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How to cut an onion without crying

Since we started dating, Will and I had gone out to eat more times than was good for either our budgets or our waistlines, so one day in late October we decided it was time to stay in and cook. I invited Will to my place. For this inaugural meal prep, I selected the recipes and the ingredients. I know where the appliances, pots, and pans live at my house. We’d work together, but I’d lay the groundwork for meal prep. How hard could this be, right?

All good to start

In the kitchen, we quickly divvied up responsibilities. Then we started collecting ingredients, washing veggies, and arranging utensils for the tasks ahead of us. I leaned over to pull a set of mixing bowls out of the cupboard as Will gathered onions, a cutting board, and a knife. I shut the cupboard door, stood up, and set the bowls on the counter. Then Will asked the question that would unhinge me. 

“Can I show you how to cut an onion?”

Can he show me how to cut an onion?! Really?! I was incensed and replied with the passion of the deeply offended. 

“No, you cannot show me how to cut an onion! I know how to cut onions. I’ve been cutting onions to prepare meals for my family for over 30 years! You’re not going to show me how to cut an onion. As if!” 

Unsaid, but very much front of mind was “And who the hell do you think you are anyway?! How dare you!”

Context, please

Let me provide a bit of backstory. Will is a retired teacher. After 17 years of teaching English, he was ready for a professional reboot. He lobbied for and eventually created a culinary arts class at his school. The course was wildly popular, eventually expanding from that first, single class to a progressive three-year program. The program offered underserved youth a path to gainful employment in our hospitality-heavy local economy; it filled an unmet need the district didn’t even know it had. Soon Will was teaching culinary arts full-time and running the program. 

The district signaled its ongoing commitment by sending Will to various culinary arts training programs including multiple summer programs at the Culinary Institute of America, one of the best culinary arts training schools in the US.

Yeah, but I don’t want to

Given all this, you’d think I’d have been more open to learning new culinary techniques from Will. But put yourself in my shoes. I’d been doing everything for so long – my husband Robert had been diagnosed with FTD five years earlier – it never occurred to me that someone might have an idea I hadn’t yet stumbled upon. 

My sense of competence was the keystone on which our entire, precarious life rested. If I wasn’t competent to execute the simplest tasks how could we go on? If I didn’t know how to cut an onion, what else didn’t I know?

I find it difficult to express how jarring Will’s simple question was; my reaction seems ridiculous now. But in the moment, I couldn’t hear the question as it was intended: Will offering to share the secrets of a trade he’d spent some time learning. Instead, what I heard was “You don’t know what you’re doing.” I was a string so tightly wound that any external vibration could cause me to snap. Will’s query was the oscillating wave and I popped.

Why does this hurt so much?

Will is a kind and patient man. (Did I mention that he orchestrated a carefully planned symphony with 30+ knife-wielding teenagers every day for 13 years?) He let my reaction to his question be my reaction without comment. It lay between us like a dried hunk of salted cod which could only be made edible by soaking overnight. 

And soak it did. Some months have passed since “the question” was first asked. We have talked about why I was so reactive. We have talked about how Will might have phrased the question differently to avoid my ire and provide my ego a soft landing on its descent from my high horse. He might have said, for example, “In culinary school, I learned how to cut an onion without crying. Can I show you what I learned?”

What I have learned

I have learned that for many, the constant, grinding, unappreciated burden of loving someone with dementia saps us of our hope and our humanity. My rigidity was a defense against a reality so painful I did my best not to feel it. Living my life fully open would expose me to an emotional avalanche that might bury me. I just couldn’t take one more shitty thing happening, so I closed myself off. 

But it’s been a push-pull chase all along. Part of me desperately wants to live fully with joy again. This burbling hope is why I am seeing Will. But another part of me is so very hurt by the unfairness of Robert’s illness, that opening up is difficult. I’m lucky Will is a forgiving man.

When I told her about the exchange, my daughter, Maddie, deconstructed and seized upon the obvious lesson of the onion. “So Mom are you too old and rigid to learn anything new? Is that what this is about?”

No, honey, it’s about way more than learning to cut an onion.

The next time Will and I readied ourselves to cook together, I pulled out the cutting board, collected the knife, then handed him an onion and said, “Please show me how to cut an onion.” 

I might just be cracking open enough to cry.

. . . . .

P.S. There is a better way to cut an onion than the way I was taught as a child. Watch this video to learn how.

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