Most of my best childhood memories revolve around my paternal grandparents. My grandfather passed away in 2005. My grandmother has dementia and doesn’t recognize me anymore. But, for most of my life, my grandparents were my gravity; their home was my safe house.
For them, life revolved largely around food — not just consuming it, but shopping for it, preparing it, sharing it, enjoying it.
My grandparents’ house had the most wonderful smell. It was the perfect mix of garlic, chocolate, floral and damp concrete. Every time I walked in the door, the smells enveloped me like my favorite blanket fresh out of the clothes dryer; like a kiss and a hug; like love. It was the scent of permission to be a child, no matter how old I was as I stood in the foyer.
I’ve tried everything I know to replicate that smell in my home, even if only for an hour, but I can’t seem to do it. It’s as if that smell didn’t come from the aroma of whatever cooking Grandpa did or cleaning products Grandma used, but from the lingering scents of memories that filled the house and seeped deep beyond the paint into the wood of the framing that my grandfather and uncle put up with their own hands — a complex bouquet of aromas fermented over years of holiday meals, family arguments, games of Uno, sleepovers with cousins and scrubbing with Lestoil.
I can see my grandparents, sitting at the small round table in the corner of the kitchen, each hunched over a Sunday crossword puzzle. They had a crossword puzzle dictionary so worn it was bound together with duct tape. In between questions — “What’s a six-letter word for ‘revealing story’?” and “Who starred in the 1968 film ‘The Love Bug’? It starts with ‘J'” — was a rapid-fire discussion about what to have for dinner that night. Unspoken was how the dinner plans were to come to fruition, because Grandma and Grandpa had it down to a science. I didn’t need to be told either; by the time I could understand the discussion, I knew it meant we were 20 minutes from leaving the house to embark on an epic culinary shopping spree.
My grandparents had a white Cadillac sedan with a slate blue top. It had an eight-track player. Yeah, that’s right. What else you gonna bump Bing Crosby on? I would ride in the backseat, taking the familiar streets that lead to the markets and stores that held the promise of an extraordinary meal. Sure, there was Stop & Shop, where certain staples were purchased (especially Jell-O Pudding Pops, which were one of the greatest inventions EVER). But bread came from a bakery; vegetables came from a produce market; meat came from a butcher. These were actual bakeries, produce stands and butchers not departments in a super-sized, over-priced grocery chain. I loved wandering through the produce market behind my grandmother, sneaking raw string beans out of the bins to crunch as we made our way around the narrow aisles. Watching her buy cantaloupe was a fascinating but quizzical process. She would squeeze the melon, roll it around in her hands, then knock on it. I do the same thing now when I buy such melons, but I have absolutely no idea what I’m feeling, looking or listening for when I do. I just send up a small wish to the cantaloupe gods that the thing will be ripe when I get it home and cut it open. So far, so good.
The morning shopping usually took a couple of hours. Once back at the house, my sister and I were promptly ushered out to play in the yard while the kitchen magic was performed. And play we did. We ran around in bare feet. We played whiffle ball. We rode Big Wheels up and down the driveway. We climbed trees. We got dirty, never once saw a bottle of antibacterial hand gel and lived to tell the tale. When we’d wander back into the house, truly hungry from the gazillion calories we burned, the beginnings of dinner or dessert were already floating in the air. As our stomachs grumbled, my grandmother called from whatever corner of the house she was in, “Go wash your hands!”, and my grandfather would make lunch. There were no bags, boxes or cans involved in this process. Instead, lunch would be a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, plenty of pickles on the side, and a huge glass of iced tea Grandma brewed in the sun and garnished with mint from the garden. If we were really lucky, Grandpa would make us chocolate malts. He actually had a stand mixer expressly for this purpose. But, we were more often happily dispatched back to the yard with an orange or an apple.
The most delicious part of lunch, though, was my grandfather’s undivided attention. He’d sit and eat with us, talking about everything or nothing. If my sister or I told him a story, his response was almost always, “Well, isn’t that marvelous?” Writing it down now makes me realize how much of the meaning in my grandfather’s words didn’t come from the words themselves but from the inflection in his voice and the expression on his face. There is no way I can capture in words the smile, sincerity or pride that accompanied “marvelous”; the way it danced off his lips and across the table right into your heart, spinning you in a circle like a ballroom diva. He had a way of making me feel like the most important person in the world but without making me lose the desire to continue to make him proud.
After lunch, we’d head back outside to conquer evil, plot corporate overthrows, win the racing world cup or host the grand opening of our sandbox bakery. Sometimes, Grandma worked in the garden. She grew cucumbers, string beans, tomatoes, zucchini, lettuce, mint. I vaguely remember strawberries once or twice. My grandparents also had an enormousapple tree in their backyard. Grandpa once offered to pay my sister, my oldest cousin and me a nickle for each fallen apple we picked up from the ground. The three of us nearly killed each other fighting to collect the most apples.
I don’t remember who won, but I do remember my grandfather muttering that, next time, he would pay only a penny an apple, because we were making him broke. I’m sure we were excited about the money, but let’s just cut to the chase here — we knew this meant some apple pie was coming out of that kitchen, probably that night, and if there is one thing that motivates me in life more than a buck, it’s the smell of hot, sweet cinnamon. (And don’t sit there shaking your head, because you know you’ve walked your sorry ass all the way to the other end of the mall for no good reason other than to get a whiff of that crack called Cinnabon.)
Most nights before dinner, especially if there was company, my grandparents had cocktail hour. In the summer, that meant drinks, crackers, cheese and fresh pepperoni under the cooling shade of the umbrella-like magnolia tree in the front yard. My grandmother loved apricot sours, which I learned to love first without the alcohol and later with. (Unfortunately, finding a bartender now who actually knows how to make an apricot sour is about as easy as finding a four-leaf clover, and it is the one recipe I failed to ask Grandpa to write down for me before he died. If he isn’t standing at the Pearly Gates, waiting for me with a damn apricot sour in his hand, we’re gonna have a problem.) The grown-ups sat at my grandparents’ cheap white plastic table, precariously nestled into folding chairs while drinking and snacking. We kids usually played whiffle ball in the front yard, begging any adult we could cajole into pitching for us. The trees in the yard were the bases, and we’d play as many innings as the sun or the dinner bell would allow.
And then it was dinner — that magical moment when an entire family sat around a table and shared a meal. We always started with salad. Grandma would make mine with just lettuce and cucumbers, the way I loved it, so I wouldn’t have to pick around anything. She made dressing using Good Seasons dressing mix, but I’m about 99% sure she didn’t follow the recipe on the little envelope of spice mix, because hers definitely tasted better than mine ever does. Then, we’d have meat, vegetables and starch. There was almost always bread, too. Not just any bread, mind you, but my grandmother’s garlic bread. I would share the recipe with you, but I’d have to kill you. Actually, I’d share the recipe with you, but reading it will instantly clog your arteries, sending you into cardiac arrest when you see the amount of butter that goes into the bread. Trust me when I tell you, though, you will die happy. Very. Happy.
After dinner, there was dessert. My grandmother made some outstanding desserts, but the one that topped them all was her cheesecake. Now, the irony of this is that my grandmother hated cheese. When I say hated cheese, I mean she ordered pizza without cheese. She made something called lasanki noodles – a dish that would blow your mind with buttery, cheesy goodness — but she never ate a bite of it. Not even once. Anyway, her cheesecake was amazing. She made the crust with zweiback toast and the filling had an airy, ricotta cheese-like texture to it that made it lighter than the dense New York-style cheesecake most are accustomed to eating. When I was in college at Western Connecticut State, the promise of cheesecake was the only incentive I needed to spend a Friday (and Saturday) night at my grandparents’ house, damn the 40-minute drive.
Even on the nights dinner was less formal, we’d still have dessert. Grandpa, Grandma, my sister and I would move to the den and watch TV together, enjoying a dish of ice cream with chocolate sauce or Jell-O Pudding Pops. This was where I learned to love baseball (but not the Yankees — sorry Grandpa); this was where I learned to watch the news (and yes, I yell at the TV, too, Grandpa); this was where I learned that my grandfather could do a perfect imitation of Woody Woodpecker’s laugh; this was where I learned what home felt like. When I was still little, this was the time of the evening that I would climb into my grandfather’s lap, as he sat in his overstuffed E-Z recliner, and curl myself next to him. He smelled of a heady mix of garlic, alcohol and aftershave that was like a balm on my wounded soul. I can almost remember the smell, but it’s like the movie star you can picture but whose name you just can’t quite remember. It’s right there, on the tip of your tongue, but it won’t quite come to you.
I miss that house. My grandparents sold it in 1991 or 1992. Before they moved out, I went upstairs into what we called the “back” bedroom — the one with the twin beds that my sister and I shared when we stayed with them, until I was “too old” to want to share a room with her anymore. I sat down in the empty closet, staring out at the room. Then, I took a pencil and wrote on the wall of the closet closest to the door frame — a place I figured least likely to be painted over later. I wish I could remember what I wrote, but my only memory of that day is sadness. I was 21 years old, and my childhood officially was ending with the sale of the only evidence I’d even had one.
Lately, as life has particularly challenged me, I’ve longed for those days. I’d give almost anything for just that moment of opening my grandparents’ front door, crossing the threshold and breathing in that wonderful air. I’d give almost anything to hear my grandmother call out, “Dad, Dani’s here!” and the musical reply of “Isn’t that marvelous!” In some respect, I’m sure what I’m longing for is the carefree feelings of youth; but what I long for more is the nourishment of my body and soul that those days with my grandparents provided. What I wish is that what troubles me now could be fixed with Sunday shopping and chicken and orzos. That would be marvelous.