The Kitchen That Built Me

The Kitchen That Built Me

It was a Friday night, and my then boyfriend, Rich, and I pulled into the driveway of his house. Though we were in a new relationship, and long-distance too, without actually talking about it—we both knew it was getting serious. This was the first time I was seeing his house and meeting his family who lived nearby. We drove up to his farm house, and he mumbled something, but I only caught a few words: “Retro kitchen . . . someday I want to remodel it.” 

I brushed it off and said, “I’m sure it’s not that bad.” 

We walked into the house and down the hall—the hardwood floors were a welcome surprise, their modern look a contrast to the dated exterior of the house. We turned the corner into the kitchen, and the salmon-colored cabinets were the first thing I noticed. On a second glance, I realized they were made of metal. I looked down and saw orange carpet—the kind that’s flat, without any fibers sticking up. Retro was definitely the right word

“I was thinking I could sandblast the cupboards and repaint them. But it might be easiest to just tear them all out and start over. I don’t think much has changed in the kitchen since the house was built in 1955,” he said. 

“It’s fine. I don’t like you for your kitchen. It feels huge compared to the tiny kitchen in my apartment,” I laughed as I squeezed his hand.

Our relationship was still new and I didn’t know how much time I would end up spending in this space.

              //

Two years later, I bounced my newborn around this kitchen, trying to get him to stop crying.

 “He won’t stop crying!” I said to Rich, now my husband, who was leaning against the laminate countertops.

“I fed him, but he just falls asleep while he’s nursing. Then he wakes up crying. I think he’s starving,” I said, glancing at the salmon colored cabinets that I felt were beginning to taunt me.

“I’m sure he’s getting enough to eat, babe,” Rich gently said as he took Rhett from me. 

“I’m going to weigh him. Do we have a scale I can use?” I asked, my hand cupping the back of my neck.

Just then I remembered the kitchen scale in the pantry. I set the tiny scale on the old countertop, then grabbed the baby bathtub and balanced it on top of the scale, and zeroed the weight. 

“Next time I feed him, I’ll weigh him first, then feed him, then weigh him again.” I was mostly talking to myself, but Rich nodded along. “Then if he’s not getting enough, maybe I should give him a bottle?” 

We had been parents for only a few weeks, but I think he already knew I wasn’t looking for an answer. I just needed to work through my thoughts out loud.

Later we balanced the whale bathtub on the scale—the underlit kitchen making it hard to see the numbers on the scale. Just as I began to shrug my shoulders in defeat, I noticed a bit of sunshine coming through the window behind me. The sliver of light fell over my shoulder, giving us just enough light to see the numbers go up on the scale after I had nursed him. 

Satisfied he was at least getting a few ounces, I put the scale away. Later that night after he had gone to bed, I stood at the kitchen sink scrubbing the dinner dishes. No light came through the window this time, the room was barely lit by the dim hue of the single light overhead. I wondered what would happen tomorrow that I would need to survive. Not even one month in, and motherhood felt so hard. I heard a creak, and saw a cabinet door had fallen open, again. I was doing it all wrong, I thought with a slam.

//

A year later, I turned around from the sink and saw my crawling baby licking the cabinets in the kitchen. “Rhett, what are you doing?” I laughed. 

I grabbed my phone and snapped a few pictures, wanting to remember this. His cheeks were so chunky and full, no one would have guessed I ever worried about his weight. He continued to crawl around and I imagined the sixty years of boots and shoes that had walked over the floors. I shuddered, thinking of how dirty the old carpet was, knowing the only way it would feel clean would be to tear it out. Did we want tile or hardwood floors? I silently wondered. I pulled up my Pinterest board, “Future Kitchen” and added more pins for the kitchen remodel. 

The years went by, and we brought another baby home—the kitchen remodel always at the back of our minds. Finally, after being married for over six years, with two kids (and a third on the way) we made official plans to start the renovation. In the last few months, Rich and I had gone over all of the choices we had to make. What color did we want the cabinets and appliances? What type of flooring? What color for the backsplash? What style of handles for the drawers? 

For years, part of the reason I had put off the kitchen remodel was that I was worried I would make a wrong decision and be stuck with it. It felt like too much pressure to get it “just right.” Looking over the proposed drawing from the interior designer, I remembered how overwhelmed I had felt with my first baby—wondering if he was getting enough to eat, immunizations, nap schedules, and when to feed him solids. I was always exhausted from all the decisions.

The night before the construction crew arrived I stood alone in the kitchen. We had emptied all the drawers and cabinets and I stood in the entryway one last time. My stomach bubbled with sadness—an emotion I wasn’t expecting. When I looked down the hall, I pictured myself walking in for the first time and seeing this kitchen. I saw myself standing here, wide-eyed and in love—with my then-boyfriend. At the time I thought I knew what love was, and what marriage and motherhood would look like. But I didn’t know how often I would second guess every decision I made with my kids. Or how long the days would feel waiting for Rich to get home, trying to keep his dinner warm in the oven, with two kids crying at my feet—all in this space. This was the kitchen I became a wife in, then a mom. It’s where I learned to cook meals that would feed more than just myself. I burned food, tried new meals, and accidentally dropped eggs on the carpet. Even as I stood there in the silence, I could hear the sound of the oven door creaking—its hinges well-worn from decades of use. I always imagined this day would only feel exciting—a chance at designing my own kitchen. But at that moment, all I felt was a bit of sadness.

“You ready to go?” Rich called from the front door. I nodded and gave the kitchen one last glance before I walked out of the house. 

//

Thirty-four days after we moved out of our home, the remodel was done. I walked down the hall toward the kitchen—anxious to see it all put together. The white tile shone in the sunlight, a bright contrast from the hardwood floors. The deep white sink caught my eye and drew me in. I walked into the room, and reflexively my hand reached out toward the nearly black countertops. My fingers skimmed over the smooth surface, cool to the touch. I paused and glanced around taking it all in—amazed at how much had changed.

I turned to face the living room, the hardwood floors running from the kitchen into the rest of the house, tying it all together. It looked like it was meant to be.

Rich opened the door from the garage, “What do you think? It looks like it could be in a magazine, doesn’t it?” 

I stood and nodded, at a loss for words.

In the following days, I carefully washed the pots and pans in the brand new sink, taking special care not to scratch the white porcelain. Each time I walked toward the kitchen it was like I was seeing it again for the first time. The old kitchen stood the test of time, refining me along with it. My edges were worn down—my expectations of what a home would look like, along with what it would be like to be a wife and mom. Neither of us was perfect, but we did the best we could. I know now that just because the kitchen is new, it doesn’t mean it’s perfect either. The corner cabinets next to the dishwasher can’t be open at the same time. And while the “fingerprint resistant” appliances might keep off fingerprints, we’ve learned the hard way that magnets scratch them. And despite being cautious, I already put a tiny nick in my new farmhouse sink. 

The kitchen is beautiful—there’s no denying it. But part of the reason it’s beautiful to me is that I know what it once was, and the life we’ve lived here. When I close my eyes, I can still see the old kitchen—the retro cupboards and orange carpet. I can see the younger me taking it all in for the first time. I’ll always remember the years I baked in the cramped oven—the tick of the oven matching the amount of time it took to heat up. I’ll remember the sound of the metal cabinets banging shut—their doors full of scratches and worn from decades of opening and closing. The carpet was stained with flour, dropped eggs, and honestly, who knows what else. But it was full of happiness too. I watched Rhett take his first step in this room. I can picture the time I found Allie covered from head to toe in powdered sugar, the orange carpet around her dusted in white. Or the late nights when Rich arrived home from the field, greeting me with a kiss and a “thank you” for the dinner I had brought to the harvest crew.

Part of me wishes I could go back to the “first-time mom” me and tell her not to worry so much, not to stress over every decision. But I know those moments and decisions carved me into the mom and wife I am today. Despite all my imperfections, like the cupboards and worn carpet, it was never about how they looked. It was what they could hold—their role in our home. The woman who walked into this house years ago isn’t the same one who stands in this kitchen now. All the decisions and worry, happiness, and joy molded me into the woman I am today.

And I’ve learned it doesn’t matter what my cupboards and cabinets look like—what matters is who I will continue to become.

Photos by: Josey Miller // @storyanthology