This afternoon, I made cavatelli. I don’t think my grandma ever made cavatelli, in fact, she probably didn’t even know what it was. But she was a cook, and a good one, figuring out how to feed 7 people in the depression, four of them being men, two of them being grown men; my grandfather and grandma’s brother Herman, my Mom’s uncle, who lived with them.
Working my ass off in the kitchen today, making cavetelli, which are fairly labor-intense, and two pizza doughs at the same time, and having already made the last of my steel cut oats and put in the fridge for breakfasts this coming week, I was thinking of grandma. How much has changed, and yet so little, a woman in the kitchen alone, working while the radio is on. My radio may be in the form of music coming out of the computer instead of a tinny, tiny transistor radio, and I’m not wearing a housecoat, but in some ways how little has changed, and that made me happy.
Grandma was always thin. She was also always cooking, something that’s been touched upon in the news lately, albeit in a very bad way. The woman was always moving. I can hardly think of her and not picture her in the kitchen. She baked pies every week, and more than one. My family would go over to her place pretty much every Saturday when I was growing up, and if by chance she wasn’t at home, there was always a freshly baked pie on her always-clean counter with a note: “help yourself.” She didn’t drive so she was home most of the time, and we would sometimes hang out at her place for hours, my sister and I making a game out of counting things she collected when on sale, a habit from the Depression era that she never got past – 15 bars of soap, 12 packages of toilet paper, etc. I get the security now that this kind of storage brings, the feeling that you’ll never run out. Few things make me feel more secure than a fridge packed with food.
Grandma always had something to eat, no matter what time we got there, and would quickly put out a spread whether you were hungry or not, of whatever bits were in the fridge. Some leftover goulash she’d made yesterday, a little bit of spaghetti that’s in there, some bologna from the White Barn, always a plate of white bread and little jars of homemade jelly, some applesauce, cottage cheese, some homemade noodles and chicken, whatever was on hand. She was amazing.
Grandma was tea and toast at the kitchen table late at night when we were lucky enough to spend the night there, sitting in the quiet kitchen with the clock ticking and her asking us questions about our lives. Her light, sweet smell of perfume and powder as I crawled in the big bed next to her and we’d turn our heads to watch Johnny Carson on the little black and white TV in the corner, my sister squared away in the little spare bed in the adjacent room. She was getting to try on her clip on jewelry and big, colorful strands of pearls and necklaces with owls and birds, and pins with flowers and funny hats.
She was also a powerhouse. Never have I seen someone be able to shop for as long as she could. We would literally spend 3 to 4 HOURS at the Goodwill once every couple of months or so when we would take her shopping. When she got really old, she used to take off whatever shoes she was wearing and leave them there and wear the new ones home. “Why not?” she said, “I bought them here, may as well leave them here.” She knew that as an old lady, nobody was going to say jack squat to her.
Once my Mom took her out for her birthday and she ordered a glass of “shab-liss.” “Mom,” my mother said, “I think you mean chablis,” she said, pronouncing it correctly. Grandma looked at her and said, “I guess if I’ve got the money and I order shabliss, they’re going to bring it to me, aren’t they.” It was a statement, not a question.
She loved a good fried fish sandwich and was the one who taught us all how to mushroom hunt; how to spot the poisonous mushrooms and to stay away from toadstools. What side of the tree to look for them on, and what to look for in the woods to know where they would be (and no, I’m not telling you). She’d spend hours tromping through the woods, her eagle eyes never missing one. I’d come home with one or two in my bag and she’d have a couple of POUNDS of the beautiful, earthy morels, which she’d clean and salt and flour and fry up in butter.
She had a sharp and sarcastic wit that could shut you down in a second or make you laugh forever. One Thanksgiving, after hours of slaving, she came into the living room and announced dinner was ready by yelling, “I ain’t servin’ ya, ye can serve yerselves,” to which my grandfather replied, “Oh, stuff it up your ass, Ethel,” as he creaked out of his chair, and we all laughed. When my Mom was a kid they got a hole in the roof that got so bad it came through to grandma’s bedroom. It started to get cold and still grandpa didn’t fix it, despite her repeated nagging. When it finally started to snow, around Halloween, she went and got a big black marker and wrote on the ceiling, “Boo! Winter is here!” in huge letters. He finally fixed the hole.
This morning I had to go to my mothers’ to go over her “affairs” as they say. She wants to make sure I know where everything is when the time comes. I tried to be analytical and discuss things with her in a stalwart way, but there was a lump in my throat the whole time which I employed all my acting tricks in order to try to make it so she couldn’t see, but i know she saw. I know one day that day will come, but whenever it happens, it will be too soon. I know it was too soon for both of us when grandma left us.