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The three blue pots

The objects conjure up my mother and grandmothers in their totality — women who made dinner, yes, but for whom making dinner was just one part of their complicated, energetic lives.

Joan Wickersham

In my kitchen, there are three blue pots that I use just about every day. They are old and chipped, and they came from the kitchens of my mother and my two grandmothers.

There is a dark blue pottery coffee pot which is full of whisks and wooden spoons and the potato masher, but once was used by my mother’s mother to serve coffee in her long-ago Brooklyn kitchen. Born in Russia in 1888, my grandmother grew up hoping to study medicine, until the anti-Jewish pogroms drove her family to emigrate, first to Paris and eventually to America. Her kitchen was noisy and crowded; she had a lot of people to feed. She raised five children and took care of the relatives who were constantly coming to stay, some fleeing Russia or Europe, and some simply down on their luck. There wasn’t much money — my grandmother once pawned her wedding ring to buy milk — but my mother remembered that there was always enough food.


The small round enameled baking dish (just the right size for two chicken breasts) belonged to my other grandmother. Her kitchen on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was cramped and dark and she spent very little time there. She was out, working. She and my grandfather, both dancers, had fled Germany in the late 1930s, because he was Jewish. In the United States, they had trained as physical therapists. My grandmother worked with polio patients, and then became a pioneer in the field of movement studies, combining cross-cultural movement analysis with dance therapy.

And then there is my mother’s big blue stew pot. She wasn’t all that interested in cooking, but she made a mean beef stew. She made it all through my childhood, and kept making it long after I left home. I loved it, my husband loved it, our kids loved it — so much so that even now, when my adult sons visit and I pull out that pot, they invariably begin reminiscing about their grandmother.


Maybe it’s a little too easy — too reductive — to write about women and their kitchens. Defining my grandmothers and my mother only by their pots does them a disservice. Making coffee, making stew, heating something up in the little blue dish were not the focal points of any of their lives. They did these things while thinking about other things. But there is a real sense of connection that I feel, as I use these three blue pots in a mindless daily way, just as they once used them in a mindless daily way. The objects conjure up the people in their totality — women who made dinner, yes, but for whom making dinner was just one part of their complicated, energetic lives.

My mother’s mother died when I was very young, but I remember her as cozy, and I know from family stories that she was earthy and unshockable; you could talk to her about anything. My father’s mother was an artist and a scholar, devoted to her work over the whole of her long life — and, for me, a role model. My mother was my mother: warm, frank, funny, impatient, frustrated (she had a business brain but had given up her career when she got pregnant, and never found her way back to work that fully satisfied her), curious about the world, endlessly fascinated by other people and their reasons for doing what they did.


I have other objects that belonged to each of these women — books, furniture, photographs. But none of this stuff gets to me the way the pots do. The pots never expected to become heirlooms. They are useful, and I use them, just as my mother and grandmothers did. They were meant to be part of daily life and they still are — taken out of a cupboard, dirtied, washed, put away, and taken out, over and over again.

Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index” and “The News from Spain.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.