ruining the banana bread. For doing everything wrong. But I’m alone in my own kitchen – I’m in charge and I get to decide what happens next.

“It’s just flour!” I cry. I wipe up the mess and get back to work. Turns out those messes I’d been taught to avoid at all costs aren’t such a big deal. I get the banana bread into the oven and resume my dance party as I do the dishes, splashing water to my heart’s content.

After 40 minutes, the kitchen is more than clean enough for me, and the loaf is golden brown. It looks yummy. I pull it from the oven and flip the pan over as directed. But the loaf doesn’t slide out as promised. Instead, the middle caves in - an undercooked mess - before breaking apart. Two lumpy halves sit on the counter, mocking me for having the audacity to believe I could pull it off.

I’m carrying the loaf to the trash when something stops me. Misshapen and imperfect as it is, maybe it isn’t a total write off. I should at least taste it first, right?

I cut away the mushy middle and slice off a small piece. I take a bite. And you know what? It’s not ruined. It tastes more than good enough; it tastes wonderful.

Keri Ferencz lives in Toronto.