When the noon whistle blew, I would look up at the yellow electric clock on the wall above the kitchen table and know that Grandpa would be coming home for dinner. In this small Iowa town, Morning Sun, the noon meal was “dinner” and the evening meal “supper.” Grandpa Verne always announced his arrival with a bang of the back screen door, calling out a jovial hello before he moved to the scarred porcelain work room sink below a cracked mirror to wash up with Lava, the soap made from volcanic rock. Grandpa Verne was a plumber, and his hands were cracked, dirty, and arthritic, bent into rough claws from years of crawling around under houses to fit pipe, run lines for sinks and toilets, and relight dead furnaces in the dark cold of an Iowa winter.
The work of the meal had begun early that morning—often, even weeks or months before. Every spring, Grandpa planted a huge garden—cucumbers, beets, green beans, potatoes, sweet corn, melon, and tomatoes—that created a bounty of food for the table. When the snow drove us indoors, he brought his beloved Kennebec potatoes up from the cave, and we ate dill and bread-and-butter pickles from jars and chili made with home-canned tomatoes. A grape arbor in the back yard produced dusty, seeded fruit that was tedious to handle and sour in its natural state but translated into a beautiful abstraction—dark, purple jelly that caught the light and sparkled in the small, quilted jars. Grandpa always said that the first watermelon was a sign that winter was coming, and the words always filled me with a sense of foreboding and expectant loss, not only for each passing summer but for the lives that I knew would all-too-soon be drawing to a close. In all seasons, I feasted, greedily eating and drinking of the time that we had left.
So when that noon whistle blew, the kitchen heavy with the smells of Iowa cooking, I took my place at the table. Usually we ate beef or pork roast; boiled Kennebec potatoes that we mashed with forks; gravy; green beans, corn or carrots; homemade dill pickles, and bread and butter with homemade grape jelly or strawberry jam. Grandma cooked like she did everything else—with pathological attention to detail. What I am fairly certain was an undiagnosed obsessive compulsive personality manifested in a tedious perfectionism that was really something to watch. When she fried chicken, she would perch on a stool in front of her gas stove, staring mildly but intently into the cast iron Dutch oven, turning each piece in the hot oil like it was a rare artifact.
Cooking was a craft, and as with many good Midwestern cooks I know, it worked by “feel.” My step-mother Bev extends the metaphor to call the practice “cooking by analogy,” where one follows a Zen-like principle rather than a recipe. Grandma’s “gravy” analogy proliferated in many directions—roast beef or pork gravy, chicken gravy, hamburger gravy, bacon gravy, and, yes, squirrel gravy. By the time I came of age, the Wilsons, thank god, had given up squirrel as a meat source. Nobody I know has eaten Grandma’s squirrel gravy for at least forty years, but its fame lives on in what she herself would no doubt see as a kind of perverse immortality. At fourteen, when I realized that Grandma’s gravy was more art than science, I became her shadow by the stove, watching her as she sat on her yellow stool, mixing cornstarch with water, bringing the liquid to a boil, taking it off the heat, stirring, her long white, wrinkled fingers moving slowly, deliberately. I tried to absorb the motions, like osmosis, to carry on the tradition.
The table that Verne and Nellie laid together fed the bodies and the souls of three generations—aunts and uncles, nephews, nieces, in-laws, outlaws, children, step-children, and grandchildren. Aunt Mary, Grandpa’s sweet, soft-spoken sister, used to walk over from next door to sit at the table to visit while her scowling husband Ralph stayed at home with his rear end glued to the porch swing. Grandpa called him “the most well-rested man in Morning Sun.” Grandma’s brothers and sisters also came. Aunt Bessie liked to chat. Uncle Bob, with his black-framed glasses, strange, staring eyes and quiet ways, reminded me of Boo Radley. “Too much Missouri in him,” Grandma would say. Uncle Marian was a tall, silent, rangy, raw-boned gentle-spoken man whose beautiful tan face looked like it was chiseled out of rock. Grandma told me that he was a medic in World War II and had stood up to his ankles in blood. Uncle Richard created a scandal by marrying a divorcee, but no one in this house seemed to care much. And there were those like my mom, once an in-law, who expected the conventional wisdom about divorce separating families to apply to her. It didn’t.
My favorite visitors to the table were my aunts Lorna and Norma, Grandpa’s younger identical twin sisters. Both were nurses, Aunt Lorna a decorated Army nurse who had served in a M*A*S*H* unit in Korea. Twenty-odd years later, when I was a kid, the two of them would come from their hospital jobs and park themselves at the table, filling the room with laughter, talk, and cigarette smoke. I remember sitting silently across from them, awestruck, watching the butts and ashes pile up as I tried to keep up with the banter. Norma would finish Lorna’s sentences, and Lorna would speak words that Norma was only thinking. Sometimes they would just say “yes” to each other or nod silently, leaving everyone else in the dark. They were a force, somehow more than one person but less than two. All the time they saved by reading each other’s minds was taken up with lighting and puffing away like mad, while Grandpa lovingly beamed down upon them.
Family members and locals who stopped by for the famous Iowa pastime called “visiting” would always be offered something to eat—apple pie, blackberry crunch, white cake, or Grandma’s famous date nut bread that was baked in coffee cans. If it was an “occasion,” there was homemade ice cream, packed in a bed of ice and rock salt and cranked by hand. Everyone who wanted to could get a turn at the crank. If there wasn’t anything baked, you could get your grease and sugar fix with some Sterzings potato chips and a bottle of pop—take your pick—Dr. Pepper, RC Cola, Sun Drop, strawberry, orange, grape or creme soda, or Mountain Dew back when the picture of the hillbilly was still on the bottle. Anyone you brought there was welcome to stay for dinner or supper, or, after supper, Grandpa’s specialty—popcorn stirred by hand in the old black metal popper—in, what else? Bacon grease. Back then cholesterol was a futuristic concept, like science fiction. Shared food was shared joy. Even a young granddaughter’s boyfriend was met with an equal welcome and politeness if a little less open enthusiasm. Verne and Nellie appreciated food and shared it generously because they understood what it meant to not have enough of it. At supper, the more modest meal of the day, Grandma often said, “If you always have this much to eat, you won’t starve.” And the prayer she said from memory, “bless this food to its intended use; feed our souls the bread of life” was a fitting metaphor for their table.
In the mid- to late summer, Grandpa would eat from two large dinner plates, one full of the regular fare and the other home-grown sliced tomatoes. He ate like you imagine a bear might, holding the fork loosely in his arthritic hands and smiling all the while he shoveled it in. The kitchen table was the site for Grandpa’s grandiloquent praise of Grandma’s cooking—“This is the best ham I’ve ever eaten!”—as well as dramatically delivered recaps of the latest stories from Paul Harvey’s noon radio broadcast or Reader’s Digest about the dangers of riding a motorcycle without a helmet or eating too much salt. These proclamations were usually met with Grandma’s signature dour expression that my dad nailed perfectly as “looking like she had a turd in her mouth.” Grandpa spoke easily in voluble superlatives while Grandma lived, often silently, on the razor-sharp edge of fine distinction. One time, Grandpa’s enthusiastic but tragically misdirected comment about frozen, store-bought noodles being “the best homemade noodles [he’d] ever tasted” fated him and all the rest of us to a future of eating only noodles that came out of packages. When Grandma would bother to add a comment, her wit would cut a swath that was neat, deadly and hilarious. “I like salt, and I don’t care who knows it,” she would say. Everyone, even Grandpa, would laugh.
In 1986, a month or so after my twenty-third birthday, Grandma fell and broke her hip. Over the next six years, I watched her survive and recover from that injury and a series of strokes until she succumbed to a massive stroke in March of 1992. In 1991, Grandpa, suffering severe dementia, had to be put in a nursing home. In those years that they were home, I still came to their table, now helping to package and label the medicine, cook them dinner, or prepare meals for the freezer. I knew that my time with them was drawing to a close, and I was desperately trying to help them live another day. I was only one of many, many people who, having once shared the fellowship of their table, worked together to help them live at home as long as possible. During these years, they became people that seemed unlike, and yet strangely more like, themselves. Grandma’s bitter anger found a voice, and Grandpa ran away from the Morning Sun Care Center in the middle of the night to get back home, this gentlest of men beating the caretakers with his fists to avoid being taken. When Grandma suffered her last stroke and was brought, dying, to this same place, Grandpa kept asking me when the baby was going to be born so that Grandma could come home. Luckily, he lived right down the hall, so he could visit her.
For many years now, in a family of excellent cooks, I have been the designated as the gravy maker at our Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts. Occasionally, one of the youngsters or a newcomer will stand by my side to watch. As I get older, when I look down at the hands engaged in the task, I am starting to see Grandma’s. My gravy is not as good as hers, nor will it ever be, but this seems fitting somehow, a reminder that the best of what I have loved may only be recalled, never remade. Still, gravy-making is a way that I continue to seek her. Opening a diary that she kept in 1985, when she was 78 years old, I try to reach back, hungry for clues to the inner workings of the life she and Grandpa shared. What I find, mostly, are stories about food. She duly records chores of canning, pickle and jelly-making as well as perfunctory lists of menus, and guests who shared their table. August 27, Tuesday: “Got 12 lb. grapes ready, cooked them in 2 gal. kettles. Strained in bags and let drip all night.” July 28, Sunday: “When it was time to go to bed and we were tired, we peeled, sliced, and put 1 ½ gal. cucumbers in a stone jar in brine.” July 17, Wednesday: “We had Cy Hutchcroft and our grandson Darren Wilson for 6:00 p.m. supper. Roast beef, white and sweet potatoes, gravy, creamed corn, fresh cucumbers and onions, cherry pie and ice cream.” With the exception of an occasional exclamation, “Routine!” the entries almost never reflect or communicate any feeling. Except one recorded on Christmas day of that year, when bad weather conditions kept them home for Christmas: “We were by ourselves but not alone as we still had each other!”
JACQUELINE WILSON-JORDAN has published previously on the American short story (Wharton, James, Crane, Oates, Hawthorne) in The Edith Wharton Review, Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction, and in a collection entitled Memorial Boxes and Guarded Interiors: Edith Wharton and Material Culture. She lives in West Central Illinois, where she teaches Basic Writing at Western Illinois University.