I stared down at the strange mixture on my plate.
"What exactly is this?" I asked my grandpa.
"It’s my own creation," he replied, the pride in his voice unmistakable.
In front of me lay a pile of wide, slippery noodles dotted with pale slivers of off-white mushrooms. The sauce, described as "Alfredo," was light pink and flecked with orange, with an abnormal sweetness; it crept off the pasta toward the edges of the plate, petering out into a thin meniscus of oil that changed shape as I used the grade-school trick of enthusiastically pushing my food around, hoping to convince him that I was eating it.
"I start out with the frozen fettuccine and sauce from Trader Joe’s, and then I add some canned mushrooms, Panda Express orange sauce, and shree-rocky."
Ah. That was the color.
"Sriracha?" I asked.
"That’s the one!"
My grandma smiled and nodded absently. Though she still got up to put on makeup every morning, the perfect eyeliner I remembered from my childhood now trailed off down her cheek like an unfinished sentence.
"Have I ever told you about the time your uncle left footprints on the ceiling?" she asked me, for the third time. She reached out automatically toward a shaker on the table and began seasoning her food; she did not register, even as she ate, that she was adding sugar rather than salt.
* * *
My grandpa Fred and my grandma Marilyn met in college in the 1950s in suburban Chicago. Everyone believes their grandma was beautiful, but Marilyn, with her thick red hair and hourglass figure, was a standout. My grandpa is reduced to cliché when he talks about meeting her.
"I saw your grandma, and the rest was history," he says. "That was just it."
They were married on a surprisingly mild February morning in the living room of the downstate farmhouse where she grew up. Because of a delay at the courthouse, Fred was late arriving with the marriage license. Marilyn’s parents just set the hands of the clock back, over and over, to keep it from striking 11:00.
I’ve seen the photos, and my grandpa has described the moment to me many times. When he finally arrived, Marilyn descended the heavy, wide steps of the farmhouse’s oak staircase, flanked by its dark wooden banister. Partway down, she passed a landing with a small keyhole window overlooking row upon row of cornfields. The midwinter light caught the ivory satin of her long-sleeved dress, making it glow.
After the ceremony, everyone sat down to a meal: my great-grandmother’s creamed chicken, dished up with fluffy biscuits that left golden crumbs all over the table. My grandfather had seconds.
They settled into married life just outside the city. Broke at first, they would gather friends at their home for spaghetti parties, stretching their budget to include a bottle of cheap red wine that everyone would linger over late into the night.
As their financial situation improved, so did their meals. Marilyn became known around the neighborhood for her ambitious dinner parties. While the other wives were layering casserole dishes with canned cream of mushroom soup and frozen green beans, she was making trips to the library to Xerox gourmet recipes and suggestions on entertaining from Sunset.
If you ask Fred now, this was all normal. But my mother knows better. "Your grandpa doesn’t realize how adventurous she was," she told me. "He was just used to it."
A California-themed party, lifted straight from the pages of the magazine, boasted a centerpiece overflowing with West Coast produce: Deeply colored pomegranates, artichokes, and citrus were accented with lemon leaves and almonds, a few of which strayed onto the smooth wood of the table they’d inherited from my grandpa’s family.
Wearing an apron to protect her aqua cashmere sweater and wool skirt, my grandma served garlicky cioppino, a Bay Area specialty, straight from a cast iron pot so large she had to keep it in the basement. The broth was thin but rich, slightly acidic from the fresh tomatoes, rounded out with white wine. Flaky pieces of halibut crowded the simple white china bowls, along with orange crescents of unpeeled shrimp and segments of bright-red crab. Conversation was punctuated by the sharp crr-rack! of the claw-crackers set at each seat as they broke into the tiny vaults of sweet, delicate meat, like a lazy firecracker making its way around the room. And, of course, there was bread: Next to the centerpiece sat homemade loaves whose crusts splintered, sending minuscule shards onto the orange rattan placemats as slices were cut to sop up the last drops of soup. The whole night evoked a sense of place that restaurateurs spend fortunes to achieve.
Weeknight dinners were similar, if less elaborate. Marilyn braised, sautéed, and baked from scratch. Fred ate, appreciative but uninvolved. Her cakes were never made from a mix, and her pie crusts weren’t the uniform, ready-to-bake types found at the supermarket; they were cut with lard and rolled out by hand, the scraps sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and served hot to her impatiently waiting children—my mother and uncle.
As those children grew up and had children of their own, my grandma accommodated our picky appetites by relaxing some of her rules regarding packaged goods. Much to my parents’ dismay, things like boxed macaroni and cheese, jars of sugary marshmallow fluff, and candy bar–based cereal, all of which were forbidden at home, were always available at my grandparents’ house. Marilyn’s willingness to experiment, combined with our unsophisticated palates, did not always guarantee a gourmet experience: When I was in kindergarten, a streak of sandwiches made with Wonder Bread, Kraft Singles, and grape jelly ended only when my horrified mother walked in on me polishing off the last crustless bite.
My grandpa shrugged. "They tasted fine to me."
As long as we were happy, so was she. She knew which grandkids liked their sandwiches cut at a diagonal and who preferred them sliced straight across. So, years later, when my grandma stopped noticing the details, we knew something was wrong.
"My grandma had always made the dessert for Thanksgiving, but now, at 84, she had become reluctant to spend time in the kitchen."
The first sign was the pies. My grandma had always made the dessert for Thanksgiving, but now, at 84, she had become reluctant to spend time in the kitchen.
"Is everything okay?" my mother asked, again and again. "Does she need any help?"
"Oh, we’re fine," my grandpa would say. "We just felt like sandwiches last night."
So my mother and I arrived at their house a few days before Thanksgiving, ready to share the load of peeling apples and measuring out sugar. We presented it as an opportunity to spend time together—three generations of women, working side by side—but in reality, it was a fact-finding mission.
My mother and I laid dough across pie plates, then filled it with mounds of fruit and pudding, but my grandma seemed distant and uninterested.
"You’re doing fine, sweetheart. You don’t need me getting in your way."
We left the pies par-baked, with instructions on how to finish them for dinner. But when the turkey and rolls had been cleared from the same table that once hosted Fred and Marilyn’s celebratory creamed-chicken lunch, our normally voracious family pushed the dessert around on their plates, pleading fullness. No one wanted to say it: The pies were bad. A last-minute addition of sugar to the filling had never taken place; plus, the centers remained frozen. Had Marilyn noticed, she would have been mortified. Instead, she took another bite of icy apples.
Later that night, she fell down the front steps of the farmhouse and split her forehead open. She said that she couldn’t feel her feet anymore.
* * *
A year later, my grandmother struggled to distinguish between the past and the present, and the occasional recognition that her grip on reality was slipping brought frustration and humiliation. There was no real diagnosis; just a collection of the indignities that sometimes accompany aging. It was the forgetfulness—a missing tablespoon of leavening here, an unsupervised lit burner there—that eventually spurred my grandpa into the kitchen. That, and the opening of a Trader Joe’s near their home.
He started modestly, with frozen pizza and sometimes potstickers. But after a few weeks, he found that years of eating my grandmother’s cooking had burrowed into his subconscious. He may not have realized how adventurous she was, but it had still affected him. Perhaps not cioppino, but surely, he thought, he could handle something a bit more complex than a premade hamburger. Without instruction, though, he was adrift in a sea of microwaveable meals.
Until one day, a bright-red, white-capped bottle caught his eye. Like a lighthouse leading a weary ship to shore, the illustrated dragon on the Trader Joe’s label drew him in, and he came home inspired.
That night, he improvised.
"Marilyn, dinner’s ready!"
My grandma made her way carefully across the house from the living room to the kitchen, pretending not to see the walker that her orthopedic surgeon recommended.
"What is this?" she asked, as my grandpa plated his creation.
"Fettuccine Alfredo," Fred said, spooning an extra dollop of creamy pink sauce on top.
Marilyn, whose taste buds seemed to come and go with her memory, took a bite.
"It reminds me of my chicken and noodles," she said, reaching out for another forkful.
"I’m glad you like it," he replied, sitting down at the table beside her.
* * *
Last summer, our family sat in the living room where, more than half a century earlier, my grandparents had promised to spend their lives together. Though the cornfields were high and green, rather than brown and razed, the landscape outside was the same one that Fred had looked out over as he waited for the clock to finally strike 11:00 and Marilyn to appear on the stairs. Now, he sat alone on the couch in the sticky mid-July heat, knowing that this time, the hour would come and go without her.
It had been slow, and then fast: just over two years of steady decline after the Thanksgiving fall, and then a few weeks of near-constant updates. A hospital. Home. A hospice nurse. A coma. The end.
"What do you remember most about her?" the pastor asked.
My brother mentioned the time she’d shipped a pound of cooked bacon to his dorm because he’d said once that he liked the way she prepared it: microwaved, and layered in a lattice pattern between paper towels to soak up the grease. He said it just tasted better than the crunchy, almost-burnt bacon our parents preferred.
I thought of the Christmas cookies she’d sent me when I was living in Prague, alone and homesick. The green-dyed, buttery spritzes, dotted with cinnamon candies so they resembled wreaths, transported me from the impersonal IKEA furniture of my pre-furnished bedroom back to my grandparents’ living room, where I would snatch cookies off the dessert platter while waiting for Christmas Eve dinner to finally be served.
We all talked about food.
* * *
When I saw my grandpa recently, I asked him what he had been cooking.
"Well, you know, for a while I was making the fettuccine with shra-rooka. Is that what it’s called?"
"But the other night, I tried the Trader Joe’s frozen salmon with Dijon mustard. It was pretty good. I think I could make it myself."
He went on to detail the intricacies of Trader Joe’s frozen salmon versus tilapia, but I had another question.
"So, do you enjoy cooking now?"
He shifted back in his chair, and his eyes flickered over a framed photo on the side table.
"Well," he said, "I can’t say I love cooking for just myself. But I’m getting by."