Spending sweet hours with Grandmommy

By Sarah Kickler Kelber, The Baltimore Sun

Any time I taste Wrigley's Doublemint Gum, it reminds me of going to church with my grandparents.

If I started to get antsy, my grandmother Helen would carefully tear a stick in half and give it to me, stashing the other half back in her purse for later. Even just a whiff of it, and I'm back in time, with the minister about a third of the way through his sermon, and me starting to wriggle around or ask questions.

It feels so real, and so recent, but last month, it was 20 years since Grandmommy passed away. I was 9 when she died and am lucky enough to remember many moments we spent together. But because I was only 9, the memories come in flashes, often sparked by a sound or a taste.

I can't quite re-create the timbre of her voice, even though I distinctly remember that she always lovingly referred to my grandpa as "Hubby." But the sound of snapping beans brings me back to a day we sat on the porch breaking green beans and shelling her trademark purple-hull peas, which we'd harvested ourselves, preparing them for dinner.

She tried to teach me to sew, and even though I didn't pick it up that well, I did learn that sense of satisfaction of creating things with my own hands. Quilting has proved to be mostly beyond me, but every time I crochet a scarf or bead a necklace or bracelet, I recall learning from her how to thread a needle and handle it with care.

I remember how my hair felt so soft after a makeshift bath using rainwater collected in the cistern outside my grandparents' cabin, on a plot of Central Texas land just down the way from where my grandpa grew up, and how pretty Grandmommy looked when she wore her special-occasion glasses, the pair accented with rhinestones.

But she was hardly all-girly, all the time, nor did she encourage me to be. The silhouette of a wide-brimmed straw hat reminds me of digging in the dirt with her, planting sunflowers in the sandy soil by the cabin. And in that same dirt, away from the carefully dug rows, I'd play with my dad's and uncle's old toys -- metal Tonka trucks and a holster and toy gun.

The wildflower season can be unpredictable in Texas, but one year, the plot of land provided an overwhelming bounty of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes, and we spent an afternoon plucking the prettiest ones and making a bouquet for the dinner table.

But more than anything, it's food that delivers me right back to memories of Grandmommy, working away in her small kitchen. No one makes fried chicken like she did -- and even now, just the sound of flour popping in grease can bring back the anticipation of that fabulous meal (always with buttery potatoes and carrots and perfect gravy).

She made me my first root-beer float, which fueled a vanilla obsession that persists to this day.

She showed me that, with a little patience, the white flowers of the strawberry plants in her back yard would beget tiny, pale green fruit, which would become the sweetest, tastiest treat, if I would only wait for them to turn ruby-red.

She'd often refresh in the summer heat with a glass of CranGrape juice, and, if I promised not to spill, I could have one, too. Two decades and countless gallons of the stuff later, every sip takes me back to that time -- feeling like such a grown-up because she was sharing that with me.

And maybe I get my sweet tooth from her -- I know I learned at her table that a sprinkle of sugar made corn flakes a hundred times better, that sweet tea is the Southern way and that I should keep my freezer stocked with Blue Bell strawberry ice cream whenever possible (though this is sadly hard to accomplish in the Mid-Atlantic).

One of the last things I remember us making together was a cake accented with Jell-O -- it was so sweet and so tasty to my 9-year-old palate, and I thought it was the best thing ever. When her breast cancer recurred -- and most sadly, metastasized with a vengeance -- just shy of her five-year survival anniversary, she was taken from us quickly and unexpectedly. At her funeral reception, one of her friends brought that same cake I had loved so much. I still don't know whether she arranged that or if it was just a coincidence, but either way, it gave me comfort and reminded me of another one of those moments we spent together.

Note: This essay originally ran in the March 25, 2007 issue of The Baltimore Sun.