I woke up to the slanted ceiling staring back at me, only inches from my face. Turning over in the small twin bed, I saw my younger brother tangled in the flowered sheets that my mother slept in when she visited as a kid. The room smelled like old carpet, a musty, yet comforting scent of grandparents, or in my case, great-grandparents. Thinking back to the house on Wisner Street, where my grandfather grew up, where my mother spent countless days, and where my brother and I got to come as a mini vacation from the family cottage that was just outside of town, my memoires are absorbed by food.
Smells of bacon and pancakes would drift up to the bedroom, enticing us from our sleep. Slowly we crawled down the steep stairs through the dining room and into the kitchen. Homemade Italian Christmas bread would already toasted and butters as my great-grandmother stood in the middle of the small kitchen - her small kitchen - making breakfast for us. It had become a ritual, a routine, when we came to visit. She stood in a long blue robe, faded from years of being worn each morning, white hair perfectly curled, as she leaned over the yellowed white Formica countertops. Steam rose from her cup as she poured herself a cup of Folders. Her toast sat on a small plate she has had since the 60s accompanied by a red-lidded jar of J.I.F. After she took sips of her dark black brew, she moved on to applying an even, almost perfect later of peanut butter on the golden brown toast while I would sit watching her like she was doing magic. Those two smells, the earthy coffee and nutty scent filled the small, bright room.
My great-grandmother was a baker. That was her hobby. Her specialty, banana bread, but she would never disappoint with her shortcakes, brownies, and cookies of all types. This is how I remember her. I never remember eating food at her house that wasn’t sweet. I must have gotten my sweet tooth from her. Thankfully, the recipes have been passed down to my grandmother and now to my mom and me. Even so, they still don’t taste as good as her creations did. Knowing her, I’m almost positive she added something to the batter that she never wrote down, leaving me now at a loss.
I’d sit watching her prepare our breakfast on a stool propped against the wall, out of the way, as I wait for my Strawberry Poptarts to be toasted to their own golden brown perfection. My brother sat at the table, feet kicking, his legs too short to touch the floor waiting for his Lucky Charms. Beams of light shone down on the floor. Dust flew through the light like a quiet snowstorm. The windows may have had a bit of dirt on them, but that didn’t obstruct my view of the backyard garden where my great-grandfather stood watering and weeding the garden before it got too hot. I moved from my perch to the table where she had set her plate across from my brother’s and mine.
Breakfast was a time not only to consume fresh fruit cut up in milk or left over shortcakes, but also a place where my family plans the day. I never cared what she had planned for the day, as long as we were allowed to get Dairy Queen as some point during the day. Normally, she’d teach me how to play canasta or we’d pull out the board games she had used for decades. My favorites were Sorry! And Rummikub. I think the Sorry! board got to the point of falling apart and we resorted to taping the fold so that it didn’t split. My great-grandmother and I would play games for hours, and when we got tired of them, she turned on the television to the Game Show Network (GSN) and we watched anything and everything.
At some point, around lunch, my parents came over to eat lunch. They brought hamburgers and chips with a watermelon, a perfect summer lunch. While my dad helped my great-grandfather with whatever needed to be fixed that day, my little brother in tow, the ladies would go into the kitchen to start lunch. For me, burgers were a staple item, mustard, ketchup, and pickles were all I needed to complete the sandwich. That would not seem like enough now, as I love lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and avocado as well. But back then everything was simple and wonderful. The smell of the grill is synonymous with summer in my mind. Describing charcoal is close to impossible. It is unique in the since that when you smell it, you instantly know that the food coming off the grill will have a hint of it converted into flavor.
I wish I could go back to that house. Those summers were filled with magic. Grapes that were so firm, they burst with a crunch. Sweet corn on the cob doused in butter with hamburgers and hotdogs over the old charcoal grill with fresh vegetable from the garden. Trips to DQ almost everyday with games of mini golf on steaming hot days. I wish I could go back to visit that old house where steps creaked and the house shook in the summer wind and see my great-grandparents again, hear their voices. Looking back, my love for turning on GSN disappeared when my great-grandmother died. I just can’t appreciate them as much when she isn’t sitting by my trying to answer the questions before the contestants do. As much as I wish I could relive these memories, I can’t. These people are gone, the house was sold years ago, the garden is gone, and many of these once delicious foods are not a part of my diet anymore. Things change and life changes, but at least I have the memories. I am a product of these people and of these foods.