I’m baaaaaack! And I’ve missed you all. I hope June’s been treating you well! So far, June has gifted me with beautiful sunny weather and a thirty-first birthday. All so very exciting.
It’s hard to believe that summer is here and I’m already back to school. After surviving my first semester of grad school (thanks in large part to aforementioned copious amounts of wine and friends), I decided to take two classes this summer. The summer is different, though, in that it’s broken into two separate sessions. This means that for two six-week sessions I will take one class at a time. Easy peasy, right? Ha! I had no idea what people meant when they’d say to me, “Ooooooh. You’re taking summer classes?” Let’s just say that the speed at which these classes have to move in order to squeeze a semester into six weeks is just a little bit unbecoming.
Thankfully, I was pretty darn excited about both of my classes and the first one is proving me right so far. I’m 2.5 weeks into my first class: ” The Remembrance of Things Tasted: Reading and Writing the Food Memoir.” As my professor put it, “Food in its substantial state rests but an instant on the tongue; in memory it remains for years, hidden until tapped by the taste of something similar or the same. Memories of meals or dishes serve writers as a portal into their past or an armature over which other memories may be draped. Food memoir constitutes a literary genre worthy of our attention.” Doesn’t that sound dreamy and romantic?! Ah, to be a food nerd. I love it.
Each week we’re reading a long food memoir, plus several shorter stories. We’re also writing our own short memoirs in an effort to try different writing styles and find our various creative voices. As we read each other’s memoirs in class last week I realized just how vulnerable it can be to share personal stories and memoirs. Especially those that often reflect a life lesson learned or share an important and intimate memory. I’ve loved every minute so far and so I thought that maybe, just maybe, you might be interested in some of the things I end up writing. At least I know you are, mom! So, here’s this week’s.
~ Grandma Barbe, with my sister sitting on her lap and me standing beside her ~
A Love Unspoken
The house feels empty. Which is odd, since it’s impressively full. I walk past the sewing room, overflowing with reams of fabric and hundreds of spools of thread. Grandma’s three big sewing machines line the far wall under the windows that look out into the backyard. Next door I see my aunt sitting on the floor of the office drowning in file boxes and old black and white photos from Grandma’s glory days as a news radio bureau chief and reporter. Down the hall my sister sits on Grandma’s bed sorting through decades-old jewelry and even older hat boxes from my great-great grandmother’s era. Grandma’s stuff is everywhere. She seems to be all that’s missing.
“Jen, come take a look at this,” I hear my mom yell from the garage. I wander in and find mom peering into boxes of old books. “Look at this one,” she says. She hands me a small leather-bound binder bearing only the word Recipes in gold script on the cover. I open it and see that inside the front cover Grandma dated the book “1994” and wrote in her perfect script, “Jennifer Taillon – a gift from Grandma Barbe.” It’s 2007 and I quickly realize that this is the first time anyone has seen this book.
After Grandma’s dedication, the recipe book starts with a section of cards filled with household tips and cleaning tricks. “Keeping Silver/Pewter,” the first card is titled. “Cleaning Piano Keys,” says the card below it. The plastic pages that hold each card are starting to wear down, ripping at the seams but still holding tight to their contents. “Cleaning Upholstery.” “Cleaning the Fireplace.” “Keeping Flowers Fresh.”
Flipping to the next section I find a recipe for quince marmalade, with the year “1923” written next to the title. Under the title Grandma added, “This is Nana’s and she made it every year, when I was a child.” The recipe titled “Waffles” offers its own story: “Anna was Charlie’s wife. Charlie was Frank’s brother. Frank was Winnie’s husband. Winnie was Nana’s daughter.” I look up at my mom for a reminder. “Winnie?” I ask. “She was your great-grandmother, Kaye’s sister. Grandma’s aunt,” my mom clarifies. My head and heart begin to spin.
I carefully turn the plastic pages, moving back through a culinary history I never knew existed. Brownies dated 1929. Pecan rolls dated 1927. “Mrs. Finch to Kaye Clapp, 1953,” says the heading on the French dressing recipe card. Grandma had purposefully noted this one as “my favorite” when she signed the card.
Through neatly written words on a seemingly random assortment of recipe cards, Grandma was letting me into her life in a way I hadn’t been allowed before, but had always wanted. “Grandma made this for me?” I ask. “She must have been putting this together over the years and forgot to give it to you,” my mom says. A smile spreads across my face—joy tinged with grief. I take the book and wander into the dining room, sitting down in the empty silence.
Off in the distance of my memories I hear Grandma say, “Jennifer, please take this whipped cream to the table for the strawberries.” She’s standing in her kitchen, a semi-circle of walls and cabinets. “Sure, Grandma. Is there anything else I can help you with?” I ask. She answers with a distant half-smile. “Nothing right now, thank you.” As always, she has the chaos of Easter brunch under control.
Throughout the house I hear the buzz of adult conversation and the shrieks from my cousins playing back in the guest room. I dutifully take the huge bowl of whipped cream from the kitchen counter and set it on the table, grateful to be given a helpful task. Instantaneously my sister and my cousins are by my side, ready for the best part of Easter at Grandma’s: long-stemmed strawberries, dipped into fresh whipped cream and topped off with a dunk in the heaping bowl of brown sugar.
The long stem is key, as my hand can barely fit around the bulging end of the enormous strawberries. Gripping the strawberry right where the stem meets its big green leaves, I can wield as much control as possible for the dip in the whipped cream. The very first bite is my favorite: sweet, juicy, grainy from the brown sugar that quickly melts in my mouth. Running my tongue along the roof of my mouth I can feel the smooth film created by the thick whipped cream.
“Now don’t eat all those before the adults can have some,” Grandma says. “And save room for this lunch.” Grandma returns to the stove and this time I ask if I can help her with the cooking. Wide-eyed and eager, I’m told, “No no. I’m fine. Why don’t you set the table?”
As brunch ends and the dim light of mid-afternoon sets in, dad tells me it’s time to go home. I walk up to Grandma for a hug. Her arms around me, I don’t feel much besides an impenetrable distance.
“Goodbye, Grandma. See you soon.”
Sitting at the now-empty table, those Easter brunches feel so far away. My desperate desire to stand beside Grandma in the kitchen and be allowed to share just one moment of intimacy with her remains as real as the taste of that first bite of strawberry.
As I look down at the recipe book, this treasured gift I never knew existed, my tears begin to fall. It slowly dawns on me. After years of feeling invisible, it turns out Grandma knew I was there all along, ready and waiting to watch and learn. As I continue to read the detailed instructions of each recipe, and the history that brought them to me, I wish I had learned these recipes from Grandma’s hands rather than her writing. But I know that she gave me all she could in those words, in that book. The book of my Grandma’s unspoken love and intention.