The other day I was sitting next to a grieving husband, at the front of the chapel where his wife of sixty years lay in an open casket. I asked him how he was doing.
“Well, not good,” he said, somewhat unsurprisingly.
The husband is my grandfather, and my grandmother had been gone for five days. I sat there in layers of black and listened to the preacher sing her praises, while my mom took Drew on a walk (there was no way he was gonna sit quietly, though we’d told him decorously that this was ‘a quiet place’. We could hear him protesting down the hall that it was ‘time for talking!’)
And outside, a storm pushed itself onto the proceedings. It wasn’t all that quiet when the thunder shook the walls of the small-town funeral home and the lights flickered for a half-second.
It seemed like a world of its own, that room and the drive to her house in the woods. Death tends to make the normal feel unfamiliar—the day of a funeral you’re a stranger in a strange land.
When we got to the house, the first thing I did was clomp through the kitchen in my heels and realize that nothing had changed. I hadn’t seen her in that kitchen in years, but it was like she’d step out of the hall any second, in that white shirt with her long hair braided, saying my name in that Southern accent that not that many people have anymore, asking me to get that dish or the other.
My grandmother was an amazing cook. Southern home cooking, the way so many restaurants try—but it was real, and every bite was full of tradition and practice. And come to think of it, I never saw her look at a recipe. ‘I just season it to taste and cook it till it’s done,” she once chuckled.
I can taste it right now—fresh yellow squash with butter, golden and bubbly in a kind of stew. Collard greens. Chicken-fried steak. Dark muffins sweetened with honey from my grandfather’s bees. Sweet potatoes and fried okra (I’m not a fan of either, but I believe other people who said they were great). Rice with a thin, but rich, gravy. “If you put your finger in the pot, your fingertip,should touch the rice while the water reaches your knuckle,” she’d explained once. I don’t remember if I tried that.
There was always a tower of pies and cakes under a cover—lemon meringue, pecan, apple…pound cake, fruit cake she’d tried to teach me to make (I forgot the baking powder and ruined it), honey cake…I can taste them all right now, and I can feel the excitement hidden by politeness as I waited with my hands in my lap at the immaculately-set table with its lace doilies and old forks.
There’s more to say about my grandmother—she was a sociologist, a professor, a missionary…she preached in Russian and was fluent in Cantonese, and she told stories whose punchlines were always cultural misunderstandings or language gaps. She was tall and thin and wore the same clothes my whole life. Everything in her tall, hard house was breakable and fascinating. She had a big golden Chinese character that meant blessing or something on her front gate—she kept chickens and a peacock that had woken me one night with an insane-sounding scream. She had a vast collection of china tea services in glass cabinets and stacks of dusty books in the living room. She had a Russian samovar in the dining room, and the windows looked out on thick Arkansas forest, so dense and withdrawn you might as well be in Russia. But I’m thinking of food today, so I’m talking about her food—humor me.
After the funeral we went to Cracker Barrel, and Drew told the sweet waitress ‘I’d like some biscuits’, unprompted. He got some. I was tired and drained, and I’d just changed from my black funeral clothes into shorts and a sweatshirt, and self-consciously picked up my fork to eat whatever they’d microwaved in the faux-country kitchen.
Cracker Barrel sells divinity candy wrapped in plastic—my grandmother made it herself. And candied pecans like they sell at gas stations in paper cones. I glanced at all the box mixes for biscuits and cakes…so we can make them like our grandma made? Who are we fooling?
I keep thinking about how she made biscuits—and her own jam, labeled in her thin cursive. And how I must’ve looked like Drew, gobbling them down with a mouth full of jam. And she never saw Drew. My grandfather met him at the funeral.
Speaking of Drew, I made an apple crumble for him and me this morning—I called it a pie, though it wasn’t. While he watched Peppa Pig, I sliced apples in tiny slivers and figured I could do this without a recipe. I coated them in sticky sugar and squeezed a spritz of lemon juice on their white stomachs and jewel-green peels. Then oats, butter, brown sugar and flour mixed with cinnamon got packed onto the top, and into the oven it all went. I sort of knew halfway through that it wouldn’t be any good. And Drew, usually so enthusiastic, saw the green peel and refused to eat any of it. For all he knew, I was trying to feed him a vegetable, which would not be tolerated.
It rained like a monsoon all the way out of their town, then the sun peeked out like a nervous kid. I was glad the sun had the decency to hold off for the service—it should rain, I reflected. My grandfather had lost his wife and he was devastated and it SHOULD rain.
“You know, the Eastern Orthodox say it’s a sign of God’s favor if it rains at your funeral”, someone told me.
And all I can think of is the fact that when I die, I can’t tell my son and grandchildren how to remember me. I can cook, and I can tell stories, but they’ll be sad and maybe it will rain on them in their black. And nobody else will ever make smoothies for Drew the way I do. Some civilization, some way of life, a whole childhood’s worth of memories will die with me.
Death is the enemy and all humans are helpless in front of it. We have literally nothing to say that can change it.
And just now as I’m helplessly thinking this, I’m pulled back to familiar hymns and scriptures—to my students singing Amazing Grace and How Firm a Foundation. I know that’s not true—the part about us being helpless. I mean, we are—and it rains on everyone, no matter what kind of funeral we get.
And this is faith, when you’re passing by the casket— believing that she is not there. I don’t have a big, triumphant word about resurrection right now—just a bunch of jumbled memories of kitchen smells and words, and a voice teaching me to sing Jesus Loves Me in Cantonese.
In Memory of Lou Anne. 1932-2019.