I find myself beginning this blog with a cliche: my grandmother's kitchen. But where else could I begin?
We called my grandmother "Gaga". My oldest cousin couldn't say "Grandma". It came out "Gaga". And that is who she became to everyone. I knew few people who called her by any other name; only a neighbor and my grandfather (though he preferred to call her every pet name imaginable, many he made up, rather than her given name).
This was the place where cooking came alive for me. It is where I learned that a room built for practical applications could also be a holy place, infused with the Spirit and infusing everything that passed through it with love.
My earliest memories of that kitchen are of the double-sink. I believe it was enameled, but my memory fails too much to be certain. I remember sitting in that sink, which I only knew as a wonderful bathtub at first. I can still feel the smooth slope of the sink on my back and try to find a place for my feet other than in the drain. Red and yellow Fischer Price figures bob in the water around me, buoyed by their hollow plastic frames. I hear her distinct laugh as I play and she cleans the kitchen. Then there are her hands, calloused from wielding knife and hoe, sewing machine and pressure cooker. The wash cloth is a soft contrast to her rough and loving hands.
As a young child, the kitchen was a pass-through from the dining room to the back yard, a place I could grab a drink and a hug before running out or in, depending on the weather and wherever my brother would lead me. Usually it was out the back door onto the stoop. From the bottom of the steps, the strangely comfortable and saccharine smell of the gas stove mingled with the fresh bite from the peppermint that had laid claim all along the corner of the house. Above that mint the side of the house was slightly worn from my father's pitching practice. "Slug" or "slugger" then, not yet "Daddy", he knew the sweet spot, the strike zone, over and over throwing the ball against the side of the house. I imagine Gaga at the stove, just on the other side of the wall from Daddy's would-be hitters, shaking her head in both pride and annoyance.
Just inside the back door on the wall to the right was a rite of passage, a graduation wall for all children, grandchildren, cousins, friends, and neighbors. We took our turn at nearly every visit to be measured, marked, and dated. We would beg to be measured to see how much we had grown, even if only a month or week had passed; that wall of pride and comparison, even competition and aspiration, for which Gaga was the steward. With her hand she wrote, smile on face and pride in heart, every name and every date. No one dared mark or even touch that wall. "Bryant": the name at the top that set a high bar at 6'4'' or higher. Bryant was the son of a neighbor but his name was an unobtainable yet hoped-for goal for every child who backed against that wall, head held high and back set straight.
On the other side of the door was the gas stove. I never cooked much beside her. I hadn't graduated to that course, or perhaps she kept the actual cooking for her own meditation and soul. But I can smell it; a mixture of propane and fond, seasoned perfection. From that seemingly out-dated and out-moded stove, Gaga delivered love and health, often with a dose of creativity. She's the only one I've ever known to put raisins in her rice and I still remember her pear salad, a culinary artifact that made my brother's and my mouths water.
My favorite spots were the sink and the island counter. Before being trusted with a knife, Gaga set me on her red vinyl and shiny aluminum stool; the kind with the step stool in the bottom and a staple of most every 50s and 60s kitchen. I'm sure I asked more than my fair share of questions from that stool and delayed many a meal in the process. But she would laugh, talk to me, show me her countless cookbooks and recipe file boxes, and move me as-needed to step up on the stool to retrieve an ingredient from a top shelf. The older she grew, the more she needed the stool as her body curled on itself and her height dwindled. I knew to look but not touch; that those seemingly random and worn recipes had their place and it wasn't for me to disturb them.
As her body diminished, mine grew taller and stronger and my mind grew more inquisitive. I became a help for her and she became a mentor. At that sink and by the stove I learned to blanch and peel tomatoes for stewing, how to add the right amount of bread, cheese, and sugar to make the tomatoes burst with flavor. I learned why I never saw a cake produced by that kitchen and saw humility modeled by a cook who new her strengths and weaknesses. There she would don latex gloves to chop and peel hot peppers grown out the back door. Granddad traveled with Tobasco and would have put it on ice cream if he thought he could get away with it (a tradition maintained by my aunt- check her purse!). So in the dying days of summer on August afternoons, Gaga would make her own pepper relish, something I dared not touch and my brother aspired to survive.
Every scrap of vegetable or fruit was added to the coffee can next to the sink, lined with a plastic bag, future fertilizer for next year's peppers and tomatoes.
There are regrets in the holes of these memories. I never asked her to show me how to make her signature Christmas Tree cookies. I didn't watch as she made her own version of sweet and sour pork, a riff on a recipe clipped from a newspaper years ago. And we never baked her mother's chess pie recipe together, though I have it in Gaga's own hand and have made it many times.
But those regrets aren't many. Mostly those memories conjure an ineffable warmth in the deepest caverns of my heart. That kitchen, those smells, the feel of the counters, they are no longer as they once were, but in my mind they are alive. And with them, so is she.
Visiting that kitchen again calls to mind hours of conversation, Parcheesi, and Rook; the sharing of letters from sisters and nieces, memories of bus rides and college visits. And I see her at her dinette table again, as she would have sat to write words of encouragement to me once I had gone to college. Every enveloped opened from her was a moment out of time, away from the dorm, to sit in her kitchen again. She closed every letter with an inspirational quote, something to either encourage or challenge or both. And I have many of those tucked away in a book in my office.
This priest began in that kitchen. I believe I learned not only to love the kitchen and cooking there, but how to love through cooking, the ways a meal prepared or a pickle canned could be an act of the soul, an expression of the gift of love and life that flows through us all.
So, I begin. Nearly 20 years after her death, she visits me now in my kitchen as I hear the laughter of my children outside my window.
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