In her beautiful post, Mom’s Purse, Musing off the Mat’s Joyce Poggi Hager writes about a beloved object her mother gave her. Her post inspired me to write about a beloved object in my own life, my grandmother’s red pyrex bowl.
“Grandmother, when you die, can I have your house?” I said. Sprawling on the floor of the kitchen alongside the chair she sat in, I looked up in anticipation of her answer.
My aunt’s face pinched. “That is not polite, child,” she chided. But my grandmother laughed the way she did everything, all out, cackling like the black birds that nested in the chinaberry tree outside.
She put her hand on my head and said, “I’ll think about it, but I don’t plan to die for a long time.” As a twelve year old, she felt old, her death imminent. I was just putting in my bid for the record. She understood the short connection between my mouth and brain. Though the brain to mouth pipeline would need to be lengthened and curved through the years, she appreciated my guileless manner, loving me exactly the way I was in that moment.
It was one of those days in which the heat of summer licked our young bodies. The smell of decay and ripe sweat socks lingered in the summer air around all five grandchildren. We’d play all morning, hurling chinaberries at one another or pretending to be the Beatles, if the Beatles lived in the country and rode a Shetland pony named Candy back and forth to the Seven-Eleven. At lunch time we would burst into my grandmother’s kitchen, content to share her company for the remainder of the afternoon, lazing like overgrown hound puppies in her tiny kitchen.
She never, ever turned us away, and always, always made lunch for whoever showed up. Her simple meal preparation started in the same way every time. Out would come the red Pyrex bowl, a paring knife, a red apple, and a jar of Miracle Whip. The other ingredients varied, but whatever salad she made always featured that red apple and a blop of Miracle Whip.
I stood by her many days just to witness the miracle of her hands over that red bowl. She would hold the apple in her left hand and take the paring knife in her right. Her long, pointy fingers curled as she began to peel the apple in one long strip. In my adult life, I’ve been to those restaurants that serve little food, the kind that’s supposed to pack such a punch of flavor that the feel of it on your taste buds is a culinary orgasm. But I’ve never had a delicacy that compares to the taste of that red peel, shaved by the hand of my grandmother.
In the early summer of 1966, my mother came into the bedroom in the dark, pulled me out of the top bunk where I was sleeping, and deposited me into the family station wagon. I remember her face as it neared mine, lined with anxiety, and the light behind her head. After she moved my brother into the car, she made good our escape, driving six hours, from Fort Worth to Austin. The next morning, I woke in my grandmother’s spare bed next to my brother. Even at the age of six, our getaway filled me with a sense of great relief.
Maybe the opening credits of my life made my grandmother’s stability and unconditional love seem more gigantic than it really was, but somehow I don’t think so. She was just good, and she was just there, always there. My mother had to make a living. She had her own healing to do. My grandmother felt like a mother. I could squeeze her and she would not break.
My mom eventually re-married, we all healed from the ordeal known as The First Marriage, and moved away. My grandmother, who had played such a pivotal role in my life, transitioned into her proper place. She was the secondary source of comfort, the b-team for financial or emotional support in the event that my parents were unable to help.
Grandmother died after I already had children of my own. She died after I had raised six year olds, and knew how needy six year-olds can be. She had a brain tumor that affected her speech, so our last conversation was simple. She said, “I…”
I only replied, “Yes.” We looked at one another and said goodbye, basking in that deep well of silence.
A couple of weeks later, I was helping my aunt and mom clear Grandmother’s kitchen. Sitting in the floor where I’d played a hundred games of jacks, and watched my grandmother make a hundred salads with that red bowl, iceberg lettuce, an apple, and the ubiquitous Miracle Whip, my aunt asked, “Do you want anything out of this kitchen?”
When I voiced my bid for Grandmother’s house at the age of twelve, I associated it with all the safety and security that I felt in her presence. The house, an architectural wonder of gentrified decay, held a magic sway over me as a child. As an adult, I understood that the house wasn’t what made the magic, but the people that filled it. Since my grandmother was gone, a symbol would have to stand in her stead. Something I could use to source the maternal taproot that flows back into the love all mothers feel for their wandering children.
I smiled and said, “Just the red bowl.”