Feeding Grief

My mother and her siblings recently finished sorting through the papers and photos and journals my grandmother left behind when she died in 2008. Among these documents, they found the weekly schedule my grandmother had handwritten in pencil, an attempt to wrangle the lives of five adolescent children. Holding the schedule in my hands, I asked my mother if they really had had waffles every Saturday morning.

Sure, my mother said.

But it wasn’t anything special: her mother simply left the waffle iron plugged in beside the batter bowl so that the kids could make their own waffles whenever their busy weekends allowed for breakfast. By the time I was born, Gramma Pat had put away the waffle iron, in favor of a log of chocolate chip cookie dough she kept in her freezer, ready to be sliced into rounds and slipped onto a baking sheet whenever her grandchildren came to visit.

Our other grandmother took my twin sister and me to McDonald’s the morning our little sister was born. We got Happy Meals and wiggled while we waited, swinging our little legs in the wide space between the seat and the floor, our grandmother reminding us to eat our French fries, to finish our nuggets. Gramma Inez kept her pantry stocked with store-bought macaroons and the kind of rye crisps that recalled her Swedish roots. By the time I knew her, Gramma Inez rarely cooked, but our older cousins remembered that she was the kind of baker who never tasted her cookie dough.

How can you make cookies without tasting the batter? my mother wondered.

Born in the late 1920s and early 1930s, my grandmothers grew up and raised their families at a time when cooking was changing, when convenience foods were new, when electric appliances first relieved homemakers of the burden of cooking.

Over time I’ve come to know my grandmothers better through the memories of other people, memories marked by food. Gramma Pat mashed rutabagas every Thanksgiving while her children were growing up. The root vegetable became a symbol of my maternal grandmother, her legacy built in layers of rutabaga and frozen logs of chocolate chip cookie dough and waffles. Still, my fiercest memories of my grandmothers are my own. The morning of Gramma Pat’s funeral, my mother and I slipped into a local grocery store for post-reception snacks. My mother plucked a rutabaga from the pile of these strange, familiar roots and cradled it in the crook of her elbow, her grief nestled there with it. Later, my uncle would hold the rutabaga while he delivered the eulogy, waxing poetic about those waffle years.

My sisters and I each learned to cook according to our own interests. My twin sister favors vegetables, preferably those from farmers markets or her own garden, served whole, unencumbered by too much cooking. My younger sister is the only one of us girls to have mastered Gramma Pat’s chocolate fudge, which requires patience and a steady hand to get the fudge’s temperature just right. I stand in the kitchen, consulting Fanny Farmer and Molly Katzen, brooding about the friend who needs a meal because of bereavement, marveling at the power of a few simple spices.

The day before Gramma Inez slipped into the coma that preceded her death, my mother and I went over to give her a bath. I was ten years old, holding my grandmother up so that she didn’t waver as my mother sponged the skin that sagged across her stomach. I felt strong and sad and starved already for the love of a grandmother who would never watch me grow up. Later, after we’d dressed her and helped her back into her recliner, Gramma Inez asked for scrambled eggs. I stood on the stepstool and scraped the spatula back and forth across the skillet, nudging runny yolks and whites into something of substance, sprinkled with salt and pepper. Lifting the eggs to her lips, Gramma Inez said these were the best eggs she’d ever eaten. Years after the night she died while her children and grandchildren picked at Kentucky Fried Chicken, I still think of her whenever I cook scrambled eggs, plain, with just a sprinkling of spices.

After the first rounds of sorting through Gramma Pat’s house, my mother bought a cake pan decorated with the jingle, “If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake.” She called first one sibling, then another, promising to bake them cake in that pan. She asked my sisters and me if we remembered Gramma Pat singing the jingle.

Gramma sang? we asked.

What we do remember is the taste of manufactured macaroons. Not long ago, I stood in one of the grocery aisles at Target, urgently texting my sisters to go buy the cookies we’d spent years tracking down. It was like a pilgrimage, each of us meandering back to the kitchens of our childhood with those cookies, the foods that had helped us learn to wait, grow, help and love.

Now, when a friend has received terrible news or lost a family member, I tip up the top of the Kitchen Aid mixer, attach its beater and watch the mechanism whirl together the ingredients. I squish butter and flour between my fingers, roll it out using Gramma Pat’s rolling pin. I press pie dough into tins Gramma Inez may have never actually used but which bear her initials. I cook up peaches or apple or rhubarb, scoop the warm fruit mush into piecrusts, crumble cinnamon and brown sugar and butter over the top. I sometimes forget the pinch of salt that makes the sugar come alive through the magic of chemistry, but I never forget the grandmothers who fed us, one waffle, one cookie, one egg at a time.

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