Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Food for Thought

Every year, right around Christmas, my grandmother baked mass batches of cookies. “Perfect Cookies,” as I called them. Of course, they were just simple molasses cookies, but in my naïve, seven-year old view of the world, all I could comprehend was their precise roundness and delicate sweetness.

It’s funny and perhaps slightly disturbing (It seems as if I’ve been on a diet my whole life), that what I remember most about my Grandparents is food.

On more than one warm, summer weekend, my grandfather, my father, my younger brother Michael, and myself would trudge out onto the sand flats of Cape Cod, often wading in waist deep water, searching for clams. Behind us we would pull metal baskets embraced by an inflated tube. My brother and I would dig with our hands, the smell of low tide murky and muddy on our pudgy fingers, until we found our shelled treasures. Although I always found the little ones most precious, I knew better. The only ones that could come home with us had to be larger than the three-inch ring attached to the basket. Each clam was measured against that ring. If it didn’t fit through, it became dinner. I’m not sure whose regulation this was, but that was the law – at least when my grandfather and father were around.

The best part would come later in the evening, after my grandfather shucked the clams and fried up fritters that melt in your mouth – and burn your tongue (I could never wait long enough for it to safely cool off). To this day, I have never tasted anything as exquisite as those slightly sandy, but amazingly fresh, clam fritters.

I wish I could say that it was only the cookies and the fritters that I so fondly recall. I can’t go without mentioning the comforting bowls of chicken and dumplings or the coffee can-baked, homemade brown bread.

Remembering the food refreshingly evokes several non-food related memories. My grandfather and grandmother lived for much of my childhood in a house with many closets. I can still smell the wood, and see the shafts of light coming through the closet doors illuminating speckles of dust. With my cousins, there were hours of entertainment playing hide-and-seek in those closets.

We wore ourselves out exploring their cellar. I always found it reassuring that my grandparents had enough canned food, paper towels, twist ties, and toilet paper stock piled in the basement to see us through any kind of natural (or unnatural) disaster. I suppose it had something to do with their generation living through world wars and the depression, but in my throw-away, there’s plenty-for-everyone, it’s 1979 mentality, it seemed odd and we had fun teasing them.

As much as I used to complain about visiting them, there was always something to do. I suppose I owe my love of reading, and ultimately my passion for writing, to my grandfather. The man constantly had his nose in a book. Not only that, I love that he was the only member of my family that didn’t think I was strange for spending hours reading his encyclopedias. And, even though they were a bit outdated, they taught me things I could never learn in school. Now, as an adult, this is probably why I excel at Jeopardy.

Michael and I used to love the thick and dark woods behind their home. As children it seemed as untamed as a Costa Rican jungle or some other far way place. We’d build forts, forge for berries, and collect pine cones. For a while we were convinced that an old fishing buoy that someone had discarded in the woods was a World War II bomb. The day I dragged my grandfather out to disarm it was one of the few times I ever heard him laugh.

In retrospect, I was always a little scared of my grandfather. What I realize now is that in his own quiet way he was fascinating. He enthusiastically collected stamps. His office filled with amazing trinkets from all over the globe. It was in that office that we had the world at our fingertips. A radio sat on his desk connected us to people who spoke with funny accents and in languages we could not understand. We listened to sea captains and other radio zealots who were as curious as we were about who and what was out there.

And, there were always cocktails (Shirley Temples for Michael and I) and you could always tell which glass was my grandmothers. A thin square napkin hugged the bottom of the glass, clinging to it with sultry condensation; her lipstick stained the glass with a loving kiss. The cocktails led to dancing. Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, and even Elvis. I’ll always remember Michael and my grandmother, he at half the size of her petite frame, dancing to Lawrence Welk. Their TV seemed like it was frozen in time, black and white, or maybe just the show was lacking color. In any case, I remember Lawrence, the band, the bubbles, and a TV with 13 channels, UHF, and no remote control.

It’s sad that Alzheimer’s robbed my grandmother of these memories. By the time she died, she had no memories. Life was truly being lived in that moment. I suppose I feel honored that I have the opportunity to keep the memories alive. I am the storyteller.

Now that my grandparents have passed on, these memories remind me of what is truly precious – my husband, my family, our health, and my memories. But what I cherish most is that recipe for “Perfect Cookies.” I have the stained index card, ingredients written in her loopy cursive. Every Christmas since she passed away, I bake a batch of those molasses cookies. One bite, my grandparents and my entire family are with me, and I am a child again, but this time, I understand how precious each bite is. I savor it.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:25 PM

    So true! so true. I have similar memories and trigger points for my grandparents. Thanks.