My Grandmother’s Hands

My grandmother was born over a century ago in Ireland. We don’t know where. She would never say. She and her twin sister were adopted by the Daleys of Chicago. She changed from foundling to heiress as she crossed the Atlantic. Her name and her ancestors were abandoned on the quay — and she was quite insistent on this. Her adopted family was her only family. 

She had many stories. She lived in a house with a ballroom. She had a coming-out celebration that included people in high school history books. She was not-quite-engaged to a nephew of Al Capone for a time. Her wedding to my grandfather was a lavish spread in the Daily News. The softly faded clippings lived in a shadow box with diamond pins, silk ribbons and other obscure bits and bobs. She was the most magical being I have ever known.

She had these stories, but her true magic was in her hands. She is still the inspiration for all that I do. She embodied what I believe is the good life. She did start from a position of privilege, and my grandfather added to that. But they used their wealth unlike other wealthy folk. They adopted my grandmother’s sister’s four children, raising a family of seven all together in a nice, but not lavish, Chicago home. They were not flashy, though my grandma loved her bright colors. They smoked and drank like the rest of their generation, but not to excess that I remember. And I was an irritatingly observant child, according to many of my older relatives.

They traveled, I think, but they didn’t have vacation homes. Cars were not an obvious point of pride in their life; my grandmother never did learn to drive. In old age, they didn’t have much in the way of property at all, in truth. They lived the last years of my grandfather’s life in a converted motel on the beach in Biloxi, Mississippi — a sort of commune for a hodge-podge of odd old Midwesterners escaping the cold. There was a pool; everybody had their own suite of rooms; there was a community hall with movie nights and ballroom dancing, pool tables and perpetually occupied checker-boards. There was Dixieland jazz and Creole story-telling and dubious art classes. Behind the motel, my grandpa raised tomatoes, peppers, basil, eggplant and okra, sometimes corn, sometimes sunflowers. I learned about fire ants in this garden.

When grandpa died of brain cancer, my grandmother moved in with us for a while. Eventually she moved into her own small condominium. It was here that I was apprenticed to her magical arts. My grandmother was the best cook I have ever known. She could improvise in any cuisine, harmonize any flavors. She made symphonies in the kitchen. Her favorites were the Italian-American recipes of her Chicago childhood, but she was equally fearsome with Cajun spices and German stews and French sauces. She did not like baking much, but then she didn’t like eating bread all that much either. She did make muffins and soda bread and scones for Sunday brunches, and she baked cookies for holidays. But she also made her own noodles and pizza crust — both of which were simply astonishing to a teenager.

In that kitchen, I learned to pickle anything and make fruit into jams and chutneys and preserves. I learned how to make simple ricotta and turn that into lasagne. I learned the distinctions between various thymes and oreganos. I learned how to make ice cream and butter, though she most often bought the latter. I learned what tomatoes make the best sauce and what peppers will melt into sweetness when sautéed in olive oil. I learned the subtle stages of roux-making and the difference between sautéed and caramelized onions. I learned the entire alphabet of herbs and spices and which companies sold the best of each. And I learned to savor food, to savor the whole process of food, from producing it to ingesting it.

If not for that kitchen, I would not be the person I am today. But it didn’t stop there. Grandma made magic in many ways. Her hands embroidered fancy napkins and table-covers. She crocheted and knitted all manner of things, from clothing to small toys and dolls. She made intricate lace with fine knot-work I can no longer even see. She tailored her own clothes and could alter anything bought off the rack into something divine. She made baptismal dresses for all her grandchildren. She did not live long enough to make prom dresses for us, but I suspect that would have happened had she survived.

Cancer took her too when I was in high school. I took care of her at the end, cooking food that she could no longer taste, ironing sheets and table linens for no reason other than it was the done thing in her world. I read to her and listened to her stories. I brushed her peach-fuzz hair until it was gone and washed her favorite satin pajamas — eye-watering lime green and fuchsia. I calmed all the nervous worries spawned by chemo and morphine — there were bears on the ceiling with alarming regularity.

But I never was brave enough to ask about Ireland. I regret this now. There were Irish echoes in much of her personality. She was Irish Catholic and all that implies about a rather extensive pantheon and annual calendar. She had rituals and habits that I now recognize as Irish, little tics that did not come from a Chicago debutante’s milieu. She always touched wood and tossed spilled salt over her shoulder. She would not stir a pot counter-clockwise. She drank whiskey by the pint and sang wordlessly when working. She loved laughter and had a wicked sense of humor. She did not always stick to mundane reality and mere actuality. She fervently believed in spirits of the land and hearth and had active relationships with many of them — even before morphine. I would have liked to learn how these things came to be in her. Because they seem to be genetic. Well, except the whiskey. Can’t stand the stuff…

I can’t say that I miss her. I don’t think she ever left me. I still get prompting in the kitchen and inspiration when looking at a pile of wool. I hear her cackle of approval when things are going right and her sharp admonishments when I am less than I can be. I think she likes what I’m doing now. I think she is in these words. I think her hands are still shaping mine and helping me tell these stories to the world. She is still showing me how to hand-craft the good life. This is her gift to the future as much as my own. And it is a magical gift indeed!

©Elizabeth Anker 2021