I wrote this in 2003, when I was thinking about writing a book about my childhood. I dropped the project after quickly running out of lighthearted stories to tell. This piece if writing has never been online… until now. It is about the time when I realized that my family reacted to the fire alarm going off very differently than other families did.
I read “Run Upstairs With Plates” in episode 26 of my Words of Jen podcast.
I realized that my mom was not the world’s greatest cook when I was in kindergarten. Five-year-old me knew something was wrong with the way my mom prepared food. What I didn’t understand at the time was that this was not normal.
Some of the problem was beyond my mom’s control. She was blind in one eye, and had limited sight in the other. This made it harder for her to figure out when food had gone bad, or when it started burning. She was also easily distracted by nature, and had four little kids to take care of. My mother was lucky that my grandmother, (my father’s mother) lived with us and would help with child care.
That being said, things would happen in my mother’s kitchen that I’d never heard of happening anywhere else.
I was in First Grade when I realized that my family was strange.
The teacher was doing a lesson on fire safety. She started with a story about what firemen do. The story included examples of what to do if there was a fire at your house. After the story was over, my teacher asked the students some questions. She was trying to assess if her students understood the main points of what she was trying to teach them.
I remember my teacher asked a question. “What do you do when you hear the smoke alarm in your house go off?”
I knew the answer to this one, so I raised my hand. My teacher called on me. “You run upstairs with plates,” I answered.
My teacher blinked at my unexpected answer. She asked another First Grader the same question, and got a more appropriate answer.
At the end of the school day, my mom came to pick me up. My teacher decided to have a talk with her. My teacher explained to my mom that the class had a lesson on fire safety that day. I remember my teacher quickly reviewing the lesson, and my mom nodding her head.
“Your daughter,” my teacher said to my mom, “was not taking fire safety seriously. She was trying to make jokes about smoke alarms.”
“Well, what did she say?” my mom asked.
“When I asked the class what they do when they hear the smoke alarm go off. Your daughter said ‘run upstairs with plates’,” my teacher said. She sounded irritated. I remember being confused by this, because I knew I had given the right answer.
My mother immediately started laughing. She didn’t stop after my teacher gave her one of those “angry teacher glares”. After my mom was able to talk again, she tried to provide an explanation.
Sometime between when I was in kindergarten, and when I was in First Grade, my dad moved the TV from the living room to the basement. I never asked why. It wasn’t something six-year-old-me gave any thought to. What I did know was my dad finally got the basement “finished” and it became a cross between a den and a playroom.
When my mom was ready to start cooking dinner, all four of us kids were banished to the basement. None of us complained, because the basement was where the TV was at, and there were plenty of toys around. Looking back, I think the reason why we were sent to the basement – the funnest room in the house – was to keep us out of the kitchen.
As I said, my mom often got distracted and ended up burning dinner. My dad was probably trying to prevent that happening by removing four little, loud, fast-moving distractions. He wanted dinner to be edible, and wasn’t willing to cook it himself, so this was his attempt at problem solving.
Shortly after my dad gave up on having us all eat dinner at the table “like a normal family”, it became common for dinner to consist of a frozen pizza. My parents started offering us Pepsi with dinner, instead of milk. Pepsi didn’t go bad like milk did. It was safer.
My mom would cook the frozen pizza, and my dad would check to make sure she was doing it right. He would remind her what temperature she needed to set the oven at. He would set a timer for her so she would know when to take the pizza out of the oven.
One time, my mom forgot to remove the shrink-wrap that the pizza was sealed in. Black smoke came out of the oven, which made her start coughing. The smoke alarm went off. My dad would rush upstairs, turn the oven off, and open the kitchen windows. We ended up having McDonald’s for dinner that night. From that point on, my dad would unbox and unwrap the pizza for my mom.
This didn’t solve the problem, though. My mom would sometimes leave the cardboard circle that came with the frozen pizza under it when she put it in the oven. The first time this happened, smoke filled the kitchen, and my dad ran upstairs to see what happened. As before, he opened the kitchen window and tried to fan out some of the smoke. Then, he went to turn off the smoke alarm.
The first time that happened, my parents debated whether or not it was actually safe to eat the pizza that had been cooked with cardboard under it. The bottom of the pizza was burned, but the rest looked okay. Neither my dad, nor my mom, could think of a good explanation for why we shouldn’t eat it. So, dinner was served.
Sometimes, my mom would set the oven to the wrong temperature, or would forget to check on it. The pizza would burn. To this day, I have no idea what exactly went on upstairs in the kitchen when she was making dinner. Whatever she was doing felt like it was taking forever. My dad would stand on the stairs and ask “How much longer?” over and over again. He tried to speed up the process by bringing a stack of plates downstairs with him. The plates would be ready to go when dinner was ready.
Each night, the smoke alarm would go off. We came to see this as the signal that the pizza was done, and we could finally eat dinner. My siblings and I would run up the stairs carrying plates. My dad would open the kitchen window and try to fan the smoke out, before turning off the smoke alarm. My mom would cut the pizza into kid-sized slices, and remind us to let it cool a bit before trying to eat it.
My siblings and I would take our plates of pizza downstairs and eat while watching TV. My dad would eventually join us, after filling his own plate with pizza. My mom was always the last to join us for dinner.
That’s the reason why I answered my teacher’s question the way I did. I was six-years-old, and the smoke alarm at my house went off every night. What did we do at home when that happened? We ran upstairs with plates. I honestly thought this was what everyone’s dinner time was like. It was my first clue that my parents weren’t very good at being adults.