The Persistence of Taste

Mildred. Anyone that knew her knew not to call her that. She went by Milly to anyone that was on the up and up. She was prophetic about her antiquated name even at an early age.

“I always hated my name.” she told us matter-of-factly. More than once.

Of course, I call her Gram.

– – –

When you come from a family like mine, it’s easy to forget. We’re a practical people, some may say stoic in our feelings about one another. While we all have our distinct memories, it’s not often that we dawdle on something as implacably distant as our past.

There’s something about your late-20s and early 30s. Time progresses like it never has before. You start losing track of time. That’s how I feel when I think about the last 5 years. In that time, I’ve been married, had a son, and watched my Gram’s cognition deteriorate. It started one Thanksgiving—one of those rare moments when everyone manages to converge from all corners to a single point and, for just a day or two, pretend like nothing’s changed. For the most part, nothing had changed for me until then. Suddenly, I was married. In fact, I was looking to move across the United States with my wife.

“This is Nancy, Gram.” I told her. She was just beginning to have trouble speaking.

“Hello.” Gram answered. “It’s nice to meet—meet—meet—ooooh, you know.” She finished. Her aphasia was still at its early stages, manifesting itself as a “tip of your tongue” sensation, making it a challenge to finish sentences. But we all knew what she meant.

– – –

Two years passed. “I made your chocolate chip cookies for Nancy’s family in Dallas.” I explained. “I had to chop the walnuts by hand, though.”

I always remembered Gram bringing out her nut chopper. The kind of contraption that only existed to be checked off your wedding registry by a friend of a family member in the 1950s—probably ordered from the Sears catalogue. It was a glass cup with a plastic plunger affixed atop it. Inside, connected to the plunger, was a pair of crisscrossing razor blades.

You put your nuts in, you smacked the plunger a couple of times, and you had your perfectly chopped nuts. It was always a competition as a kid to have your turn with the nut chopper.

“I used Crisco, just the way it says in your recipe,” I told her. She’d usually make it a point to ask. She’s a woman whose culinary prowess manifested itself in the aggressively processed mid-century home kitchen. Those were the days of Crisco and cans of Cream of Chicken Soup.

Years ago, Gram had emailed me photos from her cookbook, one she’d had since she was a girl. The binding was falling apart, the pages were dry and yellow, but her writing still stood as a testament to her upbringing. Everything was written in impeccable cursive, from a time when teachers rapped your hands with a ruler if your penmanship was lacking.

Now, Gram sat in her recliner and watched over us. She didn’t quite sit in the chair so much as inhabit it. She was so much smaller and frailer.

“Did did did did—“ Gram interrupted her strained speech with a sigh. I remembered fondly the days in which we only had to infer the last word or two of a sentence. Nancy had only known her from that time. I realized now she would never know the wit, strength, and alacrity that my Gram was known for. Still, I could see on Gram’s face that she was happy. Her cookie recipe had traveled to Dallas. It had fed and made happy Nancy’s entire family. They had asked for the recipe, even.

– – –

Two more years. Another Thanksgiving. But this one would be different. The air was heavier, everyone seemed to be personally carrying the burden of Gram’s illness on their shoulders. Should you even have the audacity to have fun at a party missing its matriarchal figure? Had there ever been a party with her missing?

“Should we have Thanksgiving there? With her?” My aunt asked.

“I don’t think so. It would be overwhelming.” My mom answered.

We settled on Thanksgiving amongst ourselves. The very next morning, we’d bring Gram a pumpkin pie—her recipe. One of my family’s funniest memories was of that pumpkin pie. Gram brought it to our house for one occasion, years back. She sliced it up and served it at the end of the meal. We dug in. We all realized at the same time that she forgot the sugar. We roared—Gram laughed harder than I’d ever heard. The pie was disgusting.

Gram was in a nursing home. She was there not for her aphasia so much as what the doctors referred to as “intermediate to advanced dementia”. Her moods were getting increasingly challenging to deal with. Coupled with a few medical issues, it was getting hard for my Uncle to take care of her. Between her inability to speak and her confusion, she was a ticking time bomb from day to day. She had the telltale signs of dementia—he had found her recently on the side of the highway. He’d pulled up to her in his truck. “Where you going mom?” He’d asked.

“I’m going to god damn Big Lots.” It was the clearest thing she’d said in months.

She’d only been at the nursing home for a little over a month. The doctors were insistent with my Mom and Uncle to allow her time to adjust to the new space—that meant not leaving the home for any reason until further notice. It had to be clear to her that this was her new home.

I made the pie filling according to Gram’s recipe. It was Libby’s pumpkin puree (not seasoned!) and the usual myriad of pumpkin pie spices, mixed into a loose, eggy custard that congealed when it baked. My mom, probably as a means to let go of some nervous energy and honor her mother’s tradition, set her sights on the crust.

“It’s Crisco, flour, and salt. How hard could it be?” We knew the answer. Years ago, we tried to make the crust. I handled it like an oaf and for much too long—it melted into a paste, didn’t roll out right, and we ended up smooshing it into the pan. It baked into a cracker yet was as toothsome as toughened paper. It was a paradox of unpleasantness.

I vowed never again to handle any kind of lard and flour concoction, lest I disappoint myself further. But I could tell my mom was ready for the challenge. This was her win. She needed it, after the string of failures made up of frequent late-night 911 calls, battling a confused but stubborn woman, and finally committing her to a nursing home. And, she did it. The crust came together, it rolled onto her rolling pin. Just like someone off the Food Network she flopped the rolled dough over the pie pan and unspooled it perfectly. Once baked, the pumpkin pie was perfect, especially the crust. It was flakey and slightly salty. You could close your eyes and taste your childhood when you ate it. We made two pies—the other we saved for our trip to the home.

Most of the time, Gram no longer spoke. She’d smile at you, or smile at someone passing and that was good enough. The day after Thanksgiving the whole family came to the home. We filled the hallway and made our way to her room. When we entered, she didn’t just smile at us.

“Oooh!” She exclaimed. We showed her the pumpkin pie we brought along. It was still a little warm from the morning. Without speaking, Gram began shifting in her chair. These days Gram had shrunk even more, as if that was possible. She had trouble getting onto her own two feet. She needed the assistance of a walker to move around. It was a challenge just to get her to take a short walk down the hall. The pumpkin pie stirred something up inside her. We helped her out of her chair, got her situated over her walker and ensured she had a firm hold on it. She still hadn’t told us her plan but we were eager to follow her.

She shuffled out of her room, down the hall, down the next hall, and into the nursing home café. We understood what she wanted. She pointed at the coffee in the corner so we poured cups for the adults and cocoa for the kids and set them on a long table in the center of the room. We sat her at the head of the table, put her cup of coffee in front of her (one cream, no sugar) and began slicing the pie.

Residents walked by and smiled at her. She smiled back and pointed at everyone enthusiastically. “They are—they are—they are.” She said to them. We knew what she was saying.

“They are my family.”

– – –

I’d heard of COVID-19 on the news back in January. Even then, I failed to understand the implications of such a thing until the news came out of Washington State about the first American victims of the virus—nursing home residents.

Weeks followed—things got worse. My Mom and Uncle still made daily trips to see Gram at the home. One day, they were given face masks. My mom’s mask had a toothy, grinning smile on the front, the teeth were covered in braces. She sent a selfie to our family group text.

The next day, she received the news that visits would no longer be allowed at the home. It was for the best, but it would be almost impossible to explain the situation to Gram. To tell a person with advanced dementia anything let alone that a deadly and infectious pandemic was currently gripping the U.S. was foolish. My Uncle and Mom tried their best to explain that they couldn’t make their daily visits for a while. The conversation ended, but hadn’t felt final—their words had just hung in the air, without any implicit understanding from Gram.

My Mom, through some back-and-forth with the nurses, managed to get Gram an iPad so we could FaceTime. The first time they connected, Gram ignored the conversation completely, pretending to be incredibly interested in her pudding. My mom talked to her nurse instead.

During the second FaceTime call, as my mom’s face came into focus, Gram’s eye’s widened and she smiled.

Gram pointed at the iPad screen and spoke to her nurse. “That’s my mom!”

–  –  –

Self-quarantine has been a surreal experience for me. Not much has fundamentally changed. I am a stay-at-home father to a 2-year old. Most of our days have always involved wiling away the hours. Something as superficial as strong wind would keep us indoors and early spring in New England has that in spades.

Yet, the energy is different. I can no longer stomach the news more than once a day. I feel as if I’ve transgressed the 7 stages of grief (we’re all grieving our old sense of normality, aren’t we?) and at this moment I’m firmly planted in the stage of acceptance. But that doesn’t mean I’m not still filled with nervous energy. Who knew that that pit-of-your-stomach funniness can persist for days, even weeks?

I am expending my nervous energy by cooking. The toddler likes to watch me even if he insists on participating and gets angry when, no, he can’t stir the boiling pot of soup.

One rare morning I stirred into wakefulness before our son had risen. I savored the quiet. I even, with some guilt, pretended I was just a guy laying in his own bed, in an otherwise empty house. Ask any parent if they’ve done that—they have. My thoughts went to breakfast. Suddenly, I remembered my Gram’s porridge. I texted my uncle.

“Do you remember grandma’s recipe for porridge?” I typed.

“If I remember right, it was thin and I think she must have made it with water. It was a little salty and not very sweet. And I think she finished it with a dash of milk. And butter toast.” I didn’t even let him respond before I had flooded his messages with intricate descriptions of oatmeal.

– – –

The nursing home’s website has a page dedicated to the virus. So far, no residents at her home are infected. Yet, I’ve braced myself to the news if it comes. Gram is a strong woman, even at this stage in her life. She’s never been one to back down from a fight, either.

I FaceTimed her the other day. She smiled at me. She smiled wider for my son. I realized she had never seen my apartment so I took her on a virtual tour.

“This is our fish tank.” I explained. “That’s a shrimp. He’s friends with our fish, Beatrice.”

I whirled her into my office in the back of the apartment. “This is where Nancy and I both work now since we have to stay at home. I chose this room because,“ I turned the phone toward the window. “There’s pretty much a million birds in the tree out there.” Gram kept smiling.

I haven’t yet perfected her porridge. My uncle couldn’t recall its preparation. Every time I make it it’s either too thick, too sweet, or there’s something else not quite right about it. That doesn’t mean I won’t stop trying. Nor do I ever think I’ll forget the taste of it or the memory it evokes—a quiet morning at Gram’s house after a summer sleepover. My sister and I bleary-eyed, sitting at the dining table over a deep bowl of oatmeal.

That’s the beauty of a recipe, isn’t it? That is, a recipe that you truly love. You might not know what’s in it, but you can never quite forget the taste of it. A recipe is a memory and even as the details fade, the feelings persist. Every time I cook something of hers, I honor her. In these trying times, I understand most the simple satisfaction found in a bowl of porridge. Or the happiness in the warmth of a chocolate chip cookie straight from the oven. Most of all, I am reminded of her laugh in every pumpkin pie.

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