My grandmother loved to eat. It is she who looms large in the collective memory of our family when it comes to food. I can remember scrambling out of bed Saturday mornings at Grandma's house and sliding on pajama'd feet into the red kitchen, sure to find a fresh pan of sweet rolls dusted with cinnamon baking in the oven. A slick coat of sugary icing and a pat of butter, and we were off to the races. Other mornings my grandfather, nicknamed Bapa, would have driven over to Hardee's for sausage biscuits. God I loved those biscuits; I'd finish one and then beg him to go get me another one. Often he did.
My grandmother was the oldest of three children, all of whom were born at 511 Roanoke Avenue in a teeny-tiny town known as Roanoke Rapids. It's in North Carolina, near the Virginia border, and accents there run as thick as gravy. She lived next door to her sister and across the alleyway from her brother, and once my great-grandmother died, she was always the hostess at our family gatherings. When we'd come and visit -- at least one weekend a month, plus every holiday, and weeks on end during the long hot southern summer -- the whole family would pile into her den and around the dining room table. Seats were assigned by way of homemade placecards, drawn up one Thanksgiving with Crayola crayons. Some had pilgrims, others Native Americans with feathery headdresses, some turkeys. I got to play God and seat us all, Grandma at one end, near the kitchen, Bapa at the other, me to his left. The kitchen table would be heaped with salty ham, two kinds of slaw, shrimp cocktail (on special occasions), butterbeans, peeled sliced tomatoes, pickles galore, macaroni and cheese, fresh rolls. She and her sister, Margaret, collaborated. Dessert was often "plain" cake with any number of accoutrements -- butterscotch sauce, chocolate frosting, ice cream. There were also mini lemon tarts and fruit pies and coconut cakes. It was impossible to go hungry, and much of dinner was spent trying to outdo everyone else in the story telling department. Often it was the same stories, told time and time again, polished with exuberance and, I suspect, embellishment.
When we'd leave for home, it was always with coolers and bags -- yes, plural -- of food sandwiched between our overnight bags. Frozen vegetable soup, round after round of foil-wrapped sweet rolls and yeast rolls, plain cakes to be defrosted and decorated with cinnamon, sugar, and butter for morning coffee cake, or eaten at room temperature as a snack. (We might also have snuck in a few to-go containers of barbecue, slaw, and Brunswick stew from the local bbq joint.)
My grandmother's cooking was well-loved, but it was her stories that were the stuff of legend. From bothering her mother for a slice of cake, to being courted by my grandfather in high school, to graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Duke University, to taking the train to Texas to become a war bride, the farthest she'd ever been (and ever was since) from her family, to the terribly dramatic and fatal vanishing of two neighborhood children many years past; that one we loved to hear again and again, and I could swear the clouds darkened the daytime sky every time she told it. Some of her stories were not rooted in truth (though those were the best). She created books for my mother Millicent, of the adventures of Pil-Dillicent, wrote them and illustrated them and read them again and again. For me and my siblings, she created a new family, the Bohannons: Ezra and his wife Josephina-Barlepena, their three badly behaved sons Hezekiah, Jeremiah, and Methuslah, their youngest daughter and the most fiendish of them all, red-headed Fanny Anny, and, once only my youngest sister was left listening, twins named Fan and Ann who were christened by the devilish and clearly self-absorbed Fanny Anny.
In her declining years, still she played hostess, setting a table for more people than I can imagine cooking for, sending us all home with stews and cakes. When my grandfather died last summer, she was devastated; they had been together nearly 70 years, married for 63. But she found a renewed zest for life, even from her wheelchair, and had her caretakers drive her all over town, past the house where she was born and grew up, past where my grandfather was raised, past the gothic high school they attended (and my mother, too), to the museum, to her sister's house, to the mall, to eat. She eventually had to leave their house for the nursing home, and until just a few weeks ago her greatest pleasure was the fried chicken wing and apple pie her sister brought her every afternoon around 3.
My last memory of her is at the airport, last summer. She insisted on going with my mom to take me -- her first big outing since being all but housebound for years. That day we'd shopped around town, and as the escalators carried me up up up, she waved goodbye to me from her wheelchair, her brand new Harley Davidson purse decorated with red and orange flames perched in her lap, her new red Clinique lipstick shining on her mouth. Smiling and waving good-bye.