My Grandmother’s Stories

My daughter, Mythili, has come home from school for two days with tears streaming down her face. She has locked herself in her room, needing a while to adjust to what the afternoon, and its homely comforts, could offer her. Yesterday she cried because she wasn’t returning the homework due, and her teacher stood outside of the school and told me that she needed to bring it, and that she didn’t seem particularly happy at the school, though he’d seen her sisters adjusting quite well. Today, it was his insistence on her using cursive for writing out her numbers, a form of writing that is foreign to her. Kind of like the language that is foreign to her.

We are in Spain. I have picked up my family and moved in the opposite direction of progress, to a country with a 20% unemployment rate and a government that can’t decide what to do with itself. Mythili, like me, is struggling with understanding all that is asked of her, and just like I couldn’t get the phone line installed when I wanted, she didn’t know when to turn in her homework.

These moments that I have omitted from my Facebook posts, that I have mostly kept quiet, these are the moments that I think about my grandmother’s story. She told it to me more than once, a bright line from Heaven shining down on her faith, her childhood, her way of looking at this world.

There are so many things that I could write about my grandmother. It could begin with the two weeks we used to spend with her every summer, where she’d take us to the beach (we all had to carry a chair and a towel, to take turns holding handles of the cooler), to the bargain shops to pick out new outfits for school, to church where she would pray and introduce us to her priest, to the small pond in Bethany where we swam and played on the playground. Those visits were the highlight of my childhood summers, and as an adult, when I planned visits, she still did everything in her power to make it special, calling me a week in advance to ask what meal she should prepare, asking me what show in New York we should go see, driving across states to visit Bob or Willow.

But it is the childhood stories, the ones she told me on long road trips or train rides, that I will remember most distinctly. To this day, I cannot allow my children to carry a spoon, a stick, a straw, or anything in their mouths as they walk around, for pure fear of what might happen to them as my grandmother reiterated many times the tragic loss of her twenty-one-month-old baby sister, who died from an infection in her throat after tripping with a lollipop stick in her mouth. The time when she went with her father, at age nine, to go look for an apartment across town because her mother was so heartbroken over losing her baby that she couldn’t live there any more. I can still hear my grandmother’s voice: “I looked out the window of the apartment down below. There was an empty lot. And a little boy was taking his car and making tracks in the dirt. He looked up for just a moment and waved at me… that was the first time I saw your grandfather.”

The story that stands out the most for me I have replayed in my mind many times over the past five months. In a period of two days, I found out that I was accepted into a teaching program in Spain, that my grandmother was entering hospice care, and that I would have to quit the job that I loved so much rather than taking a leave of absence.

I kept thinking about my grandmother’s childhood journey, and the one of her mother before her, coming to a country she’d never seen. My grandmother told me that when she came back to the United States at age eight, even though she’d been born in America, she only spoke Italian. She had much difficulty understanding English in school. All the kids at school picked on her and called her a guinea. She talked about how her father, “in his broken English,” went down to the school and told the teachers that they needed to help her, but that no one would help her.

At her wit’s end, she went to church. She knelt on a pew and prayed to God to help her, to help her learn English so that she could be a part of her new country, so that she could be educated. She prayed and cried, and soon a nice Irish woman came over to her and asked her what was wrong. She tried to explain, and the woman took her in, helped her learn English, introduced her to the man that she would one day marry. “And I knew,” she told me, “I knew that God had heard me, and that God was looking out for me.”

I will never forget those words and what the story meant to my grandmother. Her experiences, her stories, have trickled down four generations, and I feel my family living a life very similar to hers now. All along this arduous journey of sacrifice I have made to bring my family to Spain and fulfill a lifelong dream, I have thought about what my grandmother would have told me to do. And what my grandmother’s parents did; the risks they took.

So when I see my daughter step into her room and cry because she is so frustrated, because she doesn’t quite fit in, because everyone in her class knows her name though she knows none of theirs (“Why do they know your name?” “Because they talk about me all the time since I’m American,” she replies), I think about my grandmother. I think about her story, about her struggles growing up in the Depression, and then moving on to a better life, raising the four children she loved so much, doting on the seven grandchildren whose visits she cherished.

I will always remember our visits. The memories will dance like a filmstrip through my mind, sweet and melodic. But it is her words, her stories, that will trickle down and make me, and all the generations her soul has touched, the people that we were meant to be.

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Room of Punishment

i heard what happened
in a roundabout way
as all families today,
over Internet connections
and telephone lines,
communicating the news
of those who can’t communicate.

i cringed in my mixture of pain, guilt,
of love, sorrow, my emotions
breeding from those moments
in my childhood when i sat,
holed up under my blankets
in a dark room of punishment,
wishing i could be instead
in your arms, your wet kisses
rough on my cheek, your
planned-out dinners and desserts
waiting for approval,
your I love yous ending every sentence.

instead, you have been moved
from one dark room of punishment
to another, shuffled around
like a naughty child,
no parent (child or grandchild)
able to solve the dilemma of your age.

i am one of them,
two generations down,
with young children of my own
who will never sit in a room
wishing for your warmth.

all i can do with
the electronically-presented words
still ringing in my ears,
is hole up in my room of punishment
and wish that i had called you
before they took your phone away,
wish that i had visited
before He took your mind away.

Grandma (One Day is Not Enough)

I know you’re still here but I’ve already lost you—
you are not the same person who handed out hugs
as if your arms couldn’t function without being around us;
you argue now like an obstinate three-year-old
and spout words that sting till tomorrow’s sunrise,
though by then you’ve already forgotten them.

I miss those days when I’d curl crying in my bed
swallowing the salty remarks my mother had thrown at me
and being able to wipe away the tears only
because I thought of you, kisses bursting from your lips,
taking us to the beach, asking us what we wanted
for every meal the week before we arrived,
sharing your own tears on my cheeks when we left.

Every summer you took us shopping at the best bargain stores
and outfitted us in the newest styles for the school year
and taught us how to pick parsley and basil from the herb garden
and how to sauté garlic, onions, and carrots for the marinara
and how to boil steamers for just a few minutes,
then dip the clams in butter and let them slide down
our throats, their taste lingering of the sea you’ve always loved.

We exchanged letters for years, your scrawling cursive writing
filled with your beliefs about my schooling,
my boyfriends, and your Catholic upbringing,
touching my heart with your love just as much as
the gifts and cards you sent for my birthdays
all the way into my adult years.

I know you’re still here, but I’ve already lost you
and when I think about the phone calls I forget to make
or the confusion in your voice when we speak,
I recall my childhood, your ever-affectionate presence
the sweet happiness that I forever longed for,
and though I feel old and alone and sometimes lost along with you,
I still carry your Italian black hair on my head,
your sauce recipe in my memory,
and the remnants of your soul within my soul.

My Grandmother’s (Ever)last(ing) Gift

I baked another magnificent concoction—a blackout chocolate cake—that was received with rave reviews and status updates and insistences that it was the best cake anyone had ever tasted. Having tasted only the frosting and a few remaining crumbs myself, I couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about.

But then I remembered the flour.

I grew up in the kitchens of my mother and grandmother. My mother taught me how to can vegetables and fruits, how to prepare a simple, healthy meal with meat, a starch, and a vegetable, and how to clean the kitchen, scrubbing every pot and wiping behind the sink and ringing out the rags after their scorching water rinses. My Italian grandmother taught me how to make marinara from scratch, first sautéing garlic, onions, and carrots in olive oil, then dunking fresh tomatoes in boiling water to remove their skins, then mashing them up with a spoon and adding them, with a six-ounce jar of tomato paste, fresh basil, oregano, marjoram, and parsley, to the pan. But it didn’t stop there. She showed me how to roll out dough for pasta and crank it into shapes with her metal hand pasta maker. She taught us both (my mother and I) what temperature a pot roast needed to begin at and how it should come out in the end. With wrinkled hands and bouts of passing out kisses between measurements, she showed me how to cook like an Italian: from scratch.

Growing up, the only things my mother ever baked were chocolate chip cookies or birthday cakes, where we would walk through the aisles of the grocery store picking out our favorite flavored mix and frosting. She knew just how to frost a cake with her thin metal spatula so that it was a work of art every time.

But it wasn’t until I was a grown woman with a baby of my own that I learned from my grandmother how to bake. She flew in on a surprise visit for my father’s fiftieth birthday. It was the very end of 2003, one of the most emotionally turbulent years for my family. In the course of eight months, the first great-grandchild, Isabella, came into the world, followed closely by my grandfather’s death, and then, before even catching a breath, my great-aunt Frances (who taught my mother to cook) and my grandmother’s mother, the original creator of the magnificent sauce and noodles, both passed away.

So I was surprised when Grandma called, begging me to arrange the plane ticket out of New York so she could surprise my father. She was always thinking of someone else, even in her time of turmoil. When she arrived the day before his birthday, she had a menu in mind. We woke up early the next day and headed to the store where she insisted on certain brands for every product, whether it was tomatoes, chicken, spices, cocoa, pudding mix, butter, champagne, vegetables, and, finally, the flour.

“You can’t bake a cake without King Arthur flour.”

We came home and read the recipe (already in my cookbook) for chocolate cake. She worked on the frosting—also made from scratch (who knew frosting was simply butter, cocoa, powdered sugar, and vanilla?)—while I mixed together the ingredients for the cake. I was shocked: all it took were eggs, sour milk, flour, butter, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, and baking soda. I thought about all the ingredients listed on the back of the cake mix box and it made my stomach churn. Meanwhile, Grandma mixed up some pudding for the middle of the cake—also something I never would have thought of.

When my parents came over for dinner that night, thinking that I had prepared a simple meal, they were shocked out of their minds to see Grandma at our house. Everyone sat down to enjoy one of Dad’s favorites—chicken cacciatore prepared with those delicious tomatoes Grandma picked, delicious Italian bread, and a side of peas and onions sautéed in olive oil. But the cake? What can I say? It took the cake! Hands down, it was the best cake I had ever tasted. Was it the flour or the fact that we didn’t use a mix? It didn’t matter—I was hooked. I repeated the recipe six weeks later for Isabella’s first birthday, and year after year, using that flour and a variety of different flavors, we have had nothing less than a series of delicious cakes.

The King Arthur flour bag had become a staple in our kitchen, and by chance one afternoon I read the recipe for “The Best Fudge Brownies Ever.” An eternal chocolate lover could never turn down such an insistent advertisement, so I shopped for what I would need, in particular Dutch-process cocoa (dark!) and dark chocolate chips, and tasted once, and a hundred or more times since that first bite, the most scrumptious brownie anyone could ever imagine.

That is the cake and those are the brownies that got me hooked on baking. Before we knew it, we were using the flour to make homemade pancakes, breads, and pizza dough. But it wasn’t enough to share it with my family—the world needed to taste the creations derived from this flour. Soon brownies became a weekly event, a special treat for me to take to work and share with coworkers, whose everlasting delight has included thank-you notes and bags of flour, sugar, and chocolate chips in my box. Throw a few cakes in and the happiness breeds itself in a workplace that is weighed down with stress and financial insecurities, making everyone feel, for the moments that they indulge in these desserts, that life is still a gift.

My grandmother, after that visit, began to deteriorate rapidly. She stopped cooking, baking, and is almost to the point of having to be forced to eat. Suffering from Alzheimer’s now, she will soon enter an assisted living home. Even though the average grocery store customer, while in the baking aisle, might think all the flours will create the same results, I will always remember what I consider to be my grandmother’s final, most precious, kitchen gift: the King Arthur flour that has brought pure love to all the people who have ever brought a taste of its creations to their lips.