Picked me up each time I fell
Boy, they really came in handy
It was my grandmother’s 90th birthday recently. Our family made a trip down to Los Angeles to surprise her. She was definitely caught off-guard by the unexpected presence of her bobble-headed great grandson… in a good way.
Despite the fact that I tend to downplay my own birthday, I do like how the tradition of birthdays forces me to stop and celebrate the life of people close to me. I enjoy having the opportunity to do things with the people I love; things that make them happy; things that make them smile.
Usually at some point in the celebration, the guest of honor will do something or say something that reminds me of something they did or said in the past–usually a funny story–and I find myself smiling inwardly; wading blissfully in the nostalgia.
In the weeks leading up to my grandmother’s birthday, I found myself reflecting early. Cherry picking stories about her turned out to be more difficult that I expected. For some reason, I had trouble peeling away individual stories, as they have mostly seemed to congeal into a single collage of memories.
I spent the better part of a day feeling guilty about not being able to recall stories about my grandmother. I found myself picking bits and pieces out of my mind; but not just a few, tons of them! They were like an infinite number of little rice-sized pieces of spaghetti–taking up a lot of space all together, but not the fully intact strand that I could wrap methodically around my fork; not the fully fleshed-out story I was looking for.
The segments of memories of Grandma or memories I associate with Grandma came in flashes:
Grandma calling the dogs back when they came to welcome my brother and me as children, with their somewhat scary jumping and slobbering.
Grandma feeding the golden retrievers cooked vegetables.
Grandma taking me to the museum.
The smell of chlorine-treated water drying on hot concrete by the swimming pool.
Grandma talking about how wonderful Trader Joe’s was when the first one opened up.
Grandma toasting my brother and I egg bagels and serving them up with peanut butter.
Grandma being a very careful driver.
Lavender scented hand soap in the bathroom.
Vibrant orange and purple birds of paradise.
A jar filled with chocolate almond squares in the refrigerator.
Grandma just smelling sweeter than anyone else in the world…
… the list kept going.
After I took a step back and began looking at the memories, not as individual specks, but as a collection, I noticed a reoccurring theme. I tie all of these memories to feelings of nostalgia and comfort.
I have, absolutely no memories involving fear, guilt, anger, or trauma tied to my grandmother. While Grandma was never a push-over, I cannot recall ever thinking she was mean, even in my most immature and self-centered days.
For me, I now realize, Grandma was, and still is, the living embodiment of comfort and kindness. She always did her best to foster a sense of home away from home when we went to visit her.
This ethic of care actually ties to one of the stories of Grandma I eventually unearthed:
Throughout my childhood, probably since the age of four, I wondered why my dad bothered making chunky tomato sauce with spaghetti. I hated big chunks of tomatoes, and I yearned for something with less texture to pair with my pasta.
Eventually, I learned that ketchup, which regularly acted as a dip for the food I deemed the pinnacle of eatable excellence–french fries, was actually a product of tomatoes; the same tomatoes that made up the chunky sauce on my pasta.
I remember regularly asking my mom and dad if I could have pasta with ketchup, since it seemed like a logical enough substitution to me. They would both reply, with scrunched faces, “No,” giving little justification for their resistance; only going to far as to say that the idea was “disgusting.”
Little did I know, Grandma would provide me with an opportunity to experience this ketchup-laced concoction in due time…
When I was about eleven years old, my brother and I came down to Los Angeles during our annual summer visit with the relatives. For some reason, we stayed for one night in a house my grandparents were occupying for the days in between moving out of their old house in the San Fernando Valley, and moving into their new house in Santa Monica.
I do not know why it was only one night, nor do I remember why only my brother and I stayed with my grandparent that night, but I do remember the house being filled with boxes stacked so high that navigating through it all made me feel like I was in a labyrinth.
We got in fairly late, and it was already dark outside. My grandmother knew we had not eaten dinner, so she went to the kitchen to prepare us a meal. About half an hour later, my brother and I sat down at the kitchen table and my grandmother brought out a heaping pile of my culinary theory put into practice–spaghetti mixed with ketchup.
I was excited. The sharp scent of the ketchup’s vinegar still lingered in the air. This, was my moment! This was my opportunity to prove my long-standing culinary hypothesis, which had been thwarted for years by my parents, who clearly lacked the common sense and vision to combine these two ingredients in an effort to facilitate this flavor and textural dynamo.
Eager to confirm that which I already knew to be true–ketchup and pasta would be awesome together–I clumsily spun a large clump of noodles around my fork and slurped it into my mouth. My resulting state: confusion of the senses. How could something that looked like pasta and tomato sauce produce a flavor so distant from this savory dinnertime staple? Slightly tart and almost sugary sweet, even as an eleven-year-old with a palate that was easily satisfied by Skittles and Doritos, I knew the combination of ketchup and pasta had gone completely awry.
My brother and I quietly consumed the rest of the food on our plate, brushed our teeth and went to bed. That night I went to bed… confused.
Now, it would be easy to preserve the story in my mind as a culinary disaster perpetuated by my grandmother. However, context, and a few details I neglected to mention actually help make Grandma even more endearing to me.
First of all, it was pretty late, maybe eight thirty or nine in the evening when we got in. It was time to go to sleep. She could have sent us to bed without dinner, but she didn’t. Grandma could have quickly taken us to McDonald’s, which was right down the street, but she didn’t. Grandma provided us with a home-cooked meal.
Secondly, how on Earth did she pull that meal together? We were practically staying in a storage space! She pulled that meal out of thin air! Did I mention there was meat in the dish? Now I don’t remember if it was chicken or turkey cold-cuts, but I do remember there was meat in it, and I think she might have sprinkled in a little dried basil too.
My mom later told me that Grandma felt really bad about feeding us that meal. I feel bad that she felt bad. Grandma did the best that she could in the situation she was in with the time that she had.
So I will always remember the night of spaghetti and ketchup, not as the failed meal, and not for the crazy laberynth of boxes. Rather I will always associate the night of spaghetti and ketchup with Grandma’s successful efforts to create a feeling of home within a moment of chaos.