As I drink my morning cup of coffee, I am reminded of how much I cherish my mornings and my Cup o’ Joe. I’m an early bird, up each morning at 5:00 a.m. When I look back, I realize my love of mornings, rising before dawn, stems back to my maternal Dutch grandmother, Clara Holly. I was her firstborn grandchild and I knew from the very first moment I can remember, she loved me unconditionally. Yes, I admit to having been a little spoiled by her, yet Grandma loved to tell the story that she gave me my first spanking. I can’t imagine I felt any pain through my diapers and we’d both smile brightly as she relished retelling the tale well into my adulthood. Every time I walked into a room, she’d smile and I knew immediately I was loved, especially mornings when I would wake up to the sounds and smells of Grandma cooking in her kitchen.
My sister Roz and I would sometimes stay overnight at my grandmother’s home when we were little tykes and Mom was giving birth to one of our siblings, back in the days when mothers and their newborns would spend a few days in the hospital before returning home, or when my parents would take an adults-only holiday to celebrate their anniversary, or they needed a night out and some respite from their children.
I don’t remember if it was the smells coming from her kitchen, or the sounds of her cooking that would wake me. I could smell the bacon sizzling in the cast iron skillet; hear the eggs cracking open and her wooden spoon circling the Fiesta ware bowl as she made pancake batter.
I would run into the kitchen to watch her. She had just fed Grandpa and got him off to work. “What can I make you for breakfast?” she’d ask. We played a little game, I’d put my index finger on my chin and my eyes would look upward like I was thinking, then I’d pretend I was making the most difficult decision a five-year-old could make, yet my answer was always the same — bacon and eggs!
Grandma Holly was raised on the family farm and one of her first jobs was cooking for the farm hands in the boarding house where they stayed. She knew how to cook for either one or twenty. I loved watching her prepare food, her fat upper arms would jiggle like Jell-O as she moved and her tummy would bounce up and down when she laughed, and she laughed a lot. She liked to eat as much as she liked to cook, and I must have inherited that particular gene from her.
She would slice thick pieces of bacon from the slab and lay them gently into the cast iron skillet which would sizzle and smoke. After the bacon was crisped, she’d break an egg or two on the rim of the skillet and cook them sunny side up as they swam in the bacon grease. Usually by this point, my sister Roz would wake up and scurry into the kitchen. Grandma would take her order, usually pancakes with blueberries and all the maple syrup and butter she could slather on top. While we ate, Grandma Holly told us stories about growing up on the farm or about our mother when she was a child; then there were our favorite stories too, about each of us when we were babies.
I still remember my grandmother’s house, especially her kitchen and the summer kitchen. The kitchen’s red and white linoleum squares were perfect for hopscotch; sunny yellow walls with white subway tiles would brighten any mood. A Red Riding Hood cookie jar looked down at us from the highest shelf so our little hands couldn’t reach it. In the middle of the chrome dinette set was a cutting board featuring freshly baked goods, summer sausage and cheese, or her prized homemade head cheese. For those not familiar with head cheese, it’s a gelatin loaf, not cheese at all, but a terrine or meat jelly, using all the scraps of the butchered pig, including meat from its head — nothing was wasted. She was always prepared for company, inviting guests into the kitchen for a cup of coffee, a bite to eat and a story.
The summer kitchen, however, was a scary place for me growing up. It was an unheated addition to the house, where Grandma did laundry, canned vegetables, and cleaned fish, caught fresh from Lake Michigan that day. Grandma would often carry her collapsible wooden fishing chair and pole down to the pier and catch Lake Perch, roll them in some cornmeal, and fry them up for breakfast. The summer kitchen was also where Grandpa or my uncles would butcher game. The bathroom was next to the summer kitchen, and on its door was a large hook, where the dead game, waiting to be butchered, would hang. It took awhile for my parents and Grandma to figure out why I would dance a jig instead of using the bathroom. I didn’t want to see the dead animals. The irony is I never associated the goose for Sunday dinner or the roasted rabbit as the same feathered or furry creature hanging lifeless from the door. I enjoyed eating them, every single bite.
Many of Grandma Holly’s stories were about food, as were her tricks and techniques to both manage and entertain fussy children. She’d explain to us why sauerkraut smelled the way it did. As a young woman, before she married, she worked in Franksville, Wisconsin at the sauerkraut factory. She told us they’d cut up the heads of cabbage and throw them in a large trough. The cabbage shredders would remove their shoes and stomp on the cabbage in their bare feet until the leaves would separate and shred. She had us believe sauerkraut gained its smell from stinky feet. If we didn’t believe her, she’d remove her slipper and challenge us to take a whiff of her old crippled foot with her bunions and hammer toe. We’d make a face, shake our heads no and accept her explanation.
When I was a baby and teething, she’d cut off the end of a summer sausage and give it to me. She said I’d suck every single bit of meat out of the casing and toddle around with the string still hanging out of my mouth. If one of the younger grandkids would get tired and begin to pout, Grandma would threaten to go into the kitchen and return with the largest butcher knife she could find. She’d smile broadly and proclaim, “It looks like we’re going to have lip soup tonight!” The grandkid would instantly grow animated, smile, excitedly repeating, “Grandma I’m smiling, look at me Grandma, I’m smiling,” while pointing to their newly transformed, happy face.
Years passed and I grew up. I never declined my mother’s invitation to accompany her for a visit to Grandma’s. I knew Grandma would always smile when I walked into the room and open her arms for a hug. I would snuggle into her soft, pillowy embrace and recognize her familiar smell.
We’d retreat to the kitchen where she’d brew us a cup of coffee and tell stories about the family, some of which I heard a hundred times. She’d offer me some cheese or venison sausage and when I was lucky (in her eyes) she’d offer me a fresh loaf of head cheese. I could never turn her down.
Mornings remain my favorite time of day, and breakfast my favorite meal. I can’t smell bacon, or hear the sound of a wooden spoon circling a bowl and not think of my grandmother. When I smell coffee brewing, I think of both my grandmother and mother’s kitchens and know that I am loved. I will never forget Grandma or her stories, as long as I keep telling them.