Tuesday, November 4, 2008

On Grandmas and Memories and Rectangular Poultry

Over at Margaret and Helen, there's a thread running off into infinity about grandma stories, due to the passing of Toot. I didn't want to post too extensively there, as there are currently close to 400 comments.

I remember very little about my paternal grandmother, who we called "Mama". My father grew up in Macon, but moved up to Milwaukee after a stint in the Navy to take a jobs with Allis-Chalmers. We visited her several times during my early childhood, and she and Papa came up to Milwaukee, too, but I was very young when she passed away. My memories are fragmentary, half a bespectacled face here, they warm, dry feel of her hand holding mine there, but little of a coherent nature. I remember a huge down bed in her house that my sisters and I played on, but was too tall for me to climb into: my oldest sister had to boost me up. I remember a broad boulevard in front of her house, or maybe just somewhere near, where I flew balsa wood planes. And I remember a small park nearby which to my delight had, as Bill Cosby put it, "one of those things, I don't know what they call it, but you sit on it and four of your friends spin you 'round and 'round for five minutes, and... then you throw up".

I was much more fortunate when it comes to my maternal grandmother. My mother's family was from here, and her parents lived just a few miles away.

Two things generally pop into my mind when I think of her. The first is a mix of Thanksgiving and Christmas meals: turkeys and hams and stuffing and gravy and pies and cakes and presents and lights - sort of a melange of Rockwellian dinners. I always assumed as a child that my grandmother was directing the kitchen work, and that my aunts were there to basically provide labor. That's how it's always done, right? Everyone's grandma is the best, most "from-scratch" cook they know.

Well, then I learned about "Square Chicken". It turns out that unlike most people's grandmothers, mine was not a kitchen virtuoso. The phrase was the prospective title of a book my mother and her siblings thought of compiling after she passed away, of some of her more, shall we say intriguing culinary exploits. It appears that one night she was thawing a block of chicken parts in the oven, and forgot she had put them in there. Hours later, noticing the oven light on, she opened the door to discover a solid, rectangular mass of chicken, well past it's prime. Don't know what she wound up serving that night, but the incident stuck in people's memory. Well, bless her, no one can be good at everything.

The second thing I think of is an image, a still frame, really, from when I was about six. I was up at my grandparent's lake home near Tomahawk, WI. It was the fourth of July weekend, and Grandma was being a pyro. She was born on the fifth, I gather that as a result her childhood birthday parties always involved a fair amount of ordnance. And she got "the good stuff" as we would say back then (now, almost anything is fair game in WI, but 30 years ago, all you could get legally were sparklers, smoke-bombs, small cones and fountains, etc). She had just lit the fuse of a "firecracker" - a cherry bomb by today's standards - and was running to get clear of the blast radius. She'd placed an empty tin can on it to see what damage she could cause. The look on her face is one of such fierce, unbridled, maniacal glee, it makes me pump my fist in the air just to think of it.

She was a loving, funny, intelligent, well-read, warm, highly educated, intriguing person: a conservative, devout Catholic housewife who could also spin hysterical stories about how she and her friends got around prohibition. She and my great aunt, her sister, knew where every speakeasy (umm... and whorehouse. Never asked how they knew that) in the city was, and most of the passwords you needed to get into them. She was wonderfully contradictory.

Miss you, grandma.

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