Cake

A Slice of Every Gingerbread I Ever Made

December 23, 2015

Our kitchens were stacked.

Mine was on the second floor with more dishes than I could ever handle. I would clop clop clop around in my cooking clogs, practicing the art of keeping young children alive.

Photo by Phyllis Grant

Hers was on the first floor with enough jars and tupperware and folded paper bags and cocoa squirreled away for any kind of apocalypse that might happen to come along. When it came to cooking, she knew everything about everything. She had just stopped doing it, her culinary world reduced to tapioca pudding, toast, and tea.

My grandmother heard my children grow up. Every tumble, every tantrum. She heard me grow up. Ten years of marriage. Four years of trying to conceive a second baby. She heard every thrown plate, every slammed door, every episode of “Battlestar Galactica.”

I worried she was hearing too much life through her ceiling. So I apologized for it all. She wouldn’t hear of it. She wanted the noise. She wanted us up there.

Photo by Phyllis Grant

I had moved into the upstairs apartment when I was 33, when I had a 9-month old baby girl, when I had heaps of unspoken post-partum sadness. My grandmother would listen to me talk and talk and talk. I would tell my stories about parenting and marriage just to see if she would smile or laugh. She was blind in one eye, so sometimes I would think she wasn’t listening. But months later she would repeat my world back to me. Moment by moment, the details locked into her brain like the words she gobbled up from her never-ending pile of New Yorkers, New York Review of Books, mystery novels.

We respected each other’s privacy. No knocking. Just carefully penciled in dates. She liked having her dinner alone, or so she said. I think she didn’t want me to feel put out. So it was just tea or drinks. Her lipstick on. My hair brushed. All of the kids’ detritus shoved away in closets. At the carefully chosen time, she would walk out her front door and cross the lawn—pausing for a few deep breaths with her hand on the jacaranda tree—and then around to the other side of the house to my front door.

Photo by Phyllis Grant

I would call her when things went awry.

I could hear the phone ringing downstairs and then I could feel her warmth slowly shifting out of bed and towards the phone.

The soup is too thin, grandma. What do I do? (Add a cooked and mashed potato). The braised meat isn’t softening up (More time? Some acid?).

I would call her to be my recipe guinea pig.

Grandma, can I bring you a little something I’ve been working on?

As long as it’s not caramel.

It’s not caramel. I promise.

Just leave it outside. Thank you.

I would cover it in plastic wrap, walk it down the stairs, and leave it on the bench outside her front door.

I would call her just to make sure she was still alive.

Photo by Phyllis Grant

She would get the first cookie, the warmest piece of pie, a corner of the croquembouche debacle, a smear of the ridiculous cheeseball, the first and last attempt at homemade bread, a slice of every single gingerbread I ever made.

All I wanted to do was feed her. And in return I would get the blunt-ass truth via a phone call. Too sweet. A bit ugly. Absolutely delicious. Fine, fine, fine. Maybe don’t cook it quite so long next time?

After she died, I went through her kitchen and found dozens of ramekins, plates, silverware from my own kitchen. I can see her, eating the treats in bed. She glides through her apartment, scraping the remains, rinsing the dishes. Then she tucks them away as her own.

12 Comments

gardeningal December 28, 2015
I remember baking and cooking and shopping with my grandma. I lived with her for quite a while growing up. Summers on the water. Lots of experiments in the kitchen, sitting on the back porch eating raw potatoes and onions - just to see if I liked them She didn't seem to mind. So many memories. Then one day, cleaning out the closets, shelves and drawers with family. Only to find memories like yours. By the way, I can't wait to try the yummy cake. Thank you.
 
Loren December 27, 2015
Beautiful. Thank you.
 
Doug D. December 27, 2015
Young lady, you write beautifully.
 
BrooklynBridget December 25, 2015
This is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing.
 
Jen M. December 25, 2015
Wonderful story! You are so lucky to have known your grandmother so intimately, and her, you. Thanks for sharing it so beautifully.
 
Nadia December 25, 2015
Wonderfully written. All my grandparents passed away before I was born or when I was very young. I still try to imagine how my relationship would have been had they been alive.<br /><br />You write beautifully
 
Sachi December 24, 2015
What a beautiful piece of writing. Thank you so much for sharing. So going to make this cake.
 
Jennifer V. December 23, 2015
A beautiful gift. Thanks for always sharing the good things in life. Not always the easiest, but the parts that matter.
 
Brooke B. December 23, 2015
I've been eyeing this cake on IG all week, salivating over it, actually. Now I'm salivating over the words. This is such a beautiful write up, Phyllis. It feels different from your other posts somehow...I can't put my finger on it but I love it just the same.<br /><br />Your relationship with your grandmother also reminds me a lot of my own. Only mine is 3,000 miles away as opposed to upstairs so the food questions and comments are based entirely on photos and words and are, generally, just positive. ("This sounds marvelous." "Those donuts looked like perfection." "Tell me now, what is harissa?") Though I have to say, reading about your grandmother's honesty made me smile ear to ear! She sounds like she was a true character. <br /><br />Sending hugs your way. And happiest of holidays to you and the family! xx
 
Shalini December 23, 2015
You are so lucky to have had this relationship with her so well into your adult life! Wonderfully written.
 
mommychef December 23, 2015
lovely.
 
Amy C. December 23, 2015
Oh my goodness this is so beautiful. Like an organism opening up to include generations of family, eating together and growing, conceiving, loving, and dying. Phyllis Grant breaks my heart in beautiful little pieces.