CONFESSION: There are times when I wish I was more inclined to be a homemaker.
I’m not talking about the absurd politicized term used to replace the more apt term “stay-at-home parent”– like “homemaker” as used to justify “work” for the IRS (the term “stay-at-home parent” practically SCREAMS “work” for crying out loud). No, when I mean “homemaker,” I’m talking about someone who’s actually ADEPT at making a house a home. It just doesn’t interest me as much as it does others, mainly because I recognize that everything material around us, even mementos, are just things, and we’ll wind up having a lot of things accumulated when we die, and those things are passed down to the next in line and so on.
Making those things seem comfortable around us is a true skill that is oft-overlooked.
Homemaking entails more than just “making” a house into a home. In order to make a house into a “home,” a love of cooking is involved as it’s another skill involving comfort and nurturing hospitality. My mother was quite good at this. My sister is attempting to follow in my mom’s gilded footsteps, and my sister’s not doing too badly, but in many ways, I think she’s trying too hard to be my mother, and I don’t want that from her. When my sister’s “homemaking” in her own way, however, as not an attempt to emulate, it’s impressive. Her cooking is fun to watch; although, she’s much more into the exotic than the comforting.
None of this sort of thing was passed down though…and with that, I nearly forgot what this entry was really meant to be about: my grandmother’s (as in my mom’s mom’s) cooking.
I grew up hearing a lot of fanciful tales about my friends’ grandmothers. A common premise that tended to pop up involved grandmothers being these wonderful cooks, like something out of a cozy Christmas scene, something out of a Frank Capra production or a Norman Rockwell painting. Saturated in Technicolor vivids, the grandmothers would be rosy roly-poly and so jolly-faced as they rolled out sheets of pie dough with heavy, wooden pins. My friends were cherubic toddlers in the vision I concocted in my head, They’d be eagerly attempting to join in the baking, their plump fingers wiggling out towards the floury dough, the sticky-bright pie filling in the glass mixing bowls, the rolling motion of the pins going back-and-forth, back-and-forth. The grandmothers would then, with posy grins, maternal winks, playfully bat their grandchildren’s hands away and tsk-tsk, tut-tut. They were having none of that. This was homemaking at its best.
My friends’ grandmothers were so abstract and unreachable to me simply because I could never identify. The very notion of my own grandmother baking or cooking, let alone creating, anything worthwhile in the kitchen was an absurd one. I’ve heard rumors from distant family members that she’d been quite good at cooking, but I think those relatives’ tastebuds had been so acclimated to postwar casseroles consisting of Spam and condensed soup or Jell-O “salads” with floating bits of the barely identifiable that none of them seemed to have any sense of what was truly “good” food.
(Yummy yummy. *GAG* At least we can recognize the pimento-stuffed olive slices)
So, yeah, my grandmother didn’t cook with much love. From what I’d known and experienced, she just wasn’t good at it. I’m convinced though that it wasn’t because she couldn’t. She was one of the smartest people I’d ever known. I think the whole notion of homemaking, starting with the basics of cooking, made her secretly angry. I know in my heart she, like a lot of women then, had been cheated out of a life of her own choosing, eschewing it for one of practicality, one that was “expected.” From what my grandfather told me during the year before he passed away, she was much happier when she was outside the home, working away from home. She loved having guests over, but that was all, really. She didn’t care for the work that was associated with actual homemaking, especially cooking.
Still, she carried on with it.
I got a sense of her private rebellion, that little dose of anti-societal expectations from her though her cooking…or what was considered “cooking,” at any rate. It was while I was visiting during one of my routine summers at the house, and some of us had just gotten back from some sort of excursion out. Probably to some theme park or the beach, I don’t remember where we’d been, but I remember when we got in, it was a little late. My grandmother got into a sudden giddy-mad rush to clang out some pots and pans, toss some things in salted water and some other things into the oven, even though we insisted one of us would cook, or we’d all go hunt for takeout somewhere, anything to avoid the inevitable…ugh.
However, she was having none of it.
We were commanded to set the table, which we did dutifully, grousing about having to suffer through whatever was stinking up the kitchen then and there. And, man, was it stinking something awful, a heady blend of bad denture breath and rotting garbage. It didn’t help that the house A/C unit was set at a constant, balmy 80 degrees, so the stench of whatever was boiling in the pot and whatever was scorching in the oven was to the point of being one step beyond Utterly Unbearable. Once everyone had settled around the table, my grandmother set the big pot of watery whathaveyou and the tray of burned bits in the center of the table.
My grandfather mutter-mumbled grace, giving thanks for whatever-the-stinking-hell we were about to consume much to the grinning delight of my grandmother. Then my grandfather dutifully doled out the contents of the pot, plopping a half-head of boiled cabbage on each of our plates. The sole accompaniment was the blackened bits of “meat” from the oven. That was it. Boiled, flavorless, reeking cabbage and charred bits of something that may have once been “meat” of some sort.
I don’t think any of us, except for my grandfather who probably had no taste buds left, ate much of it (I threw up what little I managed to get down a bit later). Not even my giggling grandmother, who, as we discovered, had pulled an awfully fast switcheroo on us, having replaced her dinner dish with a large bowl of butter pecan ice cream.
But she was like that…and that rebellion always affected the rest of us, especially my grandfather.
Years later, and it ought to have been sooner, my grandmother decided enough was enough. She wasn’t doing it anymore, none of it. From then on, my grandfather became the homemaker, and in retrospect, he really was much better…and much more loving about it. He seemed to enjoy the concept of homemaking than my grandmother ever did.
Maybe…just maybe… that’s where my sister gets it.
(I’d very nearly forgotten that this was still hanging in the old laundry room. A perpetual reminder to me that my grandmother will always be home.)