The family recipe

823 words

So tired. I thought yesterday’s was like pulling teeth. This one was like a root canal. Had to fight for every syllable. 

Grandma pulled a box down from a closet shelf. It was a plain cardboard box, and according to the handwriting on the outside, once held towels, clothes, and books. Each item had been written in a different ink, then crossed off as the box was reused. Its most recent incarnation was for “keepsakes.”

“All right, kid,” Grandma said, setting it on the kitchen table. “Don’t expect much. But I think I have something in here that might be useful.” She pried open the top, the ancient layers of yellowed tape announcing its age like tree rings. She carefully folded down the cardboard flaps, their edges soft like felt. The contents revealed themselves to Grandma, and she paused a moment to become reacquainted before removing them from the box. Tamara, saddled with the impatience of a 13-year-old, did her best not to fidget or sigh. Grandma, she knew, would take her sweet time, and no obvious signs of annoyance could make her go faster.

When Grandma finally dipped her mottled hands into the sea of tissue and newspaper, she did so with a reverence rarely witnessed by Tamara. Grandma had strong, weathered hands that had seen their share of grease burns and callouses. She’d seen Grandma pull stubborn ivy from along her garden fence and rip it from the ground by their roots. She’s seen her whip potatoes into submission. But she hadn’t seen this: hands that hesitated and honored. Tamara thought, despite Grandma’s words, there must be something in the box that was extremely valuable.

The crumpled newspapers that Grandma removed first, Tamara saw, were from 1963 and from a place Tamara hadn’t heard of. She didn’t know if Grandma had lived there—Casper, Wyoming—or if the papers had mysteriously made their way into Grandma’s home as a stowaway. She understood that this was a part of Grandma’s history she should probably know, and she was a little embarrassed to ask about it right then. But of course, that was the whole point of the visit.

Grandma plucked items from the box. They were swaddled in tissue, but she made no move to unwrap them. Even so, she appeared to know each item by shape and feel, turning them over in her hands and smiling as she did so. At the bottom of the keepsakes box, she reached another box. This was the item she was looking for. She set this box in the middle of the kitchen table, shooing aside the packing papers and larger box. This box looked like it once had held a gift, perhaps even an expensive one. It was a faded red, but Tamara could tell it had once been rich and velvety. The top was gilded with gold, except at the edges where it had been worn to the cardboard beneath.

Lifting the lid, Tamara could see it held a number of loose items. A library card. A cork. Several hand-written letters with Wyoming postmarks. A delicate gold wristwatch, a souvenir metal globe. But at the bottom of all of these things was a stack of cards held together by an elastic band. Grandma pulled them out and set them on the table in front of Tamara. “If you want to know what this family’s all about,” she said, pushing the cards towards Tamara, “then you’ll need these.”

Tamara looked at the stack of cards. The top one had, “From the kitchen of” printed on the top. Someone, presumably Grandma, had written, “Patricia” in ballpoint pen in the blank space provided. The rest of the card was written in ballpoint pen as well, a list of ingredients with corresponding amounts. Tamara, frowning, attempted to remove the elastic, but gasped a little when it crumbled.

“Don’t worry, it’s old. I’m pretty sure I can find another rubber band.”

Tamara pushed the sticky remainders of the disintegrated elastic away with the side of her hand. She flipped through the other cards; there were about 15 in total. Several came from the kitchen of Patrica, but there were other names. Helen. Rita. Bobby Lou. And, surprisingly, Tom.

“I don’t get it,” Tamara said. “The assignment wasn’t to learn how to cook. The assignment was to figure out our family tree. How are recipes supposed to help me do that?”

Grandma took one of the recipe cards—Tom’s, as it happened—and held it up. “Anyone can go online and type in a bunch of names and have it spit out a diagram showing who married who and who begat who.” She flapped the card. “These, though. Family recipes. They show you how they lived and how they loved. There’s a reason why I’ve saved these ones. Each one has a story. A beginning and an ending. Now. I know you, Tamara. It’s never been good enough for you to do just what’s asked of you. Do you want a list of names, or do you want a good story to tell?”

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