What They Give Us

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.


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  1. I love things like this. In behind the scenes at the museum by Kate Atkinson they are called “genetic whispers”. My mama gave me a compulsive need for boxes.

  2. I don’t even know why I’m taking the time to write this down … because it’s not like a big surprise, but I love it!

  3. My mom cuts onions the exact same way, down to wrapping them in plastic and always sticking the remainder in the same spot in the fridge. Her dad, my grandpa, cut them that way too. I cut mine methodically and neatly. πŸ™‚

  4. I just began crying at work. Truly. This is so, so beautifully put — as usual, yes, but there’s something so special about this particular post, today. You are a gifted, talented writer. Thank you for putting to words what so many of us feel. (And I’m sending this to my own mom today, because yes: she gave me books too.)

  5. I’ve been reading your blog forever and often find myself moved by the beauty of what you write. I am not much for commenting as I find anonymous suits me, but something about this post was so touching that I couldn’t help myself. Thank you for this incredible reminder to look for those small things that are our gifts from our parents and our legacy to our children. Also, I am lucky enough to have gotten the gift of books from both parents. Which is wonderful…though it makes finding time for housework a bit challenging. πŸ™‚

  6. Ah, this entry makes my heart hurt. But in a good way. I was sitting with my mom the other day, and I examined her hands. I hadn’t done it in a while. And I realized that I used to think she should get manicures, in my smug 20’s. As I looked at her hands, I saw mine, and realized they were the hands she used to have. I have her hands. And I don’t get manicures. Because those hands are busy working, cooking, and raising children. Sniffle.

    • I look a lot at hands and feet, always have. Mikey and Nico’s toes were the first things I looked at when they were born. They seem like something someone would give you.

  7. “It was the lair of a woman who collects knowledge like stamps, unwilling to settle for just one thing.” Gives me chills. They will be able to find Taylor by her thighs, shaped exactly like mine. And Syd, by his crazy temper…Genetics is amazing. Very cool post Jules, very cool.

  8. This post kind of took my breath away. I have the tip of my mother’s nose, and a writing callous on my right middle finger, the mirror opposite of the one on her left middle finger. She taught me to appreciate good jewelry, and how fleeting and precious it is to have everyone home on a Friday night, before sleepovers, dates and eventually college scatters everyone in multiple directions.
    Jules- you should write a memoir. Or any novel. If Jennifer Weiner can parlay her talents into a TV sitcom, you definitely can!

  9. This post is so beautiful. Thank you. I am always interested in the little things that tie families together. Hopefully I have not only given my son the gift of worry, which has been passed down for a few generations πŸ™‚ I read this post and wished I was settling in for a longer book…no pressure, right?

  10. Love, Love, Love it! So much so that I had to share on Facebook ~ gave my hearty recommendation to read your post. My hands are my mother’s :>)

  11. That is a beautiful reflection – I love when a writer is able to turn and see who they are while still living their lives. Most of us only have hind-sight. Your mother sounds lovely.

  12. Wow. I read a lot of blogs on my reader and tend to just zip through them, but this post was so special, so beautiful, so perfectly and originally written, that I had to click over and let you know how much it moved me! You have a fantastic talent.

  13. I love this post! So beautifully written — and I love love love the onion chopping — my mom is the same way! There are always moldering alien red onions in the fridge. xoxoxoxo


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