Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Sweet and Salty

Several days ago, I ran out of coarse kosher salt. It's one of those kitchen staples that I usually have lots of, but like lots ot things, it just sort of got away from me this summer. Dan picked it up last night at the grocery store before he picked me up from at the Metro. Have I mentioned how much I love the Metro? I do. Public transit is so different here than it is in a lot of cities whose transit systems have deservedly awful reputations. It's clean, convenient, runs on time, and doesn't tolerate a lot of the nonsense that takes place in New York. It saves me a grand total of about forty minutes a day of driving, and I can knit on the commute.

Wow. That paragraph was so utterly stream-of-consciousness, my middle name should be "non sequiter."

Salt. I was talking about salt. So Dan picked up a box of kosher salt at the grocery store.

My whole life, my grandmother kept a crock of kosher salt on her kitchen counter next to her stove. Let me just say that this was a woman who loved salt. When she was dying of metastatic cervical cancer at 94, having radiation and chemotherapy, my mother could always convince her to eat -- as long as the meal consisted of Ensure and bacon. One of her favorite things was radishes, sliced in half and dipped in -- yes, you guessed it -- that exact same crock of kosher salt. It is a wonder that high blood pressure didn't get her, frankly.

The crock is a small brown ceramic one, round and maybe five inches high. It came from the grocery store, filled with Win Schuler bar cheez -- I'm not sure if we have that here, but if you're from Michigan, or maybe northern Ohio, you're probably familiar with Win Schuler. Great stuff. A normal person would have thrown it away when it was empty. Not Gran, though.

My mother, the youngest of four children, was born in 1940. My grandparents married in 1930 and raised their children during the Depression and the second World War. My grandmother once said that she had a fight with her husband about how much sugar he put in his coffee. "Sugar was rationed," she explained. "He would finish his coffee and there'd still be sugar in the bottom of the cup. It made me so mad!"

She had an entire basement filled with food, mostly canned vegetables, mostly having expired somewhere around 1989. Her freezers--that's plural--were filled to bursting with things so frostbitten that they were unidentifiable, even when they were thawed. My cousins and I referred to her basement as The Food Museum. She saved margerine containers, plastic bags, Cool Whip tubs, and--well, basically everything that ever came in the door. My mother once threw away a pile of church lady meeting minutes from 1951. My grandmother barely spoke to her for a week.

When she was speaking, she had a way with words, my Gran. Once, when we were driving somewhere, out of nowhere, she said, "When I was your age, I was married and had three kids."
I had just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. "I know, Gran," I said.

"I'm sure you'd meet someone right away if you weren't so heavy," she told me in a very encouraging tone of voice.

And then I killed her.

Just kidding. But still, this was not exactly music to my ears. I was as thin as I'd been since high school, and substantially less satisfied with my life at that point that I had been in a long time. She sure cut to the chase, my Gran.

I went on my first date with Dan the night before Gran's birthday. That night, I went to her apartment there in her retirement community, planning to take her out for dinner. Instead, she'd cooked--chicken and homemade noodles, my favorite. I offered to take her to Steak 'n' Shake for a malt after dinner, her favorite treat. "Sure," she said. "Let's go to the cemetary first."

"I...okay," I said.

So for her birthday, I drove her to the cemetary where three of her four children, husband, and two grandchildren are buried, then to Steak 'n' Shake for chocolate malts. After we watched "Friends" on television--her favorite TV show--I wished her happy birthday, kissed her good night, and left. On the way out, I called Dan on my cell phone.

"How's your Grandma?" he asked.

"That was the weirdest birthday party I've ever been to," I told him.

Gran was very sick when Dan and I got married, but we got married in her church, which made her very happy. Several days later, she told my mother she didn't think she could live by herself anymore, even in her assisted living community, and should probably move in with them.

We got married in July. I got pregnant in October. Coming back from the doctor's appointment where the doctor confirmed that I was pregnant, my mother called. It was getting close to the end. Gran didn't get out of bed anymore. She wouldn't eat--not even bacon.

I didn't tell her I was pregnant. I really didn't want her emotions about her mother dying to be wrapped up in her emotions about me being pregnant. Besides, it was early. It made sense to wait. I'm not always sure I did the right thing, but based on what my mother said, Gran wouldn't have realized that I was pregnant at all.

My Gran died the first week in November of 2004. She was survived by her daughter, six grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild, and Max, four weeks gestation. Her will stated that my mother should receive one quarter of her estate, and the rest should be split among her grandchildren.

This inheratance was sizable, and it allowed me to pay off our car and stay home for a year with Max. That is a really big deal.

My gran had a lot of junk--sixty years worth of margerine tubs, for example. She also had things that reminded me and all of my cousins of our childhood, spent on the southeast corner of Wall Lake in Delton, Michigan, learning to waterski and fish for three-inch long bluegill (my theory is that we caught the same ten fish all summer long every year) and torment each other all summer. I even lived there for a year when I was 22, rent free. Gran was the best roommate I ever had: she didn't use my tampons, borrow my clothes or CD's, or lose my phone messages--probably because she was too hard-of-hearing to hear the phone ringing most of the time. During a storm that summer, the enormous oak tree on the hill in front of the house fell. It knocked down the railing on the deck and flattened a pink plastic flamingo my Uncle Lonnie had once given my mother as a joke, as well as a couple of very old, extremely uncomfortable metal lawn chairs, and just barely missing the northeast corner of the house. Gran said that when she married my grandfather in 1930 and laid eyes on that tree for the first time, she'd said, "That tree won't make it through the winter." The tree made it through the next sixty-nine winters.

My mother made sure that we would all get the things that were most precious to us, that reminded us of Gran and our childhood. Two of my cousins bought the property that her home stood on--one cousin lives next door, in the house that my aunt and uncle built, next door to my grandparents, a crazy upside down house with a huge kitchen on the second floor and a walkout basement of a first floor.

Every time I fill the salt crock on my kitchen counter, I think of my Gran. It's her salt crock, I asked my mother for it, and it wouldn't have been worth a dime to most people. I think she was surprised that I wanted it. But I think of her every time I look at it, and hope that someday, an old cheese crock from the grocery store will be as precious to someone who catalogues my idiosyncrasies for the benefit of the internet, just to show how much they loved me.


Heather said...

Beautiful. Really beautiful.

That crock is priceless.

Molly said...

It is to me.