This picture popped up on my Facebook memories earlier this week.
I’ll admit it’s not a great photo. But I remember this day well, because I’m fairly certain it was the last time I had my grandmother’s chicken and dumplings.
I was visiting my parents in southwest Virginia, and my grandmother made a batch just for me. I insisted she didn’t need to do that, that I just wanted to see her and not to trouble herself over me, but stubbornness does run in the family, and she’d already made up her mind.
Looking back on it now, I’m glad I took the picture, and glad she did trouble herself. And very glad indeed that I ate almost the whole batch.
I mentioned in Wednesday’s post that I’d spent some time thinking on fond memories and my family.
I don’t have many photo albums in the house – most of those are with my parents – but I do have one, and I’d sort of forgotten about it until Wednesday.
I realize I spend a lot of time talking about my mother’s parents, but not so much about my father’s, and this album was a Mother’s Day gift from me to my paternal grandmother, Dorothy, back in 2001.
My dad’s parents both passed away much earlier in my life than my mom’s. My paternal grandfather, Porter, died when I was in the second grade. I don’t remember all that much about him, but the memories I do have are good ones.
I remember he always kept a little black comb in his shirt pocket, and he used to let me comb the whisps of hair on the sides of his head.
I remember drinking Mountain Dew floats with him in the two big recliners in their living room.
I remember his voice, barely, and that he wasn’t a tall man. Neither he nor my grandmother was particularly tall, actually. I guess that explains why I’m so short.
My paternal grandmother died when I was 21. My parents lived with her for the last years of her life, and I’m so glad now that I got to have that extra time with her, in her home, that’s now become my parents’ home.
My favorite picture in the album is this one.
That’s Grandma Dot teaching me to make biscuits. I’ve smeared flour on my cheeks to make it more “believable.” She’s trying not to laugh at me, kindly, and I’m smiling, because I think I’m very clever.
Happy moments like this one will live in my memory forever, I think. And on days like Wednesday, they keep me going.
I remember apple trees and shucking corn, and the smell of oil in a cast iron pan. A fine dust of white flour on the counter, and fried apple turnovers sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar at the center of a lace tablecloth.
I remember red and gold leaves, raked into thick pillars taller than me, and a woodpile at the bottom of the hill, stacked tight and high in advance of the coming cold.
And I remember my grandmother, her stubby, gnarled fingers, like knobby roots on an ancient tree, wrapped delicately around a tiny sewing needle. She made me a bright pink apron once, and I remember parading around the house in it, swooshing it around my hips like a ballgown.
There are things I don’t remember. I don’t remember the name of the family who lived down the hill, or the phone number I used to call to say hello to my grandmother after school. I don’t remember my grandmother’s face, though I recognize her in pictures, and I’d know her voice in a crowd even now. Some days, I don’t remember the names of my children and their children. Or so they tell me. And though I can play my favorite song on the piano, my own fingers now stiff and curved, I can’t remember the words.
Memories are precious things.
I used to spend whole days with my grandmother. We’d cook and talk, and she’d watch her gameshows. She’d tell me about when she was a girl, how she loved to read and play ball, how she was her class’s valedictorian, and how she always wished for a black-haired grandchild. My own hair was auburn. What’s left of it now whisps around my head in spindly gray spider’s webs.
One September day, just after the leaves had started to turn, my grandmother sat with me on her front porch. The air was still warm, but the breeze carried with it the bitter cold sting of winter. I must have been about seven. My grandmother had made us root beer floats and we were rocking back and forth in old wooden chairs, keeping rhythm with each other.
“How old are you,” I asked.
“Seventy-five,” she said. “I’m an old lady.”
“You’re not that old,” I answered. “Seventy-five isn’t that much more than fifty.”
“Well, then, I’m just over middle-aged,” she said, and laughed. She had a crackly, dry sort of laugh.
“Yeah,” I nodded, and dug my spoon so deep in my glass that root beer sloshed over the top and into my lap.
I can’t remember if the rocking chairs were painted red or white. I don’t know what happened to them after my parents sold the house. Maybe they’re still out there somewhere, rocking another grandmother and grandchild.
My grandmother died when I was twenty, and I have many more years behind me now. Time makes blank slates of all of us, slowly and meticulously, and unrelenting. Soon, like my grandmother, I will be a name in the family tree, a face in an old picture, a story or two at a holiday gathering, and people will argue over the details.
After I got lost driving myself to the grocery store one morning over the summer, my children hired a nurse to live with me, Heather, and she tells me not to worry about things like time. She says that I am strong for someone my age. She’s young, and once when I asked her, she told me she still remembers the name of her kindergarten teacher. I couldn’t remember something like that, even before I started losing pieces of my own story.
It’s September now, late in the month and early in the fall, and the leaves have just started to turn. I ask Heather every day to help me outside, where I can sit on my own front porch and watch as the wind blows them down.
Today, she’s spread a fleece blanket over my legs and she’s sitting beside me, reading aloud from my favorite book, Jacob Have I Loved. I can’t remember who wrote it.
“Heather,” I say, interrupting her just as they’ve discovered the sister can sing, “have you ever shucked corn?”
She folds the book up in her lap and says, “I don’t think I have. You can buy it from the store already ready to cook.”
I ask her if she can go to the store later and buy some corn that hasn’t been shucked. She says yes and goes back to reading.
Twenty minutes later, she leads me to my bedroom and I drift off to sleep. I dream of corn on the cob and of root beer floats.
My grandmother taught me how to pull corn off the stalk and shuck it. She taught me how to string beans and how to fry chicken and make biscuits so well that they came out golden and flaky every time.
Sometimes we’d make a batch of biscuits for no reason at all, and we’d eat them toasted and slathered with a thick smear of dripping yellow butter. This she bought from the store. I remember her telling me how to make homemade butter, once, but I can’t remember what she said to do.
I sent poor Heather to the store this afternoon with a grocery list a whole page long, but she didn’t seem to mind. She seemed happy, in fact. Maybe she’s relieved I finally want to do something besides stare out at the garden.
We’re in the kitchen together now, and I’m instructing her on how to mix the biscuit dough just right and how you need to salt each piece of chicken individually before you cover it in flour and crushed up Corn Flakes to fry it. I’m too weak to stand long enough to do it myself, and she’s being a good sport.
“We’re going to have a feast,” she says. She’s got flour on her chin and smudged just under her eye.
“This was just a normal dinner when I was little,” I say. “You should have seen what we used to put on the table every night.”
“You’ll have to teach me more,” she says, and I nod.
“I never could get red velvet cake right,” I answer. “We could try that sometime.”
“I’d like that,” she says.
She comes over to sit by me at the table, and she brings with her a package of four ears of corn, all still in their husks.
“Now,” she says, “you tell me what to do, and I’ll just follow your directions.”
I tell her the best I can, miming everything and probably looking silly, but she doesn’t laugh. She gets to work. Her long, slender fingers are quick and she makes the whole thing look easy.
“One day, you’ll teach someone how to do this,” I say. “You can tell them you learned from the second best.”
“I can tell them I learned from the best,” she says. “I’ve never met anyone better.”
She finishes cooking everything and we sit down to eat together. She tells me little things about her life, and I smile and nod and try my best to bite down and grab the corn off the cob with my teeth. Eventually, she cuts it off for me and I eat it with my fork. It’s such a small thing, but it’s one more. One more thing I’ve lost. I can’t remember the last time I could eat corn right off the cob. It was kind of her to let me try.
After dinner, Heather helps me to bed and sits down beside me once I’m settled under the covers.
“Thank you for sharing all those recipes with me,” she says.
I roll over on my side and close my eyes. She reads for a bit, her gentle, even voice almost a song.
I remember nights without street lights, with stars as bright as flame and a big, yellow harvest moon in the sky. I remember the bitter smell of wood fire, burning hot and steady in the old metal stove downstairs. I remember evenings spent playing Rook and drinking cold boiled custard.
I remember the rustle of the wind through the leaves and the stiff cornstalks in my grandmother’s garden. I remember her dented black mailbox, at the top of the hill. I don’t remember the address, but I remember the long walks up and down, my grandmother beside me, beckoning me to keep up with her. I remember complaining that it shouldn’t be so hard to get your mail.
Tomorrow I will ask Heather to pick up some green apples. We’ll make fried turnovers, and I’ll tell her how I learned to peel apples without a fancy peeler, and how my grandmother used to make jars and jars of apple butter and keep them on shelves in her basement, ready for visitors who wanted a little something sweet.
I will tell her these things, while I can still remember them. Maybe I’ll even ask her to write them down. And maybe someday someone will find them, and I will become a new memory.