Literary Prizes·CBC Literary Prizes

Easy Family Dinners by Sandra Murdock

Sandra Murdock has won the 2018 CBC Nonfiction Prize for Easy Family Dinners.

2018 CBC Nonfiction Prize winner

Sandra Murdock is a writer based in Dartmouth, N.S. (Arleigh Hood)

Sandra Murdock has won the 2018 CBC Nonfiction Prize for Easy Family Dinners

She will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, a 10-day writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and will have their story published on CBC Books.

You can read Easy Family Dinners below.

The names in this story have been changed.

He's making supper.

After putting our two-year-old down for his afternoon nap, I avoid the small windowless kitchen where Mike has been banging around. But after a while, the habitual urge for a cup of tea compels me in. 

He cleans as he cooks. I've always liked that about him, that he's tidier than I am. A small kitchen isn't much of a challenge for him, whereas I end up stacking bowls and pots on the kitchen chairs when I run out of counter space.

He's been back with us for a couple of months now. It had been an adjustment. Carter and I had established a tight rhythm of our own, but Mike uncomplainingly tried to match it, like joining a line dance, his face held in a smile, watching for the perfect moment, always a half-beat behind.

"I'm cooking tonight," he announces as I enter. He beams. I shove my hands deeper into my grey hoodie's pockets and try to look pleased. "You deserve to relax, so I'm taking care of everything." I nod, glancing about.

That he was willing and able to make pad thai from scratch impressed the hell out of me in the early days of our dating.

I like it when he cooks. Sometimes he makes traditional looking meat-potato-veg combinations that make me kind of nostalgic — always neatly plated, his years in the service industry creating a habit of presentation for even the most mundane meals. Pot roast, steamed green beans, mashed potatoes, a perfect trio. I can never bother, so many years on my own made for too many meals either standing at the counter or sitting alongside piles of books and papers while I studied. It's a treat when he cooks. He's good at it and he has admirable patience for the process. That he was willing and able to make pad thai from scratch impressed the hell out of me in the early days of our dating.

Carter will sleep for at least an hour. I think about the reading I should do. Book towers of various heights populate the desk in the other room, ordered according to an upcoming major exam and a languishing funding proposal still lacking theoretical coherence. I'm struggling with focus.

He promised that his being here would help me concentrate on grad school. We were a family, he insisted, we were supposed to be together. I had relented and allowed him to move in again but in the back of my mind was the grim sense that if I had been reading this as another woman's story I'd have been shaking my head, cursing the character's either dumbass optimism or myopic fatality.

I make tea, sweet and milky, carefully moving around his preparations. There's a salad on the go, rice steaming in a pot on the stove. As I return the milk to the fridge, Mike checks the oven, giving me a glimpse inside of two foil-wrapped packets on a baking tray. Fish.

He had raved about the foil-wrapped fish technique when I first made it for him. Fish filet, oil, lemon juice, whatever spice mixture from wherever in the world caught your fancy. We made Mediterranean and Asian the most. He always loaded in extra vegetables. It was so important not to overcook the fish, he'd tell everyone. You wanted it a little flaky, but moist, and a pink fish should always be a little darker pink in the centre.

The smile of a child playing in the snow can get you through just about anything.

I glance around the kitchen one last time, stealing a look at him finely chopping red and orange peppers. He doesn't notice. I look at the stovetop controls and the red lines of the digital clock. It's January in St. John's and the peppers must have cost a fortune.

Back at my desk in the living room, I move a few pieces of paper around, wondering where to start. The snow outside the window glitters weakly in the afternoon light. To the left, a solid bank of snow grows, accumulating from the landlord plowing the driveway. It made a good hill for Carter to climb on, not too high, not too steep. He's a cautious child. I'm always encouraging him to jump and climb and tumble. Thanks to the double padding of snow and snowsuit, he's more adventurous now, grinning madly as he rolls down the hill. The smile of a child playing in the snow can get you through just about anything.

He doesn't want to say good night to his daddy anymore. I carry him, clean and jammie-wrapped, out to the living room where Mike lays on the couch. Looking up at us, Mike smiles blurrily and murmurs good night words as he labours to stand up. Increasingly, the boy looks away as we approach, tucking his face into my neck. It started almost innocuously and I could pass it off as the unpredictable toddler mood. Bouncing him a little in my arms I'd sing out, "Don't you have a good night for Daddy?" Face hidden, his smooshed mouth would mumble "no" into my neck. Those first few times I just whisked him off to his bedroom, brightly calling out "Night, night, Daddy!" in a pantomime of bedtime ritual.

Mike persisted though, wanted a good night kiss from his son. Yet, every night the boy refused to look at his father. One night, Mike got in real close, but Carter just cried and pushed him away with a chubby clenched fist, me still holding him, holding the middle ground. Drained, I raised my face to him that time. Mike turned away from me and went back to the sofa and I knew the look in his eyes, felt it.

I appreciate what he is doing, and he's not wrong — it could be so nice to have some time together, to savour a meal.

I listen now to the nimble clicks and clacks of utensils and cookware in the kitchen. CBC Radio plays quietly in the background but I can't make out the author's answers to the interview questions. The oven door opens and closes again. I glance over some notes from an ethnography of a small town in Northern Ireland describing the complex communicative processes required to navigate interactions between Protestants and Catholics. "They taught me... how to read situations and to know when to talk, when to keep silent, and when to extricate myself from social interaction." I silently hold my pen over the papers. So many notes. I don't know how to connect them all.

He calls from the kitchen, then. I appreciate what he is doing, and he's not wrong — it could be so nice to have some time together, to savour a meal. The salad will be good. Dressing from scratch, garlic and thyme suspended in lemon juice and olive oil, sitting ready beside our oversized glass salad bowl. I enter the kitchen to see the small table set for the two of us. And the salad is beautiful, a riot of colours defying the winter that has hunkered down and I know will not leave without taking everything. He grasps a portion of mixed greens with metal tongs, careful to scoop in the slivers of peppers, sets it on my plate as I sit down. "Thanks," I exhale, with a small smile. A neat mound of basmati is already on the plate, nudging up to the foil packet. I don't know what to say, so I say nothing as I slowly pull apart the foil.

He opens his packet, tense with anticipation, happy. The fish and the roasted beans and onions tumble out onto the rice. I poke at my fish, still hoping that I'm wrong, still hoping that everything will be OK. I truly can't decide if I should let him eat it and realize in his own time, or if I should warn him before he eats it that the fish isn't cooked, that the fish is raw, that he never even turned the oven on this whole time he's been in the kitchen preparing this amazing meal, that he's drunk, again, and I know it.

He puts a bite of fish in his mouth and begins chewing. I put my fork back on the table, stand up and slowly walk toward our child's bedroom.

The ethnography quoted is Kelleher Jr., William F. The Troubles in Ballybogoin: Memory and Identity in Northern Ireland. University of Michigan, 2003, p.11.

Listen to Sandra Murdock read Easy Family Dinners:

Featured VideoDartmouth, N.S. writer Sandra Murdock reads her essay "Easy Family Dinners," which won the 2018 CBC Nonfiction Prize.

Read the other finalists:

About Sandra Murdock

Born to a military family, Sandra Murdock grew up across Canada and in Germany. After graduate studies in Belfast, Northern Ireland and St. John's, N.L., Murdock left academia to work with newcomers to Canada. She currently teaches English at an immigrant settlement agency. She's published poetry in Echolocation and the Antigonish Review, and is currently working on a creative nonfiction collection about her experiences with an alcoholic loved one. She lives with her son in Dartmouth, N.S., on the unceded traditional territory of the Mi'kmaw people.