How I Learned to Bake and Other Lessons from my Grandma

While I was at work this morning, the phone to the office rang, and my mother told me the news. My grandmother died in her apartment. My grandmother, the woman who went to college at age 15, who knew everyone at church, who could make any small child smile, is gone from this world after nearly 97 years of life. My grandmother was one of the first people to greet me in the United States and was one of the first people I fell in love with. I loved cooking with her, playing board games, or going to the local botanical garden to see the butterflies. We would often eat at my grandparents favorite pancake place, watch Jeopardy at 4:00pm, or pick berries in the summertime. I have fond memories of 4th of Julys, Christmases, and Easters spent at my grandparents’ house.

Most importantly, my grandmother taught me the meaning of patience, humbleness, wisdom, and kindness to others. Whenever people found out who my grandmother was, they would most likely have a story of how they knew her, some committee or women’s club they were in together, or something she did to help them or a friend. My grandmother showed me how to live out love and grace. And though we weren’t biologically related, our bond was just as strong, our love just as deep, and our memories just as special. With old age and illness, her light had severely dimmed, and her spirit is something I grieved the loss of years ago. Death is so permanent, though. Loss is something I know well, but it doesn’t make it any easier.

When I got home, I looked at old photos and cards from my grandmother, and one letter stuck out in particular. For my thirteenth birthday, my mother sent letters to all of the women who had been important in my life and asked them to write special memories, pieces of advice, and wishes they had for my journey into womanhood. I share only a few of the irreplaceable words she wrote to me that day. I know I will keep her memories and words forever, and I hope I can carry on her legacy through chocolate chip cookies, beautiful gardens, and kindness for others.

WHAT IS A SPECIAL MEMORY YOU HAVE OF RTB?

“A little girl who had just had the biggest change in her life that I could imagine, new people to love and care for her – hearing a new language most of the time – hoping we could help make her as happy as she was making us – the little girl who had just been a small picture was really here!”

I thought I’d share a special memory I have of her – or rather a collection of memories. This is a piece I wrote nearly four years ago, and I think it captures the essence of this remarkable woman and our relationship.

How I Learned to Bake

My beautiful grandmother is a petite woman of five feet with wispy, white hairs on top of her head. She has welcoming eyes and freckled fingers that graze over things in a slow, gentle manner. The age lines and creases that deepen my grandmother’s face show the long life she has lived and how she has spent her time. The rough texture of my grandmother’s skin reflects years of tending to the flowers in her garden in the hot sun. My grandmother’s callused fingers have sewn, cooked, and scrubbed the house clean, and while doing these various activities, she always smiled. From the corners of her eyes, dozens of small crevasses extend outward onto my grandmother’s face. These “smile wrinkles” pair with the lines on her cheeks that become even bolder when she laughs.

My grandmother reaches out for my hand as we slowly inch our way to her kitchen. Our elbows are linked together, tightly wrapped to keep our balance. As we step into that beloved room where I first learned how to bake and attained the patience to do so, I notice a change in the atmosphere. The kitchen that once smelled of fresh pastries and roasting capon now has a dry odor of stale bread and old meats. The goopy texture of newly splattered dough no longer hangs on the wall near the electric mixer. In its place is a crusty, red-orange array of dots. The constant dinging of timers and the chatter of my aunts and uncles are gone. The room that was once the congregating spot for our family is now an almost empty area of the house.

My grandmother and I enter the room, still attached to each other. There is a pile of dishes on the counter with dried leftovers that carry a strange scent and some cold water sitting in the sink. As my grandmother and I make our way to the refrigerator, we pass the little shelf with decoratively patterned oven mitts, the cupboard that holds assorted metal tins, and the electric mixer. When I open the refrigerator door to pour a glass of milk for her, I see a gray carton of eggs and a few sticks of butter.

. . .

Immediately, I’m reminded of my younger days when we baked chocolate chip cookies together in this very kitchen. It was a tradition we followed every time I visited my grandparents. Being a smart six year old, I knew that my grandma would be thinking of some tasty treat. I headed straight to the kitchen and grabbed my chicken apron. It was time to bake.

My grandma silently entered the room behind me and slipped on her elephant printed apron. She reached down and tied my apron strings into a bow and adjusted the straps so it wouldn’t drag on the floor. She circled her way around the kitchen, grabbing little metal tins containing sugar, flour and other assorted goods. I stood in awe, amazed that she knew where every item in her kitchen was.

My grandma then turned to find a large mixing bowl, and while she looked away, I pulled out a chair to stand on and extended my arms just enough so that I could reach the little cup of chocolate chips. By the time she turned back around, the only evidence of my devious actions was a smudge of chocolate by my lips and a bit of brown sticky on my fingers. I thought I was quite clever, remembering to push back the chair and even off the chocolate chips.

My grandma gave me a funny look, but did not say anything. Dropping some more chocolate chips in the little cup and eating some herself, she gave me a big smile that pushed the corners of her mouth closer to her face and exposed the deep lines made by years of giving this exact smile. I knew we were about to begin. My grandma took my tiny hands in hers and helped me measure teaspoons of baking soda, cups of flour, and tablespoons of vanilla. I was privileged enough to dump these into the large mixing bowl all by myself, but with a deep sigh of disbelief, my grandma convinced me that she had to crack the eggs.

The next step of baking chocolate chip cookies consisted of mixing up all of the ingredients. I became obsessed with twisting the dial on my grandma’s electric mixer, because I didn’t have one of those at home. What I enjoyed even more was watching the mixer suck in the eggs and spew out a yellowy goop. It astonished me that all of my separate piles of white powders turned into a mushy beige substance, just minutes after turning that fascinating dial.

Once the dough was smooth, she manually stirred in all of the chocolate chips and greased our baking sheets with the butter wrappers. My grandma handed me a spoon to scoop out the squishy batter. Sometime, near a half an hour later, my weak, little arms started to ache with all of the effort I was exerting by clumping that dough. My grandma decided to take the spoon from me and finish the task. Once she was done and we both had clean hands, my grandma told me to say good-bye to those little round balls of hard labor and slipped the pans in the oven.

While we waited for our cookies to bake, I found our favorite game: Sorry. We played on the immaculately clean dining room table. Pawns moved from square to square, my grandma delicately sipped her tea, and I managed to ask twenty times when our cookies would be ready. The last nineteen times, my grandmother was silent. I understood the message she was trying to send, so I stopped asking and proceeded to win all four of our very extensive games, totaling about twelve minutes. I loved playing board games against my grandmother; I always won.

When the three chicken shaped timers sounded, my grandma walked over to the warm kitchen. I skipped. She took the pans out and rested them on the tile counter to let them cool. Unable to see my delectable creations flatfooted, I stood on my tiptoes to make sure none had disappeared quite yet. While I was guarding the treats, my grandma pulled out some glasses and milk, bowls and fruit, and plates for the cookies. She set these on the rolling metal cart, and then told me that I could eat one cookie now.

Preparing myself for a small bite of edible Heaven, I examined the cookie from all angles, deciding where to sink my baby teeth and one adult tooth in. I finally chose and indulged. I loved everything about these cookies, especially that first bite which was always the best. They were perfectly golden-brown, crispy on the outside and chewy in the middle with oozing chocolate that stuck to the inside of my mouth, but most importantly, my grandma and I had made them together.

. . .

With fond memories, I am drawn back to the present as I pull out the milk jug and pour the remaining amount in two glasses, one for each of us. I empty the sink of the cold water so that I can rinse out the jug. I begin to help my grandmother wash the piled up dishes and wipe the wall clean of old, crusted foods. For one moment, I look at my grandmother and remember the way she used to be: Smiling, spry, and the mistress of her kitchen. Although the woman I see before me is shrunken, frail and a shadow of her former self, there’s still a sparkle in her eyes and a spirit that remains. With a smile, she asks, “Do you want to bake some chocolate chip cookies?” I cheerfully answer, “Yes!”

I find the little metal tins from the cupboard and grab the eggs and butter from the fridge. I briskly walk over to the closet and pull out our favorite aprons. I take the lead in measuring the ingredients that my grandmother can no longer see adequately to do. Our roles have switched, but our love makes this transition possible.

The cookies I make with my grandmother are more than flour, sugar, eggs, and chocolate chips. They hold a sweetness of all the good times we’ve had together. They are mixed with laughter, kindness, patience, and strength. I know that my grandmother will not always be here to make these cookies with me, but whenever I make them, I will see my grandmother’s smile, feel her hands guiding mine, and hear her gentle voice. Perhaps one day, I’ll be sitting at a table, watching a little girl measuring ingredients and sneaking chocolate chips, and I’ll share stories of her great-grandmother and how I learned to bake.

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6 responses to “How I Learned to Bake and Other Lessons from my Grandma

  1. Beautifully written and a loving tribute. I’m sorry for your loss, but I knoew your grandmother will continue to live in your heart.

  2. Beautifully written and a loving tribute. I’m sorry for your loss, but I know your grandmother will continue to live in your heart.

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