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Read Herring

Dad's dresser--current incarnation

Dad’s dresser–current incarnation

I grew up in a brand new two-bedroom apartment: part of a six-plex at the end of a string of identical duplexes, set off by a couple of old brick apartment buildings that smelled like old soup. My Mother was so excited to have a utility room. It was for the washer and dryer we never had. Instead it filled with boxes, unidentifiable stuff hidden behind an enormous wooden screen, and my Dad’s huge old dresser from when he was a bachelor. This dresser was so wide it blocked the light switch. I didn’t like to shove my hand behind the dresser to turn on the light. I was afraid it might get squished in an earthquake (not common in suburban Chicago, but then neither was quicksand, although it was always on my child-mind.) I’d slink through the room in the dark when I needed the musty little bathroom in the corner.

The room was creepy, almost scary, but not quite that interesting. I knew my path; I didn’t need the light. But sometimes, just as I stepped inside, I’d get it right across the face—a stiff, cold, wet, stinky slap. It was a herring tail poking out of a ceramic bowl on top of Dad’s dresser. Mom would be soaking the brine out of a herring before she pickled it.

This was “the real herring,” the good kind, not the kind that comes in jars so it has to be boiled until it’s soft and the slimy skin falls off. My Mother’s herring stayed stiff and crunchy, the slick skin hugged the meat. Everything smelled of brine, fish and then vinegar.

I just wished for a little warning that I might get hit in the face with a herring. But I learned it’s what you have to go through for “the real herring.” It was a hopeful sign of family Sunday mornings to come: mornings filled with stinky fish and family love.