Flash in the Pan

A Quarterly Posting at Tiny Lights

Noblesse Oblige

by Mimi Peel Roughton

"Enough Boob Tube!," Mama called from the kitchen. "Come help with dinner!" She'd just dashed into the house from "civic work." My former Miss Georgia mother had lots cooking in our little eastern North Carolina hometown--just not much of it in our kitchen.

I turned off Flipper, slouched in, peered over her shoulder at slices of country ham frying in a rusty cast iron skillet. "Make the pear salad for me, please. And the biscuits."

I slammed the refrigerated canister of rolls into the countertop's corner until the can burst along a fault line. Rolls in the oven, I set about making pear salad-—a chunk of iceberg lettuce per plate, a canned pear-half, each topped with grated cheddar and a dollop of mayonnaise.

At thirteen, I was still willing to help in the kitchen. Later, I'd return from UNC-Chapel Hill with accounts of CIA atrocities learned from graduate TAs. Mama's reaction: "America wouldn't have done that without a good reason." We'd argue; eventually she'd say, "Just go away, I'll finish the dishes." My surefire way to get out of kitchenwork? Bring up the ERA. Mama, like Phyllis Schafly, believed if the ERA were ratified, boys and girls would sit side by side in toilet stalls.

After our meal of ham steaks, canned green beans, canned rolls with "health butter" (margarine) and pear salad--or similar fare--Daddy would announce, "Another triumph off the skillet of Lucia Peel!" Mama pretended this made her mad—-secretly it tickled her. But if one of us four girls had ruined dinner with adolescent unpleasantness, Mama would stomp out of the kitchen, slamming the door and yelling, "My divorced mother worked her fanny off as a hairdresser to send me to college---this is how I use my degree?"

On weeknights when Daddy, a judge, was out of town holding court, Mama often served us frozen chicken pot pies--a treat! Nobody gave a thought to the unhealthy ingredients lurking in them.

The passage of time has flipped things. Now eighty, widowed twice, living in a retirement village in Chapel Hill, Mama has grown socially liberal, and she's practically a conspiracy theorist, holding the U.S. culpable for everything bad in the world. I, married to a small business owner, have grown fiscally conservative. My stepdaughter from my first marriage dreaded telling Mama she was a lesbian; Mama surprised her by being pleased.

Last year Mama sent pictures of salmon, red wine and dark chocolate as Christmas cards. No longer expected to cook, she squirrels leftovers from the Cedars' fancy dining room back to her condo for soup that's perpetually simmering on her stove. "It's a French thing."

Not that Mama really cares about Europe, despite honeymooning in France with her second husband. What really energizes Mama is her own community, "giving back," embodying Noblesse Oblige. Mama internalized that concept at the Georgia women's college she attended thanks to the toil of my uneducated grandmother--a stellar Southern cook who made everything from scratch.

A former journalist turned personal essayist, Mimi Peel Roughton lives in Durham, North Carolina with her second husband, an architect. Between them, they have five grown children.

Twenty-sixth Flash

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Before Our Last Goodbye by Judith Kelly Quaempts
Shady Grove by Catherine Montague
Stitches by Andrea Marcusa

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