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It is a huge kitchen. Grandpa’s cactus display is under the window, next to Grandma’s collection of decorative spoons. Grandma has everything in its exact place: all of the cups and bowls, the Grapenuts in a see-though container in the pantry, the “Give us this day our daily bread” cross-stitch on the wall. There is a pile of the Dayton Daily News on a stool under the light switch.
The linoleum floor is fun to slide across in socks, much more than at home, because Grandma never gets angry with you for doing it. And you slide right into the counter with the candy jar. With 15 grandchildren running around the house at various times, the jar needs constant refilling: Werther’s, root beer barrels, peppermints, caramels, and cinnamon discs all take their turns jumping in and mostly out of the big glass container.
Most of our conversations take place at the large, oval table, which fits four rolling chairs perfectly. Why rolling chairs, with that many kids around, is beyond me; but they never ceased to amuse me and always earned me a reprimand from one of my parents. At dinner, my little sister Ashley and I were placed in boring folding chairs, while the adults got to savor the entertainment of the rolling ones. What fun could they get out of them? Their feet touched the floor.
Sometimes the table was spread with newspapers, other times with an array of food that one of my grandparents–never both–had spent all afternoon preparing. When I was there, it was often Grandma’s lasagna; the dish never tasted so good when made by someone else. After a few years of having dinner on the couch while watching “Supermarket Sweep” with my parents and sister, eating at a table was a delicious treat, where discussion could be shared and we got to pray before we ate. I was often asked to pray by my parents at my grandparents’ house, and there has not been one time that I have prayed aloud when Grandma hasn’t said, “Maybe someday I’ll be able to pray out loud. I’m just too scared.”
Although Grandpa helped cook in this linoleum paradise, it was Grandma’s domain. She knew every fraction of an inch, which pot was used for which dish–sometimes taking it to the extreme. One Black Friday, my mom, sister, and I returned to collapse at the kitchen table with our bags just to encounter my dad frowning and grouchy, grumbling under his breath. “She wouldn’t let me touch anything,” he murmured to my mom. “She followed me around the kitchen.” Mom just laughed.
When we sit at the table, Grandma and I are always across from one another, a physical remembrance of the difference between an “eternal optimist” and a woman barely 65 who is mourning her own death in advance. One week, she is complaining about the stacks of pictures they bring back each year from their summer work at Yellowstone National Park.
“You kids will just throw them away when we die anyway,” she fusses to my mom. “We should just do it for you now.” Mom sighs and ignores her, and I stifle a laugh. After years of being teary when Grandma and Grandpa would yell at each other, I gave it up and allowed myself to be amused by their self-imposed misery. That same afternoon, I drag out a new discovery to the kitchen table: a box of old pictures from the cabinets in their pink guest room.
Shuffling through the old photographs and scraps of newspaper articles, I am astonished to find a blown-up picture of two teenagers sitting on a car hood, glowing in the sun and looking like 1940s movie stars.
“Grandma!” I hold up the photo, and she gives it a quick peek. “Was this you?”
“Aww, gawsh. We were kids. Our senior picnic.” She goes back to the salad for dinner, chopping carrots with the same gentle motion as always.
I can’t stop staring at the picture. “You look so glamorous! Grandpa was a hottie!” Grandma blushes. “Can I have it?”
She looks perplexed that I would even ask such a thing. I can see her mind split in half: one on hand, it is a piece of trash from her childhood; on the other, she sees a glimpse of herself in the years before her son died and she lost that sparkle.
“Well, I mean, you probably don’t want it, since you’re going to die soon anyway,” I smirk. Mom laughs. Grandma’s jaw drops.
“You asked for that,” my mom says. Grandma’s can’t speak; she just continues slicing the carrot slowly.
I gently put the picture back into its resting place for a few more years, and then run across a smaller version of the snapshot. The wallet-sized photo goes in my purse, to be displayed in my dorm room: my movie-star grandparents. I look at Grandma with a twinkle in my eye and smile. She isn’t just a caricature of a housewife, or a diabetic grandma; she is and was a person. A beautiful young woman in love, just like me. As I look at the picture again, I can see little pieces of my reflection in her black-and-white photo.
I wrote this in college while in probably my favorite class of all time, Creative Nonfiction. Just came across it and still liked it! So here it is with only minor editing.
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