After I moved from Minnesota to Northern Virginia, I wanted to learn how to do all my own cooking and baking. More often than not, I would find myself dialing my Grandma Joanie’s phone number to ask her cooking questions. Her answers were always so vague, and I usually got off the phone with just enough direction as to not ruin what I was making, but not enough direction to have a clear vision of what I’d end up with.
“Grandma, what temp and how long do I cook a chicken?”
“Oh, you can put it in at 375 for as long as it takes to finish cooking. Check it after 30 minutes.”
“Grandma, what spices do you put in your pumpkin bars?”
“Oh, you know a big tish of cinnamon and maybe a little tish of nutmeg.”
What the hell is “a tish” anyway? HA!
Ultimately, I’d end up with food that was fully cooked and delicious. It might not have been as good as what I had at Grandma Joanie’s house, but it was mine, and I was proud of what I had made. Through her lack of clear guidance, I was able to be more flexible in my cooking and baking. I practiced tasting and getting a feel for the ingredients I was going to use knowing full well that depending on the season and quality, measurements mattered less than taste. There’s something so wonderful about dipping my finger in the batter to make sure it has just enough cinnamon before putting pumpkin bars in the oven. Tasting and smelling the basting oil that I’d use to brown my chicken became more satisfying than eating the perfectly crisp skin after it came from the oven.
Grandma Joanie was a really interesting woman. She was exceptionally smart. Her wit was impressive. She was also cynical and judgmental, but surrendered obediently to her Catholic faith. I’m not sure I could ever say I loved Grandma Joanie when she was alive, but I knew she was an important teacher in my life. She subscribed to the school of the “tough love” approach. She’d tell you how it was. Her words were that of slightly-bridled passion and passive-aggressive transparency under a veil of nice, true to the dialect of “Minnesota Nice” she spoke.
My relationship with Grandma Joanie was one where I wanted her approval, but I knew I’d never quite get it. The only way I could get her attention was to do something fantastic and impressive which wasn’t difficult given my perpetual obedience to rules, good grades, and ballet and music successes. However, it seemed my best was never good enough for her. I remember her complimenting me – sincerely – but I had to be super human to get any praise. I lived my life looking for this praise, because I thought that’s what gave me value. This is the reason why I’m not sure I can say I loved Grandma when she was alive. My relationship with her was one of reaching for her love but never feeling I could get to it. I was busy trying to make her smile instead of offering her my love. I was giving her a show. She wasn’t giving me her love – at least in a way I could experience it. She was picking and choosing when to praise me. It was a strangely dysfunctional relationship but was normal for my family.
Like her cooking advice, she rarely gave any concrete guidance of how to live life. However, she did offer one nugget of wisdom, and it’s something I’ll never forget. She said, “Never say anything you’ll regret.” She told me a story about how she and my Grandpa Kermit were in argument early in their marriage and she said something hateful to him. She felt it cut him, she saw how her words hurt his feelings, and she immediately knew it shouldn’t have left her mouth. She explained the difference between thinking something and saying it out loud. One is within you, and the other goes on to affect people around you. Ironically, the woman who gave me this advice was the same one who went on to leave me with one of the biggest word wounds of my life.
When I entered my teen years and my home life got weirder (as I’ve written about in previous blogs), my relationship with Grandma went down the shitter. She was so brainwashed by one sided stories of how I was “out of control,” “disobedient,” and “drinking in Canada” that she made a surprise visit to our house (which was extremely rare). In her lecture of how we should be behaving, she got really upset, broke down into tears and blurted out, “I don’t want you girls to sing at my funeral.” Years prior, she had asked us to sing, and now she was so disgusted with our behavior (acting out as a result of an abusive home life), that she no longer welcomed our voices for her memorial service.
How ironic that the woman who gave me advice about saying hurtful things out loud is the same one that couldn’t control her own words. I was shocked by what she said, but it didn’t sting as much as she probably intended because I knew her comment came from ignorance.
Grandma Joanie died a few years ago, and I didn’t attend her funeral. My lack of attendance wasn’t a result of her words – more an inability to get time off from work because I was in the middle of preparing for a huge government audit. I knew Grandma wouldn’t be upset anyway. She hated people fussing over her when she was alive. She still dislikes people fussing over her.
Grandma came to me in a vision shortly after her funeral. She was disinterested in my admiration for how beautiful she looked because she had a message for me. She’s also come to my daughters and my son. My five year old son never met Grandma Joanie in person, but she regularly checks in with him. In our initial conversation about Grandma, my son came to me, closed his eyes, pointed to the sides of his head above his ears and said, “In this space right here is where I hear her voice.” I asked him, “Do you know how she died?” He told me, “She told me she used to light a lot of fires in her house, and she breathed in too much smoke that made her sick. She was so sick that she stopped breathing and her heart stopped.” When I asked him what the smoke smelled like he replied with, “Cigarettes, duh?!” Just like Grandma to get right down to the details – without the fuss.
In the innocence and sweetness of that explanation to my young son, and in my awareness of grandma’s perpetual watching over my family, I’m finally able to say that I love her. Truly. Now she understands everything, and I understand fully who grandma was on earth and who she is as an eternal spirit. I don’t need to do anything to receive her love. The only thing I need to do is keep listening to her advice. The advice she gives me and my kids is not unlike the “tish” measurements of spices for pumpkin bars and “just check it after 30 minutes” timelines for chicken doneness. In this lack of specificity, we are allowed to receive her knowledge and wisdom while turning out an incredible life on our own.
Like asking a neighbor to help you pack your U-Haul before moving, the spirits of people who once walked along side us on Earth are here to offer help and advice if you ask. And like a neighbor, they may not be able to pack, move, and unpack everything for you, but they can give you a hand. Grandma’s last advice to me was “you just need to survive.”
Because I know you’re reading this, thanks Grandma for teaching me how to cook through your vague and incredibly non-specific advice. I’m sure you did this to make me independent and prevent a co-dependency problem resulting in hours of cooking advice. I know I’ve told you before, but don’t worry about that funeral thing. You didn’t know. Thanks for doing what you thought was right. If anything, you were always a woman focused on principle and duty, and you did it exactly right. I miss fetching your coffee because I’m “not busy doing anything else.” I love you infinitely more than a tish. 🙂
The Guru Girl