Nina’s mother used to despair of Nina's grandmother feeding her. Nina had been the tail end of seven and her grandmother had still been lifting a spoon, gentle careful, to her mouth. Every time Nina had taken a mouthful she had bitten down on the spoon, too, the clang and grind against her teeth a metallic complement to the flavor. Nina didn’t remember how or why she had started doing it; all she knew was that now twenty years later she still did, when she was eating and not thinking about eating.
One day it was sweltering, like it always was in their village. It heated itself up to the brink and then its rains were the cool sweat that dripped down the side of a flushed cheek. Nina had been seven and she’d hated the heat, hated the small, barely effective small loud fan, hated whatever was on the table. It could’ve been sweet chicken in soy sauce, it could’ve been sour tamarind fish, it could’ve been rich creamy curry or any of the dishes her grandmother made that she loved usually. Right then she’d hated it.
Sik mok makan, Nina had said. Don’t wanna eat.
Have a mouthful, her grandmother had said. Come on. She’d lifted the spoon.
Nina had folded petulant arms. They’d sat there until her grandmother had begun to lose her temper. Nina was gifted her humor from her mother and handed her resentment from her father, but she inherited her impatience from her grandmother.
“Okay then,” Nina's grandmother had said. Then she’d gotten up, picked Nina’s sour-sweet steamed fish, or her spiced up dark rendang, or her tangy onion squid, and threw its contents down the sink. The bowl clattered noisily, rattling, and fell silent. Nina and her grandmother had stared at each other, furious, and then her grandmother had stalked to the fridge and pulled out a tub of butter.
She’d slathered it over Nina’s steaming rice.
Eat this blandness instead, she’d said, and picked up a spoonful of it. Nina had still felt stubbornly terrible but she hadn’t liked the loss of her grandmother’s temper, she’d never liked it. Her grandmother had been impatient but had rarely lost her temper. So she’d opened her mouth and her grandmother had fed her the buttered rice, careful, gentle, at odds with her stony expression.
Something in the rice soothed Nina. The chill of the refrigerated butter, or the careful slide of the metal in her mouth, something soothed the humidity in the weather and her soul. She bit the spoon down, remembered her manners, and said "Thank you."
Her grandmother had tutted and smoothed back her hair, almost violent in her affection.
It was soon after that Nina’s mother decreed that the feeding had to stop, and soon after that her grandmother had started forgetting to turn off the fires in the kitchen. It bothered Nina that she couldn’t remember the dish she’d thrown down the sink that day: only its metallic clang as the bowl hit metal. She thought about the dish sometimes at odd moments in the day, trying to remember. She mourned it each time, just a little bit, especially when she wasn't thinking about eating.
Often I think about the dishes I have learned watching my grandmother stir without looking, or my mother sprinkle something into the pot, instinctive. Gifts that I didn't see as gifts, laid out before my eyes and folded carefully into my memory.