grandma in the kitchen

This is my grandma, Caroline. She liked to cook. What kills me about this photo is that even though it was taken years before I was born (that’s my mom bouncing in the lower right corner), it shows her kitchen exactly as I remember it, with those same cabinets, the big sink beneath a window to the backyard, an eat-in area to the left just beyond the stretch of countertops.

Grandma lived in the kitchen, and by that I don’t mean she wasn’t as alive when she was working in the garden or driving to our house or watching I Love Lucy, but rather that, when she was standing over a counter or watching sauce simmer or pulling trays of cookies out of the oven, she was just so, you know, happy about it—and in an era when that was kind of what she had to be doing, not necessarily because it was the thing she had chosen out of a hundred options like you and I have today, but the thing she was given and took, with arms wide open.

Today is the day she died, ten years ago, after a year of suffering that included selling her house and moving into a room in ours, sleeping in a bed with me nearby in case something happened in the night, being in and out of hospitals and eating very little. And afterward, before the funeral, it was my job to put together an album of her life, to assemble all the photographs in a thick binder, and, wouldn’t you know it, I found six or seven similar photos to the one above, at different periods of her life, each with Grandma standing over a counter, or the stove, or a table spread with food to eat, focused and happy.

grandma wedding cake

I guess it’s kind of strange to start something as mundane as a blog on the anniversary of a painful memory like the death of someone you love. But, I’ve often thought, in the days leading up to this one-year anniversary of my food blog and ten-year anniversary of losing my grandma, it is a redemption, wherein August 4 is no longer just a day of ending but a day of beginning and, a reminder that joy can come from sorrow.

The day she died was three weeks from my 17th birthday. I’d just learned to drive and was approaching my senior year of high school. What I didn’t know while I wrote something to say at the funeral (which I would completely sob through) was that six months later, my mom would have quadruple-bypass open heart surgery, and six months after that, I would move more than 300 miles away from home. It was going to be a hard year, because of those big things and also because of other, smaller ones, and it would all begin there, when life, and relationships, became more precious.

I could tell you it’s difficult to face hard things when you’re young, or ever. I could say it changes you, ages you, so that you become the kind of person who likes talking to people your parents’ ages and, cries easily and, reads, more than she goes out with friends. But I’d be leaving out the grace you find along the way, that you’ll later see found you, that brought peace out of pain.

grandma

It was because of Grandma that I started this blog, after months of telling my friend Becky (who, by the way, left the very first comment ever on this blog) that maybe someday I’d open a bakery or do something more with food the way my grandma did, and she’s been here all along, with her recipe files and her oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies and her Thanksgiving stuffing and her wedding cake recipe that I topped with a jar of Duncan Hines frosting.

And, just between us, I know she would have loved this place. She would have loved that I spend so much time cooking, and eating, now. She would have loved that I tell you about it. She would have loved you.

Like the year after she died, this last year has been significant, like I can picture her helping and advising and telling me stories, and it’s all because of you. With every comment, e-mail, Facebook message, conversation, note and phone call, you’ve taken part in this project, this place, this redemption.

For cooking with me, eating with me, standing next to me at the stove:

thank you.


Cooksnaps
Shanna Mallon started Food Loves Writing back in 2008, as a way to remember her grandma and write about her life through food. Since then it's become a place leading her to a lifestyle of eating whole foods, a new home in Nashville and the love of her life, Tim. Follow Shanna on Twitter @foodloves, keep up with Food Loves Writing on Facebook and stay inspired with the monthly newsletter.

This Post Has 49 Comments

  1. Emily

    Oh, man. This entry causes a lot to well up in me. I lost my Nana about four and a half years ago and I am still reeling from it. She was never the cook my mom is and she never enjoyed it in the way I do, but every time I’m standing in my kitchen obsessing over whether something I’ve made will come out well and wondering how, exactly, she fried eggplant and tomatoes and what was the secret to her scalloped potatoes, it feels a little like someone’s punched me in the gut. I miss her so much and even remembering the crackers with cream cheese she made me for an after school snack makes me choke up and want to cry. Thanks for sharing your grandma with us. I’m sure she would be proud.

  2. Jacqui

    shanna. what a beautiful woman your grandmother was, and how comfortable and at ease she looks behind the counter! i love how she’s there with you — in every post, with every cookie, cheering every success and picking you up after failed attempts. it’s been very nice to meet her, and you, through this blog, filled with food, love, and amazing writing. cheers!

  3. Jennifer

    This post is a lovely tribute to your grandma. Thanks for sharing a bit of the background behind your blog as well as these photos, which are such precious keepsakes. Happy cooking. Happy writing.

  4. Adam

    Congrats on the one-year anniversary, kiddo!

    Mom and I were actually talking recently and she asked me to tell her stories about grandma. Of course, I mentioned the story grandma told about when she and Marie went for a walk in their neighborhood at night and all of a sudden heard a coyote howl and they high-tailed it out of there fast…and that was it. That was the end of the story–nothing much really happened, but I remember being fascinated by it as a kid and begging her to tell that story again and again. Which she always did, and always with a great coyote-howl sound effect.

    And then suddenly I was remembering all these stories mom (or possibly you) never knew about–like the time when grandma had just me over and let me watch a scary movie. I can barely remember the movie except I think someone got slashed to death in a greenhouse (?), but I get such a kick today knowing she was sitting there with me on her plastic-covered couch letting me do something mom and dad would disapprove of. It’s totally something I would love to do with a grandkid someday.

    And then there was the time–just me again–when grandma took me to the grocery store so we could pick up ingredients to make homemade pizza. She let me pick out whatever topping I wanted–and I chose green onions…probably because I thought they “looked cool.” And while she definitely was a great cook, those green onions were disgusting–but she smiled and went along with my idea that it was delicious because she knew I was excited about it.

    So anyway…here’s to grandma and the fact that she’s still very much in your life 10 years later.

  5. Lan

    shannalee, what a loving tribute to your grandmother. thank you so much for sharing. your post made me smile and your brother’s comment was so sweet. i still have my paternal grandmother and i dread the day when she is longer here. and so, i call her frequently to get a recipe of some random dish she made me when i was kid, keeping it close by. i know that all this chronicalling will help me later keep her memory alive, just like how you’ve kept your gma’s recipes around, bringing it out when you especially miss her, or when you feel like your readers should share in some of her awesomeness. :) thank you for that. i <3 the hell out of her oatmeal cookies.

  6. Stephanie

    My grandmother’s kitchen was configured exactly the same, as a matter of fact your photograph startled me it was so similar. And she, like your grandmother, was most alive when preparing food to nourish her family. Stretching strudel dough between two broomsticks, so thin you could see through it. Stuffing cabbage or peppers, making homemade egg noodles, persimmon cookies, and fruitcakes wrapped in cheesecloth, mellowing before the holidays. Canning fruits and vegetables from her garden (of which every seed was saved from last year’s crop) and home jarred jams and jelly with the wax seal on top. Does anybody do all this anymore? What kind of memories will today’s grandchildren have? Thank you so much for sharing your poignant memories and for the gift of refreshing my own.

  7. Janet

    I have to say your writing is beautiful and the stories are so wonderfully woven into your posts about food. Your grandma would be proud of the work you put into this blog and the time, effort and dedication.

    Your grandma’s story reminds me to appreciate my family and grandparents for everything they’ve taught us and continue to teach. Thank you!

  8. Kim

    My eyes are all welled up with tears, even though I’m at work – I can’t hold it back sometimes. I know you understand that. Your writing IS beautiful, and I love hearing your stories told through the lens of food – because really, isn’t that what the best of life is all about? Thank you for letting all of us into your world. xo

  9. Vicki

    What a beautiful posting and tribute to your grandma, especially including pictures of your grandma in her element. It’s nice to put a face to the name. Try not to stress out too much as your prepare for your blog party. I’m already looking forward to the after-party posting and hope you include tips about things readers can do when preparing for an event like a party or a holiday dinner.

  10. Shannalee

    Every time I try to write a response to these comments, I start smiling and crying all over again. You are all so generous, sharing your thoughts with such kindness and empathy and, sometimes, stories of your own. This is going to be a long list of responses, but you’ve earned it:

    Maxine – I think it’s amazing how every life touches others, and maybe in a magnified sense when that life is spent learning to love. My family and I were talking about it tonight, how Grandma was so good at putting other people before herself, even as someone who lived alone for 30+ years, and I think that’s most of what we remember about her.

    Emily – I loved hearing about your nana. What you said about being punched in the gut, it resonates with me. I said once it’s like you can’t breathe, like there’s not enough air, and that’s true, too. I will say, though, the pain gets less sharp over time, though it never fully disappears, and that it heals, grows you stronger, by grace.

    Joanna – Thanks for reading, friend. At least we’re choked up together.

    Oh, Jacqui – You have been such a good blogging friend this last year, and from the very beginning. I am so thankful for you, both in what you’ve said here and what you’ve written at Happy Jack Eats, and what we chatted about over breakfast at Egg Harbor that Sunday afternoon. thank you.

    Thank you, Jennifer! I can’t explain how good it is to have made blog friends like you, who join in the discussion and add to it.

    Adam, I cry every time I read your comment. Thanks for taking the time to write it out here and for reminding me of how she loved–in the you-can-choose-your-pizza-toppings-and-I-will-like-them way that she was so natural at. Love you, kid. So much.

    Gloria, I love that blogging is a way for us to share stuff like this, when you’re across the world, and I’m here. Thank you for being the kind of friend who reads and cares. I mean it.

    Kendall, Your comment makes me so happy. Yes, YES, indeed.

    TJ, thank you! I remember comments you’ve made before about loved ones, and I feel really honored to know you, blog-wise.

    Oh, Lan. You’ve been here through months (and months!) of emotional posts like these, and you’ve been a faithful voice of encouragement. I love the way you respond to things. Always. Please come to Chicago sometime. We need to be friends.

    Stephanie, I love the imagery of that stretchy, thin strudel dough, and I love all the canning and preserving (doesn’t it seem like they just used everything up better then?) your grandma did. Also, I got a little chill when I read about the matching kitchens! You raise such an interesting question about the next generation, and my first answer is that there will be new traditions to remember and the same love that made cooking beautiful will make other things, but then I also think today, there is so much more focus on the individual rather than the communal, and that is a great loss not just for children but all of us.

    Janet, What is it about human nature that makes us value things most when they are slipping through our tightly clasping fingers? Looking back, I am thankful Grandma was sick, Mom had surgery, I lived so far away—because I learned to look at my life, stare at it, and see how good I had (have) it and how beyond measure blessed I have been, by God’s providence. Thanks for your kind comments – and thanks for hanging in with me on this blogging journey for two years now, even with shifting urls. Glad we got to meet this spring!

    Kim, You DO know I understand, don’t you? Crying is always OK, in my eyes, because if someone else is, I’ll be the first to join them! (and I was, when I read your comment) Thanks for your encouragement, and, like Janet, for hanging in with me through this new project. You’re lovely.

    Vicki, Thank you! And thanks for the kind thoughts about the party – I had to laugh about giving tips for throwing one later, not because I might not do that, but because you are SO SWEET to assume things will go well enough to warrant any advice-giving here. Thanks for coming, too, by the way. Looking forward to seeing you!

  11. Antonietta

    What a beautiful story. Your grandmother seems like she was an amazing woman and quite an inspiration to you. Congratulations on your one year blog anniversary and for carrying on the memory of your grandmother is such a special way.
    Good Luck with the Blog party!

  12. Hooshna

    Thank you for sharing this, Shanna. Your blog has become a special sanctuary for me and I know your Grandma would be so very proud of the lady you are. I hope to meet you very soon, though it won’t be at your anniversary party :( Congratulations on an outstanding first year and best wishes for many, many more.

  13. Lynx

    She reminds me of my dad. He’s always cooking and I’m always sitting off to the side watching.

    I wanted to tell you that I loved “I could tell you it’s difficult …peace out of pain.” A friend of mine has had a hard month or so. When I sent it to her it made her feel a little bit better.

  14. Angela@spinachtiger.com

    Great story. I think when these things happen to you when your a teenager, it’s felt the most. It’s the worst time for bad things to happen to you. I just wrote about my grandmother, as august 1 was her birthday, but she’s not here anymore. But, when our emotions are charged or jolted, it also moves us to move others.

  15. Shannalee

    Oh, you’re at it again! I could hug every one of you. I mean it.

    Susan – Thank you, thank you, you sweet girl. And I am glad I have these pictures and memories, too.

    Antonietta – Amazing and inspiring, yes. The year before she died, she gave me a box of silverware that my grandpa had bought her, still in the hard, heavy case and each piece engraved with S (for her last name and, my first) – she said it would be to remember her with, but she underestimated the value of afternoons playing cards or eating fresh fruit or watching T.V. in her room. Those are the real keepsakes.

    Thank you, Ingrid. Again and again.

    PostCollegeCook – Aren’t they great? And just scratching the surface of endless hours in similar positions in the kitchen. I am so glad I have them.

    Jennifer – Thank YOU, friend, for reading with me since the first blog I had, always encouraging along the way, and for knowing me since we were old enough to crawl and talk and half preschool birthday parties. Glad to still have you in my life, even through the Internet.

    Hooshna, You are the sweetest. Thank you for your kind comments, here and in the past, and for becoming a real Twitter/blog friend this last year!

    Lynx, I love that your dad loves cooking. And thank you for thinking to forward this to someone who is hurting (to Lynx’s friend: big hugs and hope and grace wished your way, which has begun already if you have a friend like Lynx, I think).

    Angela, My Italian grandmother was no fashion plate like yours, but she would have loved the way you wrote about yours, and she would’ve loved the food you described. Thanks for sharing and for reminding me food isn’t valuable because of cost but because of other things like creativity and taste and passion and enjoyment.

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  17. Kelley

    You’ve brought back memories of my once-a-year visits to my grandma. They ended too soon, but before she was gone we made a few of our own kitchen memories — and they are very sweet. Thanks for this!

  18. julie

    What a loving tribute to your grandmother this blog is! I had no idea of the history. I am so glad that you posted this and the link to your first blog entry. How wonderful that you had such a wonderful example in your life. You are so talented in the kitchen – not to mention a fabulous writer! Thank you for sharing your life with us.

  19. Elizabeth

    This was such a touching post Shannalee. It made me feel so happy that at this point in life I am able to move somewhere to be closer to my grandmother and care for her and bring her happiness at the ripe old age of 95. I hope to build many more memories with her when I get to Chicago (and to learn the many recipes I’ve spent my life enjoying!)

  20. Shannalee

    Oh, Amanda, you are sweet. Thank you for your encouragement – it means a lot to me.

    Kelley, I’m so glad! I think cooking with your kids (grandkids) is one of the most loving things someone can do, which makes me think of your story about adorable Jude doing his imaginary cooking by your side one night.

    Julie, You may be one of the most genuine, sweetest people I know. Every time I hear from you, I think this, so I’m so glad you guys live around here right now! Thanks for reading and for that thoughtful comment. I admire you.

    Elizabeth, Your comment gave me chills. I LOVE that you’re moving closer to your 95-year-old grandma and that you get to share stuff with her. Cherish every moment.

    LPB, Thanks so much for all your kind comments (and contest entries!). Glad to have you reading and sharing here.

  21. Alicia

    August 4…. wow. That’s the same day my grandpa died many years ago, and that was the day my bird died. Note to self… be extra careful on Aug. 4 of every year.

    I agree that going through difficult times like that ages you in a graceful way, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It just makes sense.

    That movie coming out… Julie & Julia I think it’s called… you should definitely see it. It looks like it was made for you lol.

  22. Shannalee

    Hey, friend, I am so sorry again about your bird, especially since you’d had it all your life, right? And also because it was on the same day your grandpa died! That’s awful. Big hug through the Internet!

    Oh, and also: trust me when I say there was and is nothing graceful about the way I’ve reacted or understood hard things – there was grace that found me, the kind that had been leading me all along, right to those moments and through the moments since, that loved me in spite of my selfishness and that showed me how everything is a gift, that turned (and turns) bad to profitable.

  23. maris

    This was such a touching post! My grandmother also loved to cook and my mom always says how proud she would have been to see everything that I’ve accomplished. She died when I was five and she would have been 82 now, but its still nice to know that I share something that she loved to do.

  24. Shannalee

    Janine, Somehow your comment had gotten lost in the spam-blocker, but I just found it now! I loved what you wrote, both because you describe your grandma, who died just a few days (!) after mine did, and because you described rhubarb behind her garage, which just makes me happy.

    And I feel so connected to you, knowing we were both grieving at the same time—thank you for taking the time to tell me.

  25. Mom

    Yes, it was 10 years ago, and it still seems like yesterday. I never thought she would leave me. She was
    always in my life and I did not want her to go. Her time had come to an end, but it was a ripping and
    tearing as she detached from me. I was her only child. She so wanted children and after 8 years of
    marriage she found I was on the way to her! Such joy she had. She was such a wonderful cook and
    baker. I have wonderful memories of her apple strudel, stuffed peppers, Christmas cookies (some 50
    different kids!!) cherry pie (THE BEST) Sunday roast chicken, homemade pizza, Thanksgiving feasts,
    and oh so much more. She was so giving of her creative talents, especially at Christmas when she
    would brings us trays of her lovely and delicious cookies and fudge. She loved to treat us! And we loved
    receiving! She was always laughing, and smiling and telling us funny stories which made her laugh so
    much she could barely get the story out!! We are so blessed to have had her all those wonderful years.
    She loved being a Mom and a Grandma. She loved her grandchildren and teaching them to bake and cook. We so miss her and she will always be with us. She would have
    been so pleased to know Shanna has a food blog, even though she would say they didn’t have those things in my day ! Shanna’s blog is dedicated to her beloved Gramma, as a loving tribute for so
    many wonderful memories of happy days in Grandmas kitchen.

  26. christine

    Oh…this post moved me to tears.
    You are a wonderful writer and, I can tell just by reading this post, you were a wonderful granddaughter to Caroline too.
    I was also very close to my grandmother. She passed away a couple years ago and not a day goes by that I don’t think of her.
    Thanks for visiting Brunch and for being you!
    xo

  27. Mom

    Oh, thank you from me too, Christine. I am in tears all over again.
    May the dear Lord watch over all our wonderful grandmothers. My mom
    will always be alive inside my heart. Still, she is so missed everyday. When
    I think of her, I smile. Thank you. Bless you. Shanna’s mom.

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