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 the small town of Alpena rests on the shores of Lake Huron, and three generations of my family have lived before me, my memories are absorbed by food.
Smells of bacon and pancakes drifted 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 was already toasted and buttered 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 my brother and I 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 mug as she poured herself a cup of Folgers. Her toast sat on a small plate accompanied by a red-lidded jar of JIF. After she took sips of her dark black brew, she applied an even, almost perfect layer of peanut butter on the golden brown toast while I sat watching her. Those two smells, the earthy coffee and sweet, comforting, nutty scent, filled the small, bright room as she bit off a piece with a satisfying crunch.
My great-grandmother baked. That was her hobby. Her specialty was 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 and I’m sure I obtained my sweet tooth from her. Having to eliminate many of my favorite childhood deserts because I am unable to consume any dairy and a variety of other foods, making me miss her even more because I can’t remember her through taste, a strong memory trigger for me. Thankfully, the recipes have been passed down to so that my children will be able to enjoy these foods as well even if I cannot. Even so, I know that the banana bread my mom makes is nowhere near as mouthwatering as hers was. My great-grandma was very careful to share her recipes with anyone but close family. I’m almost positive she added something to the batter that was never written down so that she could make sure that no one could replicate her baked goods, leaving me now at a loss.
That morning I sat watching her prepare our breakfast on a stool propped against the wall, out of the way, as I waited for my Strawberry Poptarts to be toasted to a 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 before the temperature rose. 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 doused in milk, which to this day I cannot seem to replicate with my insufficient soy substitute, or left over shortcakes, but also a place where my family decide the day’s activities. I never cared what my great-grandmother had planned for the day, as long as we were allowed to get Dairy Queen at some point. 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 ended up splitting into two pieces and we resorted to taping the fold to make it whole again. My great-grandmother and I played games for hours. It was nearly impossible to come into her house during the day without hearing the shuffling of cards, or the die hitting the table. When we were tired of playing, she turned on the television to the Game Show Network (GSN) and we watched anything and everything. Sitting on the couch with some sesame sticks or cheesy popcorn, another old favorite of mine, was a must and there was never a concern about getting food on the cushions. As a kid there was never a need to worry about anything. Food would always be on the table when it was time for the next meal and I always seemed to be occupied during the day. It is funny how growing up changes that all.
At some point, my parents came from our cottage to eat. They brought hamburgers, Lay’s potato chips, French onion dip and 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 went into the kitchen to start cooking. 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. Now I prefer organic sweet potato chips rather than regular ones. Watermelon doesn’t sit well with my stomach and chip dip is not an option being cream based. 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 because 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 vegetables from the garden. Trips to DQ almost everyday with games of mini golf on steaming hot days. Now, visits to DQ require a whole sleeve of Lactaid pills and even with those, pain is inevitable. 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. Maybe it was because I didn’t have the time to just sit for hours or because I didn’t have the patience. More than likely it was because without her sitting by me, GSN wasn’t as funny or enjoyable. I just can’t appreciate them as much when she isn’t 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. Life transforms from a carefree dream to a complicated task, but even so, I will always have the memories.