My daughter points to the corner of an apron trapped by the closed door. The apron is one of the few items that belong to me in that pantry cupboard that is packed from ceiling to floor. This cupboard is the magic on the fingertips of my mother-in-law. Mysterious and potent herbs casually filling up jars with their now lying mayonnaise or mustard labels. Jars of calories that I had bought, I noted, now seem to mock me with their bellyful of healthful ingredients that I’ll never know the names and uses of. They stand there unassumingly as a symbol of a traditional Chinese mother’s cooking, a feminine power far superior than my tinned tomatoes, brownie mixes and that still-brand-new, full-color hardback Chinese cookbook written by a Chinese-American I bought a couple years back, which I’d started to pretend isn’t even mine.
The other half of the cupboard is the hospice for empty jars and boxes. My father-in-law likes clear surfaces, but won’t leave storage spaces as spaces. For him, filling spaces with something, anything with an illusion of being useful such as the worry that we’ll need a seventeenth plastic yoghurt tub, is better. As if junk is harmless.
I thought this was the battleground I lost because I neither have a lot of cooking ingredients, nor a habit to hoard. When I open the door to tuck the apron back, my daughter goes in and start moving things to the floor, doing whatever pleases her toddler’s heart. She is the person with no cooking skill and who takes up the least physical space. Yet, she is at home and I’m not. Now I see that even though none of the jars, cans, boxes or cookbooks belong to her, and maybe because none of the values, habits and traditions are weighing on her, she’s having fun. That fun is hers. That freedom is hers. Now I know that I’ve had my head stuck in a narrow cupboard that has little to do with me, and now I can stop trying to squeeze myself inside it. Because there’s a whole lot more space and a whole lot other things that I can get myself into. Or not. It will be my choice. It will be how I make myself at home.