My grandmother made the best fried chicken I knew. GFC: Grammy’s Fried Chicken. Onions, lots of onions, rosemary, salt and pepper. She would cook it with one cast-iron skillet flipped face down over another, a stroke of genius picked up somewhere long ago. I’ll never forget the sight of her in a floral apron, wielding those two skillets like tennis rackets in a rare display of physical strength, the steam and the smell of sautéing onions rising up out of the kitchen as I watched mallards through the living room window. And the meals: chicken, white rice, green beans steamed and squeaky, probably pulled from the garden hours earlier. Vanilla ice cream and home-canned peaches out of the cellar for dessert. Unpretentious, beautiful, prepared and served with quiet but steadfast pride.
When I was young, in the summertime, we would ride bikes to the neighborhood garden down the street from Grammy and Gramp’s. Gram rode a big, elegant maroon bike with a wide leather seat. It was another forceful image, like the skillets – she rode with the same slow-motion grace a child sees in the sight of his father casting with a fly-rod or his mother scooping him out of harm’s way from a passing car. In the garden, she and Mom would pick flowers while Gramp drilled us in the finer points of pulling carrots. We’d all ride or walk back to the house, baskets laden, triumphant in our simplicity.
Sometimes, when we were visiting around Christmas, we would drive into downtown Rochester to see The Nutcracker. We’d put on our dress shoes and nice shirts, Gramp a dark suit and a red tie, and Gram would bring out her fur coat. After the performance, my parents and Gramp would hem and haw about this scene or that, noting a lackluster or extraordinary performer, or discussing the Philharmonic’s next concert. Gram might chime in with a smile and a nod here, an “oh, yes” there. I will never know what emotions passed through her as she watched candy canes waltz and the violin sections sawed Tchaikovsky to the rafters. Somewhere in her past, probably before the Depression, had the young Jean Lincoln dreamed of dancing with a prince through a moonlit forest? Had she known that her life could be as beautiful and free as a sleigh cutting through freshly fallen snow?
We are losing the generation that knew a different world. The world of the Dust Bowl and Auschwitz and Hiroshima, in which barbarism could still run rampant and tornado-like across the surfaces of our so-called developed nations. My grandmother: the antidote to savagery. Beautiful, composed, private to the end. What irretrievable knowledge will pass as our elders do?
Too many of my memories fall during her waning years, when Gramp handled much of the cooking and yardwork to avoid boredom, or after they left the house, after he died suddenly, momentously, like a record ripped from the turntable with the final track unfinished. Her days then passed like the slow rolling of a placid sea, waiting for the occasional swells of family or friends visiting, holidays or the first snowfall, the single weekly uplift of Sunday dinner with my aunt and uncle. Or perhaps just waiting, patiently as ever, for that distant shore to finally appear.
At one of those Sunday dinners this past December, the last meal I would share with her, we ate strawberry rhubarb pie for dessert. I asked Grammy if she and Gramp had grown rhubarb in the garden for pies. I knew, of course, that they had. Strawberry rhubarb is my dad’s favorite, and my own, for a reason. But I wanted a story. What I got instead was poetry. “Oh, yes,” she said, smiling, then pausing as the grin faded. “Goodness, I guess those days are gone now.”
That night, unable to sleep, I wrote that Gram’s ninety-five year old mind had become a blizzard, everything blowing around, relocating, indecipherable. But beautiful to witness in its transience.
My own mind jumps too quickly to images of her in a wheelchair, fumbling a pillbox or fussing over unkempt hair, trying to remember which grandson lives where these days. But deeper back, deeper down, is the image that I know will last, the touchstone of enduring love. The sky is blue and the house snow white, and Grammy and Gramp are standing together, hip-to-hip by the old mounted bell at the end of the driveway fence, waving goodbye for now.