Our Eating Lives features stories about how food, cooking, and eating have shaped who we are and how we live.
Nana, my mother’s mother and uncontested matriarch of our brood, was probably an excellent cook. She owned a catering company, and stories are still told about her fried okra, chicken, sweet tea. I have one Polaroid-style memory of being in the kitchen with her as a kid, sitting on the counter with my feet in the sink (I don’t know) while she tied up a roast with twine.
It’s possible that this isn’t a real memory-that I saw a picture of it in a family album and stuffed it into my heart as my own. I don’t have many real memories of Nana cooking or doing much of anything else. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was seven.
Alzheimer’s is a shitty disease by any standards. In my more church-y moments, I think that it must be a tool of the devil because an indifferent universe would never have come up with such a cruel method of ridding itself of us. Its origins have to be some malevolent being. These thoughts make me eat a lot, and also pray. While eating.
She survived for about ten years after the diagnosis, but lost her ability to cook unsupervised almost immediately and stopped recognizing me and anyone else a few years after. My most vivid (real) memory of her is one in which she was in her assisted living community apartment, trying to get up out of a chair and couldn’t do it, and couldn’t remember the words to ask for help, so she just started crying. We ate dinner that night in the cafeteria. I had mashed potatoes, warmed by buffet lights.
Another: One middle-school-era Christmas, I got a Nintendo 64 and spent the day playing Donkey Kong. Papa, Nana’s husband, a stoic and grumpy WWII vet with no patience for newfangled anythings, mused out loud about whether or not he should buy the system for my Nana to help her with her hand-eye coordination and simple memory recall. My mother cooked that Christmas- a ham, warm biscuits.
Food is the ultimate expression of love with my people. We say it, sure, but we also say that we love grilled cheese or these new shoes or watching The Big Bang Theory- cooking and eating together is when we really mean it. We don’t hug much, we’re not big gift givers outside of the regular holidays, but when we make you chili, we’ve claimed you as one of us. It is with this familial encoding that I say: I wish Nana had been around to teach me to cook.
I resent her loss all these years later with a bitterness that surprises me, considering that I didn’t know her for long. I was her first grandchild and she apparently doted on me (she wouldn’t have let anyone else put their feet in the sink). But don’t let grandchild-love fool you- she wasn’t a stereotypical Southern housewife. She owned a large business. When her first husband beat her so badly that she had to have a hysterectomy, she divorced him, married a shockingly handsome soldier, and adopted my mother and aunt in her 40′s. I wish Nana had been around to teach me to cook.
When my mother married my step-father, I was two years old and the flower girl. Some of my Nana’s white, Southern Baptist family didn’t come because I was illegitimate, and had brown skin, and should be hidden instead of paraded down the aisle. Nana liked to show me off to her friends. She taught me to crochet immediately after her diagnosis (she knew she would forget soon). She protected me from her own kin with ferocity- I remember no unkindness from them. I wish Nana had been around to teach me to cook.
My mother says I used to stand in my crib and cry for her, “Nana, nana, I want my nana” instead of crying for food or drink or a parent. I wish, I wish, etc.
When I think about her now (or the absence of her, really, not at my high school graduation, not seeing my children), I turn up the heat in my house and make cookies, trying to recreate a warm and cozy moment I don’t know for sure that I ever had. I drift through mental images of King Lear- it might be melodramatic, but that’s where my brain goes. To an epic family leader slowly losing his shit over five acts.
And I feed my boys lots of leafy greens. They contain omega-3 fatty acids, which research has shown may help protect the brain from memory loss.
Just in case.