When I was six years old, I thought my Grandma would live forever. She was wise and full of life, and glowed with an inner energy. I could never imagine her being absent from my life or not being there to talk to. My mother left our family home when I was two years old and I barely remember anything about her. Grandma filled a mighty vacuum in my world and she taught me everything I know about living. She had no regrets, never spoke ill of anyone and was very forgiving. Grandma had a mischievous nature and a vivacious quality that I found both irresistible and eternally appealing.
My older sister, Jessie, notified me about her funeral. She was brusque on the telephone and matter of fact. Jessie was her father’s daughter and preferred fixing muddy bikes to hanging out at our Grandma’s place. There was little kindness in her voice anymore and not an ounce of sentiment. When she announced the sad news, she could have been notifying me I had mail to collect.
We’d drifted apart when I started my career in the city and she wasn’t that close to our grandma. After I left our hometown Jessie got pregnant to Topper Tenet, the local hot–rod heart-throb. They were both strong-willed and tempestuous, and had a short-lived marriage. Within a year she became a single mother when he was killed in a tragic road accident. He was addicted to racing his pride and joy and never resisted the opportunity to wager money on the outcome of a high-speed challenge.
I was leaving for work when Jessie called my mobile and broke the news about Grandma. She didn’t soften the blow. I slid down the wall and knelt on the wooden floor. I covered my mouth and a tear hovered on my lower eyelid.
Jessie asked if I planned to attend the funeral.
Of course, I said, I’d have to arrange a flight, but, yes, I’d be there.
She could have been inviting me to a barbeque in her back yard.
Jessie asked me if I could say something on the day. I agreed to prepare a eulogy, in the absence of anyone else who was either willing or capable. It would help me to focus my thoughts. I needed the time to process my loss and get some closure.
I enquire about flowers and donations.
Jessie gives me a number for the undertaker and says that I’ve been made next of kin in the will.
I flinch and bite my lip.
You’ve got lots to do when you get here, she says.
I need to take a couple of weeks off, I say. Work will be fine with that.
Jessie suggests that I slum it in a local hotel. Our father is in a rest home and she’s no room in her apartment.
I tighten my lips over my clenched jaw and draw in a long breath through my nose. That’s fine, I say. I don’t want to be a bother to her.
A warm droplet glides down my left cheek. I want to ask about her life, my nephew and how she’s managing. The payphone connection goes dead. My head drops forward and I stare at the lifeless glass touch-screen in my right hand. My stomach is in knots as if my innards have been removed and now I’m just a discarded heap of clothes.
We don’t speak again until I arrive at the crematorium.
Gran had suffered from arthritis in her fingers for as long as I could remember but I never heard her complain. I just assumed she was indestructible. She told me that she had ways of coping with the stiffness and pain. If I looked concerned, she always had a reassuring smile for me on her gentle face.
I loved to spend time listening to the stories about her life. As a young girl, she’d witnessed the Second World War scythe through a generation of brave soldiers and grew up in a world bereft of menfolk. Her own father lost his life in the Far Eastern conflict and she and her mother escaped the London blitz to survive on very little in Somerset. It was there that Gran learned about tending to plants, looking after livestock and nurturing a happy home.
I spent every Saturday afternoon at my grandmother’s house and she taught me everything I know about cooking. I was her little helper and she’d get me to chop and stir everything for her. I loved to watch Grandma measuring and weighing all the ingredients. Her house was always full of rich aromas and mouth-watering flavours. She had an ancient slow cooker that was oil fuelled and remained on all year round. I remember Mr Geoffreys, the tanker driver, would visit her four times every year and replenish her dwindling fuel supply. My grandma would welcome him in for a hot drink and whatever was ready to eat on the day. She believed that a house wasn’t a home unless there was a fruit cake in a tin somewhere. Mr Geoffreys had a discerning nose and liked to guess what treat to expect. We gave him ten questions to work it out. It became a game we’d play and he went along with it just for fun. I’m sure he knew what was in store and they were in it together, but I enjoyed it. When Mr Geoffreys eventually guessed what was baking, he’d pretend to chase me round the garden for teasing him.
Later, during my new my life in the city, I tried to bake and cook my grandma’s recipes from memory. Although I learned well, somehow my efforts never tasted quite the same. My Grandma’s food was rounded and balanced and never failed to satisfy every requirement. She was both an alchemist and a conjuror and she had a remarkable touch. The most critical element was the unfailing consistency she attained, meal after meal, day-in and day-out.
She must have had a magical element or something special that she added unbeknownst to me. When I challenged her about it, she said that everything comes to those who wait. This was a phrase that puzzled me throughout my formative years and alas, followed her to her grave. The only clue I ever noticed was the phrase, "You are what you eat." She would often mutter this, by way of punctuating her thoughts.
Her garden was well tended and I appreciated her attempt to rely solely on her homegrown produce. I know she had problems with her joints but somehow she had come to terms with this issue. I assumed it was down to the organic nature of her existence and constant supply of healthy food.
One of the skills she possessed was the art of preserving her produce. I recall helping her to pickle onions, make damson jam and dry-out her herbs and spices. Grandma kept an extensive larder and attic full of jars and containers. She had her own ways of storing these special ingredients and a book that acted as a directory for finding every item. Jessie had no time for any of this but I was endlessly fascinated with the whole process. It was a way of life and my Grandma’s strategy for surviving.
My journey back to my hometown was a perilous road trip through nighttime fog and a seasonal snowfall. I arrived three days before the funeral and introduced myself to my Grandma’s lawyer, Mr Hogwood. We had an interesting lunch that was paid for as part of the will. He explained the position regarding the estate and my role as next-of-kin and major beneficiary of my Grandma’s worldly goods. The house and contents was left to me. My discretion was required regarding the contents. There was little in the way of money and that was to be split between Jessie and myself. My Father’s care was assured and paid for from Grandma’s investments. It appears that she had made shrewd stock purchases that had helped to pay for his care over the last two years.
The only outstanding item was Grandma’s most treasured possession; the recipe book and food directory. Mr Hogwood produced the cloth wrapped book from his attaché case. It was a heavy leather bound tome that was surprisingly weighty. I held it in my hands and could feel a pulse as if it were a sleeping feline. I pulled back the cloth wrap and noticed the embossed inscription, “You are what you eat.” This was the magic element, the missing link from a lifetime of epicurean delights.
Mr Hogwood revived me from my momentary daydream. He added that there was only one request, a solitary caveat to be undertaken and supervised by myself. I was to use the culinary directory and source certain items that were to be placed with my Grandmother in her coffin prior to cremation. I agreed to the action in principle and signed as such. Mr Hogwood paid for the lunch and insisted that I join him at the bar for a congratulatory toast at his expense. It was his way of appreciating my Grandma and celebrating her life with me.
I arrived at my grandma’s house and sourced the things she had requested for her send off in the crematorium. The special items she had asked for were all contained in a series of jars. I was to scatter the contents over her body as per her final request.
Three days later I arrived at the crematorium. I fulfilled my part of the arrangement and took my place in the auditorium. Mr Geoffreys was one of the first guests to attend and he expressed his heart-felt condolences. Jessie joined me on the front row and various friends and relatives drifted in and took their place on the wooden pews. I was surprised how many people attended and the nature of the congregation. There was a broad cross section of ages and only a few suits on display.
The minister delivered a simple service and I read my piece to the assembled audience who showed their appreciation. The final part of the ceremony was the incineration of the casket. The wooden box disappeared behind a curtain to be consumed by jets of fire. The heating and ventilation system in the chapel was working overtime to compensate for the winter chill outside and it soon became evident that we were being exposed to an extra element. There was a pungent herbal odour being exuded from the burning coffin. The special dried ingredient I had added as per request was being suffused into the ventilation system. A mild titter started to circulate around the assembly, people started to stifle chuckles until we found ourselves all laughing out loud. It would appear that my Grandma had found a reason to be cheerful and she was having the final word on the matter.
Good for her?
It was indeed.