My Grandmother’s Living Room

It has been hot in Seattle this summer. Unusually hot. I have a lot of windows in my home and plantation blinds. It was hot where my grandmother lived. Very hot. She had lots of windows in her home and Venetian blinds. Grand Mommy would pull the Venetian blinds down against the fierce San Fernando Valley sun. Her living room would become dark and calm and peaceful. Now I pull the plantation blinds down against the sun bearing down on my own living room. The room becomes dark and calm and peaceful. I think about my grandmother’s living room on a hot summer day.

We would lie on the floor in front of a blowing fan.  Four cousins, best of friends.  Sometimes Grand Daddy would bring home a bag of ice and put it between us and the fan.  With the ice melting in a brown paper bag, I would lie very still on my grandmother’s brown rug, surrounded by my cousins. Cooled air would blow across our flushed faces and small sweaty bodies.  I felt safe and loved and comforted.  On those days, and in those moments, the heat became my friend.

Recipes

I went to the almost annual Blintzapalooza at our local synagogue. Blintzapalooza is a feast of blintzes, bagels and used books sold to raise funds in support of local nonprofit agencies.  I went for books and bagels; my friend Michelle went for books and blintzes.  There was also a cheesecake baking contest to which I paid scant attention.  I don’t like to cook, and I don’t even like cheesecake.

I am a disinterested cook and my mother was a plain cook who never really enjoyed that obligatory chore imposed on moms of a certain era.  It is ironic that she collected cookbooks while traveling all over the United States. I inherited way too many of them when she passed away. 

While at Blintzapalooza, I stepped into the room with books on the subjects of arts, crafts, gardening, decorating and cooking when I suddenly remembered I had donated several boxes of cookbooks to this year’s event. I also recalled that I was relieved to pass the unused books along.  I wondered whether I would see my mother’s cookbooks among those in that room at the Temple.

I noticed a woman with an armful of cookbooks bound in plastic spiral clips.  Sure enough, those were some of my mother’s many books.  I asked if I could tell her the story of the cookbooks – collected at small town bazaars, yard sales, rummage sales, school fund raisers, and more.  I told her how my parents would return home from many cross-country trips, their RV laden with regional cookbooks according to the local culture, custom and cuisine of the various places they had visited. My mother took great joy in reading her collection, even if she never prepared any of the recipes. The woman told me her son collected just those sorts of spiral-bound vintage cookbooks from small towns and “ladies’ auxiliaries”, and that he would be delighted to know their history.

While we were talking, some scraps of paper fell out from among the books. Pages written in my grandmother’s very distinct hand.  Oh no.  Had I been too hasty?  In my rush to purge the books, did I let go of something I would have meant to keep?  Of course I did not dare ask to have the papers back.  But, I did take a minute to look them over.  Menus, notes, scraps of kitchen memories written by my grandmother and tucked into my mother’s cookbook collection.  A testimony of love by my mom for her mom.

In my grandmother’s kitchen, all we ever knew was love. I gave the pages full of love back to the woman, taking solace that a mother was giving them to her son.  And trusting that a son would appreciate such a gift from his mother.  I wondered if I would have regrets.

In my own kitchen, there is a strong presence of my grandmother. Her spirit shows up most clearly when I am standing at the kitchen sink, looking out the window.  She was there at the sink when I got home from Blintzapalooza.  And now I know those little pages of notes, written in my grandmother’s hand and falling out of my mother’s cookbooks, were like little recipes for life. A recipe for sharing and the grace of passing things along for others to enjoy.   A recipe for knowing not to keep every scrap of stuff lest the stuff become more important than the meaning.  A recipe for accepting that when we can hold a memory we do not need to hold the thing.  A recipe for believing that it is okay for someone else to take care of the thing, and that our memories will also be taken care of. 

And because I got to tell the story of my mother’s cookbooks, I know my memories of her cookbook collection will be taken care of, as well.  My grandmother made sure of that when her little kitchen love notes fell out of my mother’s cookbooks in that room at the synagogue.  No regrets.

Good cooks often have a story about their own grandmother’s influence on their cooking skills.  I just never cared to develop those skills, and neither did my mother.  However, my grandmother did cook delicious Southern food and I do, once in a while, make her mother’s recipe for cornbread dressing.  So did my mother. That’s the one recipe I know I kept.  Because our cornbread dressing is pure love.  And the memory of at least four generations of women sharing one recipe is all we need to keep.