The wild stray chin hairs; eyewear fogged by stockpot steam; a crochet hook moving at the speed of light; sweatshirts adorned with wild-eyed cats; bleach-white Keds; red and white gingham blouses reminiscent of Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island. There’s a reason I can crochet tiny baskets in circles around you. There’s an explanation to my passion for food. There is a story for the suitcase full of “dress up clothes” hiding in my garage right now.
In all of my childhood, nothing left quite the impression on me as time spent with my Grandparents. They were creative, loving, entertaining, engaging…I am so thankful my parents made sure I had a relationship with all of them. Those times spent with them helped shape who I am today.
My dad’s mom, Mary, was an inspiration in many non-traditional ways. She had 3 dogs, romance novels on the bedside table and refused to watch Wheel of Fortune because she thought Vanna White was a slut. She slaved over elaborate meals in the kitchen and her rose garden rivaled any neighbors’.
Her garage was weird and wonderful– filled with old plastic Tide tubs, wrapping paper, stationary, canned food, boxes and tools. I can still see the Coca-Cola T-shirt I picked out at Sears and my first pair of Jellies she insisted on buying for me. Grandma’s back yard was full of plants she’d started from clippings, and each day we’d dash outside to see if the fig and citrus trees had any ripe fruit to offer. In the mornings I watched in awe as she performed her daily “make up” routine: wash face, rub on Vaseline and finish with aloe straight from the plant in her back yard. She had the softest skin I have ever laid hands on!
* * *
One year, when my sister and I were in our early 20’s, we asked Grandma Mary to teach us how to cook. We thought perhaps it would be an entertaining way to spend Christmas day.
“We’ll make Lo Mein and Chicken enchiladas” she told us.
“That’s an interesting combination,” my sister quipped.
With her fist out in front of her, thumb up and moving as if it were repeatedly pressing an invisible button, Grandma snapped back, “That’s what we’re gonna make!” Each syllable of her declaration punctuated with another “push”.
My sister’s boyfriend at the time had accidentally been roped into the cooking lesson too. He dutifully accepted instruction and kept his mouth shut. Ashley and I , on the other hand, are our grandmother’s grandaughters, and although the Chinese-Cherokee bossy blood has trickled down to only 1/8 in us, we do well to keep up in feistiness.
I fried the DRY noodles in the pan without asking questions. Ashley prepped for the enchiladas.
“Okay Amber. Now you need to peel the mushrooms.”
I stared blankly. “PEEL the mushrooms?” I thought. PEEL them? “You want me to PEEL them Grandma?”
“Yes! That’s what I said. PEEL them.”
“How do you do that?”
“You never peel mushroom before?”
“Nope,” I said. Ashley’s eyes were wide as she shot me a frown.
“Gimme that.” Grandma grabbed the paring knife and a mushroom. “Like this,” she said. She laid her knife at the outer edge of the gills, pulled up, then down around the curved edge to the apex of the fungus top. She twisted the mushroom to the left and PEELED off a wedged section. Well I’ll be damned! You can peel a mushroom!
Much of the afternoon looked like this: Simple instruction from Grandma, confused look from us, Chinese expletive, detailed instruction and then an aha! moment.
* * *
I know not everyone has the opportunity to have a relationship with their grandparents, and I am very grateful that I did. Even after I grew up and moved away and got married, we still kept in touch. I’d send her letters with photos of our newest pets, and in return she’d send me recipes like this one:
My Grandma Mary passed away last week. She was 92 years old.
Thank you Grandma, for passing on your mad kitchen skills and your killer green thumb…And your feisty personality, of course.