My whole life has been lived in fast forward.
Mark asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I said
"I want my grandmothers."
which was dirty trick, since I am already challenging for him to buy for. I will confess to being a rather difficult person to do nice things for, since I fancy myself the doing of nice things, not the receiver of nice things. It has been a life long issue. I once had a boyfriend that was excellent at doing nice things. He was a good gift giver and setter upper of good times. It was one relationship where I was good at accepting, but I blew it up anyway, and have not felt comfortable with gifts since. That was 1988, so it's clearly an old habit of mine to be difficult.
If I could have my wish and have my grandmothers for my birthday, my grandma Betty would ask me "what is your birthday order?" and I would tell her, what I told her my whole life, that all I want is for her to make me stew and dumplings and stewed tomatoes, and home canned green beans, and a chocolate pie, with whipped cream. She would put the home canned tomatoes in a custard cup, that had belonged to her mother, a tiny, apricot, ceramic cup, with embossed with flowers. My birthday is in January, but my grandmother would have quarts and quarts of Oregon Giant and Blue Lake green beans canned from my grandfather's garden, pints of tomatoes, completely unseasoned, except for a bit of salt. Every trace of skin, painstakingly removed, sometimes with my help. Those tomatoes grown with such love and devotion taste like tomatoes, a tomatoness you don't find any more, very often. I was fond of them hot or cold, but mostly cold, in that particular cup, and as a birthday gift so specific and unreproducible today that it makes me cry a little thinking of it. The strew was thick and homely, with carrot and celery, the dumplings steamed on top, sticky and a bit brain-like in appearance.
From my other grandmother, who I just called Grandma, I would request biscuits and gravy, peppery and made with milk. Her biscuits were light and fluffy and golden and crusty- she had a hand for baking that I didn't inherit.
She learned to bake literally as a child, when her own mother would pull her out of school to cook for the threshing teams. She and her sister turning out huge meals for a group of men. "Alice was the pie baker and I always made the cakes." She made a decent pie, but it's true, her cakes were wondrous, she could whip up a "crazy cake" from memory, and roll out yards of biscuits without paying much attention. Flour floating in the air, using a water glass to cut the pastry into rounds.
Homemade noodles were the thing that she was stingy with. You had to catch her in just the right mood, to get her to make those work intensive treats, which she would boil in chicken broth which turned to gravy, from the flour the noodles were dusted with. My grandfather hated noodles in all forms, so it had to be a special occasion, like a birthday, to get those creamy, thick, hand cut,delicious noodles.
Unlike my paternal grandmother, with her canned fruits and vegetables in neat rows, on shelves on the deck, Grandma's fruitroom, was a dark and mysterious place, in a cobwebbed section of the basement, so creepy that not even the bravest cousin would chose it for hiding during hide and seek.
The fruitroom was cold storage for canned goods and dry goods like 50# of carrots, potatoes and onions. Home canned pickles of all varieties, green tomato relish, pickled beets, applesauce, prunes, green beans, corn, tomatoes, berries, jam, jelly, and concord grape juice. All grown, processed and canned by my grandparents, side by side, typically silently, in the tiny crooked kitchen, then stashed, by my grandfather in the basement, to be retrieved by terrified children for meals, months and sometimes years later.
I spent much of my childhood with these grandparents, and I was unabashedly the favorite, and I will confess to seldom getting called upon to fetch items from the fruitroom for dinner. I stuck to my grandmother like glue and it was much more likely for me to help her cook, than to be called away from play on an errand. Grandma almost always wore an apron at home, the kind that ties around the waist and at the neck, and I literally clung to her apron strings until I was too old for such foolishness, standing right beside her as she worked. When I cook now, I often feel the memory of her, as I move, throwing things into the pots without measure, although I am very neat, which was never her style.
I will go to dinner tonight, with my husband and I will eat something fancy and no doubt quite good, but nothing will ever say birthday to me quite like the special food I grew up with. When my kitchen is finally finished, I will fry cabbage and onions, and make gravies, and lopsided cakes and pies with crooked lattice tops, that bubble up and spoil the tidiness of my oven. I will put bubbling hot soup in that tiny custard cup and eat it with a worn out silver spoon and that will taste like home.