In preparation of our Food issue (submissions open until November 1, after which they’ll simmer ’til winter), I’ve asked members of the LPR community to share stories of what they eat. Food occupies such a central place in our lives, that we can’t help but grow with it. Whether we were sweating it out over a stove in the summer or, as in the case of this entry from Lisa Rosinsky, finding an unexpected moment with an elder long thought lost, we can call on the sounds, smells, and tastes of our most formative and transformative foods to walk back into our own narrative histories. And on Laura’s suggestion, each piece in this series will feature a recipe, so you can cook yourself through an experience yourself. If you have a transformative experience with food, leave a comment and I’ll be in touch.
And now that I’ve laid the table, Lisa Rosinsky:
My grandmother, Rita Bella Roberts Shapiro, turned ninety-five this year. She has round-the-clock nursing care and is confined to a wheelchair; she’s mostly deaf and has lost the abilities to speak, use the bathroom, and feed herself. But she’s still living in the house my mother grew up in—the house where Rita raised three daughters, one mentally retarded, and helped my grandfather run a nursing uniforms business out of their basement in the years after World War II. The house where she used to cook her special “cottage cheese contraption” for my sister and me, where she’d overload our plates with buttery home fries, back when we were little and she could still walk and talk. Where she always had a well-stocked cookie drawer in the kitchen.
My mother organized a party the Saturday after Grandmom’s birthday. That morning, my mother and sister drove up from Baltimore and I drove down from my home in northeast Pennsylvania, to converge at the single-story brick duplex in north Philadelphia. My Aunt Dena and Uncle Jeff were there; the head nurse, Donna; the neighbors, who helped Grandmom out with odd jobs around the house when they could. Dena and Donna had been decorating all morning. A “happy birthday” banner hung across the windows in the living room, and framed photographs stood on every surface.
Grandmom sat in the middle of the living room, fuming. She’d try to push herself out of the wheelchair until her arms tired out, and then she’d collapse back in the chair and groan. Every few minutes she’d wave a lethargic hand at the photos and banners and balloons and say something that sounded like “Put it away” or “Go away.”
Donna shook her head. “She’s been like this all day. Two o’clock, and she’s ready for bed.”
It was more than exhaustion. She was agitated at seeing her house out of order, and the photographs were making her unhappy.
“Sometimes it’s easier to forget than remember—especially when not all the memories are good ones,” my mother said. My grandfather had been gone for nearly a decade. His last years were not happy ones. He forgot who his wife was; thought she was trying to kill him; sometimes called the police, who would find him ranting and raving, or wandering around the house naked.
Donna was setting out plates and cups and an enormous fruit salad. My mom and I unpacked the food we’d brought. She’d made a tuna casserole and a chocolate cake. I peeled the foil off the aluminum baking pan I was carrying. “I brought brownies. Guess we’ve got the chocolate food group covered.”
We all tried to stay cheerful and upbeat, patting my grandmother on the hand and singing happy birthday to her when she moaned.
“I think she said ‘Go away,’” my sister whispered.
“She’s been saying that ever since I got here this morning,” Dena replied. “‘Go away’ or ‘Clean it up’ or ‘Put me to bed.’”
Grandmom let people give her the occasional grape or sip of Gatorade, but she didn’t seem very interested in the food otherwise. So I put a brownie and a slice of chocolate cake on a plate and sat down next to her. Even when she’s been at her worst, she’s never lost her sweet tooth. The last time I visited, I brought her cookies. “Yum, yum, yum,” she’d said, biting into one. It was the only lucid thing she’d said that day.
I loaded up a spoonful of cake and held it to her mouth. She obediently ate it, and licked her lips.
“That’s the spirit, Mom!” my mother said, applauding. Grandmom let me feed her most of the cake, then pushed the plate away. But a few minutes later, she gestured toward the plate again, and let me feed her the rest of the cake.
“Someone’s hungry!” I said, immediately hating the patronizing tone of my voice. It’s so easy to treat the elderly like small children. No wonder Grandmom’s tired of it all.
She finished the last bite of cake, and I started on the brownie.
“Which one do you like better, Grandmom?” I asked, mostly to keep up the charade of conversation, to pretend that we were actually communicating.
She looked at me, and for a moment her eyes were completely clear and her voice didn’t wobble. “They’re both good,” she said. She took the last bite of brownie. “Now clean this all up, and put me to bed.”
Best One-Bowl Brownies
- ½ cup oil
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 2 eggs
- 1/3 cup cocoa
- ¼ tsp baking powder
- ¼ tsp salt
- ½ cup chocolate chips
- Blend oil, sugar, and vanilla.
- Add eggs, mix.
- Add everything else and mix till blended.
- Bake in a 9-inch greased pan at 350 degrees, 20-25 mins (or until edged pull away from pan).
Lisa Rosinsky lives in the mountains of rural Pennsylvania where she is the Associate Managing Editor at Boyds Mills Press, the book publishing division of Highlights for Children. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Little Patuxent Review, Measure, Prairie Schooner, Hunger Mountain, Iron Horse Literary Review, 32 Poems, and other publications. She is working on the second draft of her first novel.