My house smells like pumpkin bread every day now.
Baking means more than mixing up ingredients and putting them in the oven. Baking, for me, is the essence of my Grandma wafting through the air, tickling my memory, and turning my face happy no matter what else is on my mind.
My Grandma passed away when I was 10 years old. There are only two things I regret about the time we spent together. I remember clearly being at her house, I must've been around 8 years old at the time. We were in the living room, watching "The Price Is Right" and relaxing. For some reason, we got in a fight. I wanted something and she wouldn't let me have it. I don't even remember what it was, but I remember distinctly what happened next. I yelled at her and told her I hated her, then stormed out of the living room. Moments later, realizing the mistake I made, I peeked around the corner, afraid. Afraid of a spanking, afraid of what I imagined would be a very angry Grandma, awaiting my return with punishment ready. What I saw instead, was my Grandma crying. A punishment that fit the crime.
At her funeral, my cousin Brad and I got in trouble. There was this man singing some sort of operatic ballad and it tore us up. We started giggling and couldn't stop. We were chasing each other around the somber crowd as if it was a carnival, not a funeral. When I apologized later, my Mom said it was okay, that everyone deals with death differently. But it wasn't okay. The only chance I had to pay my respects, I was laughing instead.
Most of my memories with my Grandma are in the kitchen. We baked pies, and breads, and cakes. We made applesauce at the old porcelain sink, watching my Grandpa and the boys through the window, bringing down apples from the orchard and grinding them into cider. We picked blackberries along the drive for pies and jams. We made sandwiches and tea for all the men working on some thing or another. My Grandma took me to the dentist for the first time and bought me a hamburger and ice cream right after. We used to go shopping at the thrift stores to find treasures.
And my Grandma took me with her to put together and deliver food to the elderly for "Meals on Wheels". What a grand adventure! We put together the meals at the old Grange Hall in Scio, a million women in the kitchen, slinging cornbread and mashed potatoes and meatloaf and green beans. The heat and energy there was mesmerizing. We loaded up Grandma's old red pickup truck and headed out for deliveries. At the first house, Grandma made me deliver the food by myself. A very old woman with hollow, wet eyes answered the door. I was instantly sad for her. I told her I had a meal for her, and the styrofoam box grew heavy in my hands. She told me she didn't really eat much these days, handed me a check for $4.00, and asked if I would come in and look at something. In that moment, fear and compassion were pulling me in two very different directions. I looked in the house, looked out at Grandma in the truck, looked at this sad, sad woman, and went inside. The hot food was burning my hands and I set it down, at last, on a corner of her coffee table. The rest of the table was covered in old photos.
"This is my daughter," the old woman said, holding up a photo of a brunette about my age. "I don't see her any more. And these are my boys...they haven't been up to see me in more than...well, seven years I guess." She went silent and still.
"There's meatloaf and mashed potatoes in there," I say, because I don't know what else to do. And I just want to leave this sad, smelly place.
"Oh, I don't eat much, really." I open the box and steam flushes out. I take the plastic fork and knife and cut a piece of meatloaf and dip it in the potatoes.
"You should try a bite...it looks really good." I move the bite towards her and she closes her eyes, opens her mouth, and lets me feed her.
When her eyes open again, a tear comes sliding out and down her cheek. The hollowness has disappeared and I see her children dancing there, laughing, playing.
My Grandma came through the door, told me we need to get to the rest of the deliveries, told the woman to make sure and eat every bite, and before I know it we were back in the truck. Though I am usually full of things to say, we drove on in complete silence for what seemed like a very long time until we got to the next stop on our delivery list.
That next stop came as quite a surprise, as Grandma liked to drive fast, and almost missed the turn-in to a very strange place.
"Hold on!" Grandma reached across the seat to hold me in, slammed on her breaks, cut in front of a rather large truck, and skidded to a stop in a dirt turn-around nearly covered in blackberry bushes.
"Geesh, Grandma! What is this place? Does someone actually live here?" There was a very small trailer, covered in blackberry bushes with newspapers stacked from the ground to the top of the trailer, all the way around it.
"Hello Ma'am, Missus," a little crooked man had come out from somewhere in the tangles of that trailer to greet us. Grandma and I got out of the truck and said hello. I handed him his meal and he smiled, sort of. Is it still considered a smile if you only have three teeth? I wondered. "Thank you, Missus, just you wait here a sec, I've got something for you." He disappeared into the tangles once again, and came out with two full bags of newspapers which he set at my feet.
"What's this?" I asked, totally confused.
"It's all I got." He hung his head and turned up his palms. "Here, lemme bring some more for you," and he turned to go back to the trailer.
"No, no, this'll be just fantastic!" Grandma chimed. "You wanna save some for next time, right?" She smiled at him as he turned back to us, and he nodded in agreement. We all looked around then, at the thousands of newspapers piled everywhere, and got the giggles. My Grandma gave him a hug, whispered something in his ear, and once again, we were down the road.
On our last delivery, we came down a long, rutted road that bumped and rattled us for what seemed like miles. A ginormous mansion sat at the end, and I thought 'who could possibly need food that owns a house as big as this'? A very bouncy woman with long, wild, silver hair rushed out to meet us in the drive. My Grandma jumped from the truck and embraced her as if they were old friends reuniting, and they hugged and talked and held hands and walked. And I was forgotten, and meals were forgotten.
On my own in this wonderous place, I wandered around and looked at everything. The house was huge, but looked as if it was held up by a string. It was the color of this woman's hair, grey and black, and would make a good haunted house for Halloween. There were chickens running around all over the place. The property was lush and green, damp and secret. It was a treasure, not found at a thrift store, but at the end of a very bumpy road. I found a black and orange caterpillar on the ground and picked it up. Usually they curl up in a ball, afraid they'll be eaten. But it just crawled around on my hand and arm like I was part of the terrain. Maybe it knew that nothing could be harmed in this place. Maybe it knew it lived in wonderland.
Grandma finally came back to the truck with Millie - the smiley, wild woman - who was carrying five flats of fresh eggs. I don't know how we ever made it back down that road without breaking one of them.
I hope these days, that my Grandma knows I didn't hate her, and that I don't hate anything. I hope these days that my Grandma can see me happy, see me baking, and feel my respect. And I know, true in my heart, that her hand is on mine with every stir of the spoon. That I can hear her absently humming in the kitchen while I bake. That love is the most important ingredient in any confection. And that she taught me how the smell of love baking lingers long after the crumbs have been wiped away.