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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

My Dish is Cracked

I said this to my Mom the other day in reference to the mild insanity present in every sleep-deprived parent and since then thought about how appropriate that phrase is right now. First a little context: I used Grandma's bowls when I served homemade ham & corn chowder for dinner tonight.

Growing up next door to my Italian/Albanian grandmother meant that I had constant exposure to a way of cooking we seldom appreciate anymore. I realize I'm generalizing here so all you foodies can calm down. I know this is not the all-encompassing attitude of our society but it prevails enough for me to generalize about it. Our culture has mainstreamed cooking to fit within our busy schedules with minimum amount of effort. Not so in Grandma Helen's kitchen.

Helen Virginia was the youngest of 12 born to Delia and Dennis in Clyde, NY. She recalled her earliest memories of when she learned about WWI while standing on a fence next to her sister, watching their neighbor come home in a flag-covered casket. Her sister explained to her that there was a War on and that was why there was no more sugar.

Grandma learned to cook from memory and not recipe books, using a coal stove. She had to practice and practice before she got her piecrust recipe right and they ate the mistakes anyway so as not to waste food. The family would splurge on cupcakes from the local bakery for the men's lunches when they went off to work.

Grandma worked as a housekeeper & nanny to wealthy families in Tonawanda before she got married in 1946. She worked the night shift cleaning dorms at SUNY Brockport while caring for her only son during the day, making meals and doing the housework while my grandfather maintained the family farm. No pizza nights or Chinese takeout for them. She put a home-cooked meal on the table every night, cooking during her days off and stocking up meals for the rest of the week.

I have so many cherished memories of her cooking and would dearly love to be back in her kitchen as she kneaded out the dough for her 3000th apple pie or stirred her umpteenth pot of homemade soup, the prettily painted china bowls neatly set out around the table.

I won't do full justice to my memories of Grandma Helen's cooking here so that will wait for another post. Whenever we did the dishes after lunch, she would tell me what the various obscure kitchen implements were for (for example: a handheld chopper for eggs & apples that looked like a lethal cookie-cutter). She would tell me that all her kitchen things would be mine someday and not to sell her iron skillets. Apparently a visitor wanted to buy them once and she refused to sell. I would roll my teenager eyes and sigh at the morbidity of bequething dishes to granddaughters.

Then Grandma died in 2006 and I found myself unable to go into her hauntingly empty kitchen. All her things were as she left them but they seemed to have lost their purpose, like they were merely faint echoes now.

Now I have the majority of her kitchenware crammed into my tiny apartment kitchen.
As much as I could fit in the cupboards. Every single time I dish something into one of her serving bowls or ladle soup or even mac & cheese into the cracked &chipped china bowls, I feel her presence next to me.

The older I get, the more I realize what truly matters. It's certainly not the pursuit of capitalist gain to make your mark in this world. How you treat others- your compassion, empathy, courage and conviction are what's going to matter at the end of the day.
It's also taken me until I was 30 to realize the importance of having confidence in yourself and not caring about what others think. I have yet to master this skill but I have a glimmer of realization which is a start.

Maybe it's the sleep deprivation, maybe the constant hovering just above the poverty-line that's pushed me to this point - my dish is cracked, but it is not broken.

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