Last week, I was roasting eggplant for baba ganoush in our 1980s possessed-by-hell-fire oven, cooling down on the fire escape with The Dreams in the Witch House and other weird stories. The phone rang with hospice news, an avalanche for my family. Better make goulash and rugelach and pick up some kielbasa, too.
My grandma passed away during my visit. First her cancer came back. Before that she had a few years of being able to eat anything she wanted. Those were times of pretending not to notice the hot dogs hidden in banana peels, finding cookies inside of her couch cushions. Her 87 years centered around family, friends, faith, travel and a long career that began with typing discharge papers during WWII.
She took me on my first trip to the library before I could read. We walked home with a library card with my name on it and a stack of Agatha Christie books for her and picture books for me. I was convinced were we getting away with something, taking all those books home. “You have to give ’em back or they’ll bop you one,” she threatened violence on the library’s behalf.
When we lived with her, she made my sisters and I wear our itchiest clothes and go to Sunday school, where I learned how to tie my shoes and the hand trick to tell my left from my right. What made the endless service and scratching worth it was the detour to a great uncle’s house for his magical smoked kielbasa before heading home.
Her short term memory was gone, but events from her youth were crystal clear. My favorite story is her honeymoon. She and my grandpa were engaged very young. When he promised her a honeymoon she didn’t buy it because they had no money. Until he invited the entire town to their wedding celebration and the entire town showed. Everyone squeezed into the VFW hall with food and beer and a small amount of money for a gift. The gifts added up and they took a crowd-funded honeymoon to what was then ritzy Seaside, NJ and Atlantic City, where grandma doubled their money by betting on horses she liked.
My grandma taught me how to knit, the proper way to go down slides in a skirt and what to do when bigger kids pulled my hair. (Bop them one, of course.) On the sly, she introduced us to our first horror movie, Nightmare on Elm Street, and gave us pizza and real Coca Cola. She was a hugger who always showed up content to just have a good time.
Now the only thing in the world to do is read Agatha Christie and help make the food of my childhood for her friends and our extended family, many of whom I haven’t seen in ages. So many people keep popping in to share their stories about her. These are better than Lovecraft and Christie combined. And I think I need to make more food because apparently the whole town is coming to her service. As they should.