Monday, November 26, 2007

Do you really know me?

Uncle Bob called again yesterday and we talked. He wanted to thank me for the stories I sent him and to let me know what he thought of them. "This one story sounds a lot like your mom with the migraines."

I knew which one he meant. "It is Mom."

"Sounds just like her. I was just rereading the story about Brandon. I didn't cry when Mom and Dad died because they were old; they had lived their lives. When your mom called and told me about Brandon I broke down and cried. Reading your story took me back there."

He meant, The Phone Call. I wrote the story about Beanie's first child Brandon who died of SIDS. It's a story I haven't sent my mother because she still can't handle talking about Brandon let alone reading about him.

Uncle Bob and I talked about Dad and he said he wouldn't have stayed with Mom fifteen minutes and that Dad was a special man. "There will never be another Jim Cornwell," he said. He's right. Uncle Bob told me about how he never changed a diaper or bathed any of his kids. "I babysat but I told Lois I wasn't changing any diapers." And he didn't. He's not that way with his grandchildren and he's changed a few diapers since then. He has mellowed with the years. "Jim bathed you kids and washed and curled your hair. Virginia called and said she hadn't bathed any of you."

Knowing my grandmother as I did, I wonder how both of her children could have failed to learn how to or want to care for a child since she was so nurturing and loving. Then again, Gram did everything for her children and didn't make them learn what she knew. That is a shame.

I didn't know Mom didn't bathe us or shampoo and curl our hair. I did know Dad did all those things because I remember sitting still while he curled my hair around his thick, work roughened hands making banana curls like Shirley Temple. I can still see him changing Jimmy's and Tracy's diapers and walking the floor singing and talking to them when they were teething or colicky or just plain fussy. I knew Mom burned water when she boiled it because both my parents told me about it -- so did Grandma -- and that still surprises me because Grandma was an excellent cook.

We talked about Grandma's cooking and Uncle Bob told me how he called her one day to get her recipe for beef and noodles and asked how she made the noodles, which she always made from scratch. When his kids got home from school and found dinner on the table they asked if Grandma had been out. "No. I made dinner." His kids didn't believe him so they called Grandma and asked. "No," she said, "your dad made dinner. I wasn't there."

"I never saw Mom look up a recipe. She kept them all in her head," Uncle Bob said as we talked about our favorite recipes and finding we had several in common: lemon meringue pie with golden peaks piled high over a sweet-tart lemon filling, creamed chipped beef on toast and her pies. "Mom used lard in her pie crust. Said it made them flakier," he said. Gram's cooking wasn't heart healthy but it was filling and better than ambrosia of the gods, which she made.

By today's standards, Gram's cooking was pedestrian fare but when I think of holidays and crave comfort food, it's Gram's food I want. One of these days I'll perfect her peach cobbler and I think I can do it now. What's missing is lard for the double crust and it's something I never considered before. My brother Jimmy bakes a good peach cobbler and even makes it in a cast iron skillet, but it's not the same. The crust isn't right. Now I know why.

I remember Gram picking green beans and tomatoes from the little garden plot she had in the back yard wherever she lived. She grew beans and corn and tomatoes, radishes, green onions, and peas in the early spring, planting them as soon as she could push a seed into the frozen ground. We strung beans with newspapers on our laps sitting on the porch and we talked. She taught me to pit cherries with a bobby pin and how to make grape jelly from the grapes that grew on the arbor in the back yard when we lived on Terrace Avenue in Columbus. I learned to strip corn off the cob, can tomatoes and preserve the harvest in freezer and jar and I learned to love simple food that lingers in the memory long after I can no longer taste it on my tongue, food that takes me back to the warmth of Gram's kitchen and the joy that comes from making jelly rolls with leftover pie crust she gave me to practice on.

At times like this, I long to return to familiar places and times, but most surprising is what my uncle said before we said goodbye last night. "You should move home and be close to family. If something happened to you who would take care of you?" After losing so much of our family, I understand his concern, but there is no going back for me or for any of us. The people who held our family together -- Grandma May and Dad -- are gone. They were the homemakers, the nurturing warmth that welcomed and cheered us and we miss them. I miss them. I miss talking to my uncle, too, but we are no longer the close-knit family we once were. We have grown up and moved on and out and we miss those familiar golden times when we gathered together at holidays or for a Sunday dinner and shared our lives and our food. I am blessed because I can remember those times and keep them alive in the stories I write and the food my grandmother taught me to make. I have surpassed her in some ways and fearlessly tried new foods and recipes, but I always return to what she taught me for comfort and to honor her memory, but most of all to bring back those times with the scent and taste of home.

There is much about my family I don't know and much they don't know about me, but at least they are willing to read my words and get a little closer, sharing their memories of the people and places I write about and teaching me what matters to them and what they keep close to their hearts.

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