I’m in Ashland on an almost sunny morning, on my way to Michigan via San Francisco for my grandmother’s funeral. I had been planning to take a road trip south to have time away from the administrative onslaught, time to think, but life seems to be relegated lately to one of those car chase video games where the ills of modern civilization — flaming tires, the bodies of fallen comrades, police cars — keep being flung in one’s path. All we can do is swerve.
I have to write a eulogy, and it will probably involve food, for my grandmother was without question the earliest food influence in my life (well, besides my mother and breast-feeding, I suppose). She was the only one in my family who really wanted to talk to me about cooking. What are you making, she’d ask, and always listen eagerly as if I were a cooking show. She bought me a wok for my wedding. I don’t even think she knew what a wok was. Our last conversation involved an oven and baking, my neighbor baking. What’s baking, she asked. And then I knew she was gone.
I think: I’m kind of too sad to write right now, though. Then I think: if you can afford to be too sad right now to write, you should count your blessings and get to work, missy. Chop chop. Do you have to raise five kids? Do you have to get up at the crack of dawn and go work at some shitty factory job? Do you live in Detroit? There are people who are too sad and there are people who just get it done. Something about the devil and idle hands, right? Idol hands. Chop chop.
I remember Polish rye bread and real butter. Frozen strawberries. Coconuts. I begged for coconuts. And, starved for carbs, we ate Liv-a-Snaps meant for the dog. They were in the drawer with the paddle, the menacing paddle with pictures of naughty children on it. I don’t think it was ever used, it was just a Foucauldian symbol, and an ineffective one if we saw it and still ate the dog biscuits. Whole milk. Radish flowers. And always kielbasa, yards and yards of it. My intestines are made of kielbasa. Funny that I don’t remember many casual meals with her. I think we ate lots of soup: either chicken or vegetable beef. She accidentally burned me with a soup pot when I was very young and underfoot. My first kitchen lesson, my initiation scar. Oh yes, and fried bologna sandwiches and hard salami. I still love hard salami. And the cookies she spirited away from the Polish bakery. Almondy sugar cookies in vague shapes and pointless powdery chrusciki, angel wings.
So here’s what I’ve got so far:
Leokadya “Lillian” Ann Kuznicki Mendrek, 1924-2013. A formidable presence, caretaker, cook, comedian, beloved mother of five, grandmother of seven, and great-grandmother of five. She’d take care of any baby anywhere, playing a major role raising me and my siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews. She sang in the kitchen and gave us butter and made lists for Grampa and mobilized the forces. And she never let rules stand in her way, hiding a few kids to convince the anti-Catholic real estate agent the family would fit perfectly into the new suburban development in Inkster; inventing plastic-wrapped diapers to minimize leaks (she had twins, no time for nonsense); baptizing my nephews in the bathtub herself so they wouldn’t linger in purgatory; pretending at reunions that she had attended high school and not worked in the factory across the street from St. Francis in Detroit. God only punished her when she smuggled the baked chicken from Sweden House in her purse for Uncle Dennis. A long life filled with love. We’ll miss you, Nanny.