My mother has a way with slicing onions. She grabs one–heavy, usually purple–and peels it like an apple so the skin falls in bits along the counter and onto the floor. She always sweeps up after herself. When it’s clean and bare like some long-awaited truth, she cuts it in half. From there, it’s anyone’s guess; she takes only what she needs.
Slice. For a salad. One tablespoon’s worth, a thin wedge of a broken triangle. Mince, mince, chop. Towards the end, she can’t be bothered with small cuts. It’s boring and smacks of diplomacy. She wraps the rest in plastic and returns it to the refrigerator.
Slice. For a dish. A little bit more, almost a half. A random that looks about right as the knife that is too dull pushes through the layers. She wraps the rest in plastic and returns it to the refrigerator.
Slice. For a pasta sauce. The whole onion, pieces flying, no cut the same. Chop, chop, chop. Whack. A mash of onions pushed into a mound, looking exhausted. She wraps the rest in plastic and returns it to the refrigerator, no matter how small. A tablespoon is enough for a salad.
I grew up finding onions in the refrigerator. I rolled my eyes at their misshapen forms and worried over their drying edges. I was smug about their weak, fading scent. It’s impossible to cut a perfect dice with a chaotic onion, this much I know.
Last month in Lake Tahoe I needed an onion. It was for an omelet and I knew where to look. There, next to a beer and a battered wheel of cheese shaped like a trapezoid, sat an onion wrapped in plastic. More than one quarter, almost one third, and no where near half of an onion. It’s shape, size, and age indeterminate. It was a mystery of an onion that somehow looked regal with its root tip angled like a jaunty top hat. I sighed. I turned to my brother, who was smarter than me and reached for the beer.
“If mom were to suddenly move and not tell us where to, I would be able to find her just by searching the refrigerators for onions.”
“What do you mean?”
“The onions, Paul. The way mom cuts an onion. It’s insane. She just takes what she needs and at weird angles. There’s no rhyme or reason…just chunks missing with the rest wrapped in plastic.”
“Mom does that?”
“I never noticed. Weird. I do that, too.”
I have a mole on my right hip. Flat, dark, and the size of a fat-tipped Sharpie. It’s like God pressed a pen against my flank and said mine. Mikey has the same mole on his left hip. The same size, the same color, the same fat-tipped marker. Sometimes I press it like a button and think mine. When he was an infant, his pediatrician advised me to watch it, to make sure it didn’t grow. I told him I wasn’t worried because I had the same mole on my right hip. His eyes brightened and he said, almost conspiratorially, “Isn’t genetics fascinating?”
I gave Mikey a mole. My mother gave my brother a way with slicing onions, and it made me jealous. I wanted a quirk. I wanted a thing that marks me, a thing that means they can find me when I am lost, if only by the way I slice a vegetable.
The other day we went swimming at my parents’ house, my mom back in Lake Tahoe to write and take care of the house she treats like a child. With her gone, I went into her study to see what she left behind. Books, so many, piled on counters and shelves. An in-box piled neatly and topped with a book with pages that flutters like…onion skin. The subject matter spread far and wide, too hard to pin down. Religion, philosophy, classics, feminism, conservatism, politics, new age, science, crime, history. It was the lair of a woman who collects knowledge like stamps, unwilling to settle for just one thing. Unable to settle for just one thing.
And I thought this, this is what she gave me. This is how they will find me.