My grandmother taught me how to bake proper biscuits before my tenth birthday. She lived in our town, and I visited her regularly, often sleeping over at her house on my own. Cooking and cards were our pastimes.
Gummy, as I came to call her at the age of two, came from a time with butter churns and trains and hats and gloves. Her biscuit recipe was no different. An old recipe, it was written on an unlined card with fountain ink, complete with blots where the pen rested just a second too long. This card would prove to be one of my favorite parts of the baking process. She’d place it on the sill above her sink, and then put the simplest of ingredients on the counter. Gummy measured without spoons or cups while I stood in silent awe beside her on the kitchen stool.
My grandmother poured unmeasured flour onto the counter. Dashes of this and pinches of that, and then the miracle: pouring the milk into it. She’d gather up the mess of ingredients in her strong hands, already spotted and veiny, and work the dough with precision. “Take care not to overwork it, Christina.” Her tone was firm.
After I obediently watched her process, she let me take a turn gathering the flour and squishing the mixture. We’d sprinkle cold water and salt over it, and she’d let me squish it again. With a dusted rolling pin, Gummy rolled out the dough for cutting. I used old family cutters to shape them and put them on the baking sheet. Minutes later, cold glasses of milk set before us, we shared a hot buttered biscuit.
As the big sister of three girls, this alone time with Gummy was a private pleasure of mine. Aside from baking, she also taught me how to set a proper table and where to place the coasters for iced tea glasses; how to say, “I have had a sufficiency” instead of “I’m full”; and how to stand like a lady. Her mantra was obedience—to elders, to the law, and to the Lord.
Gummy is not a hugging grandmother. She is not a sugary lady who showers kisses and compliments and candy on her grandchildren. She’s stalwart. Firm. Independent. And she is and always has been a distinct force in my life.
Our baking tradition continued for many years, until I became too busy—or more likely too cool—for her.
The year her vision became clouded because of bilateral cataracts, my parents announced she would live with us. Twelve at the time, I was ambivalent about the news. I thought to myself, My grandmother? Around all the time? Would I have to sit with her every day? Endure her boring conversations? Now, as a mature adult and mother, I appreciate what a gift it truly was to have her company. To eat at her table. To hear those stories.
Her vision loss did not stop her from living her life. Sure, she couldn’t drive, but she could still cook, clean, sit out on the sunny porch, and go to church with friends. For her friends still able to drive, she regularly hosted luncheons, complete with cotton napkins embroidered with hearts or flowers or her monogram.
When she cooked, she’d make split pea soup, ham salad, stewed beets, and Sunday biscuits. She’d bake my father’s favorite dessert—Boston cream pie—or the favorite of all of us, chocolate roll. When I left for college, I requested many of her recipes and asked her to bake biscuits with me one more time. I haven’t cooked with her since.
I got married. I moved far away. I had children and raised our family. We visited for short weekends and we shared shorter visits. Time passed. Decades.
Gummy cannot get up from her easy chair anymore, so my father removed it, and built a wooden platform to anchor her wheelchair. A nice woman comes a few times a week to keep her company and help her clean up. Otherwise, her bedroom is the same: the four-poster bed she was born on, the dresser with dusty photos, her bureau covered with the same ancient, empty bottles of perfume and porcelain trinket boxes I played with as a child. Everything is so familiar and yet the wheelchair and the empty kitchen remind me that it’s not.
I saw her recently during another one of those quick visits home. My sons are older children now and are not content to sit on my lap in a quiet room with “old people.” I still made them come with me to see her, though.
“Boys, when we see Gummy, I want you to speak loudly and make sure you give her a big hug and kiss. We’re not going to stay long, but I want you to try to tell her three things about school. Okay?” They nodded and ran off after my parents’ dog.
“Can the dog come up, too?” Clearly, they wanted company, active company.
“Sure. But no funny business. We are here to see Gummy.” I tried to sound convincing.
When we arrived, the dog ran circles around the boys, panting wildly. I motioned the kids over to give Gummy hugs and kisses. They gingerly kissed and hugged her as their body language clearly communicated discomfort. I held up three fingers as a gentle reminder. They locked in and spouted three quick things about school.
“They’re happy, aren’t they?” Gummy asked.
“Oh, yes, they love their new school and are doing very well.” The boys trailed out of the room.
She laughed just before she said something I was completely unprepared for. “I’m ready to go, you know.” Gummy raised her pale, veined hand, pointed a crooked index finger skyward, and winked at me.
“Huh? Oh, Gummy, don’t talk like that. We have summer plans to see you! You need to be here.” I tried to smile. My heart squeezed in my chest.
“Nah. I am done here.” She motioned her hands downward, resting them on her knees, and then sighed. “I’m done with this life.”
I shook my head, both understanding and not understanding in the same instance. I noted the strength in her gaze, and changed the subject. I would think about it later.
Later that evening, as I sat unnerved in my childhood bedroom, I reviewed the conversation. I thought I had come to a sense of peace a few years prior when I experienced a loss. I thought that if she passed away, I would be all right. Comfortable. But her words burrowed into my heart. I am done with this life. It wasn’t anything close to peace that I felt. It was denial.
Do I think I know her better because she lived with us? Yes. Is she woven into my life’s fabric? Yes, deeply. Will I miss her when she’s gone? Oh, yes. But how does one know when one is done living? Ready to part with loved ones? How does she know? These are bittersweet mysteries.
Upon returning home from our visit, I pulled out my recipe book full of those handwritten index cards I had requested years earlier. I wanted to revisit my connection to her in this way. I ran my fingers over card after card, reading her script. I paused on the Sunday biscuits recipe.
It struck me then. I got right to work. The simple pleasure of baking a proper biscuit, with its handful of ingredients on the counter, offers up a most wholesome finish. Warm, flaky and with melted butter, the first bite brought me just a little closer to acceptance and I cried. Gummy taught me then what I have come to understand now: take care not to overwork.
The life cycle for each one of us has a handful of key ingredients melded together with great care over a lifetime. I hope for all of us that it’s one with a wholesome finish.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Author Bio: CHRISTINA MARIE SPEED lives with her husband and two sons in a sunny fourth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in a variety of online and print publications, including Caper Journal, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune Online, and The View From Here. In her free time, she volunteers in her community, tests obscure recipes, and delights in random urban walks with her family. To learn more, visit her Web site.