A year and a half ago, I was sitting with Grandma Helen at her kitchen table, sorting through a pile of meticulously cut and organized coupons. I’d go to Stop & Shop, she’d dictate the shopping list. 20 pork chops (definite overestimation). 5 packs of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls (because we had 5 coupons). Two packages of frozen vegetables (and make sure you get the tri-colored one with the carrots, peas and cauliflower. And get Stop & Shop brand string beans). Potatoes and cream and butter (obviously).
Approaching 94, she was finally beginning to feel old. Her Sunday and holiday dinners were increasingly rare, and the wafting smells of slow-roasting meat I’d associated with them becoming a distant a memory. She wanted to cook, but she couldn’t even lift a tea kettle. She was tiny and hunched and walked with a walker, but still had a spark and a drive to feed and to nurture, to throw a party. And I wanted to learn how to cook from my last grandparent before she was gone.
We decided to cook her famous pork chops. Because she was weak and easily tired, we’d spread it out over two days. The first day we’d shop, brown the chops and keep them overnight. The next day we’d cook them and invite the family over.
Her cuisine was unglamorous and uncomplicated, but I loved it because I was raised on it. When I was little and both my parents worked full-time, I spent every day at Grandma Helen’s house. She was like a mom, but cooler. Half & half in my Rice Krispies instead of milk. Unlimited sugar in my daily afternoon tea, and a giant tin of unlimited biscuits. Scrambled eggs that I begged my mother to make the way grandma did, but she never could (the secret: WAY too much butter). In a world obsessed with dieting, my grandma’s cooking was unapologetically centered on fat, sugar, and salt. Meat and potatoes were the centerpieces (and they were indescribably delicious); vegetables an afterthought. Usually we’d have some thawed frozen vegetables doused in butter and salt (“I’ve just discovered salad!” Grandma once told me excitedly at the ripe age of 92).
Not only did she spoil me with butter, she was also so much fun. Anyone who knew her could attest to her wild imagination, her dramatic enthusiasm, her sense of humor. When I was little we went on daily walks to the party supply store in the neighborhood strip mall, and we played board games during teatime while my grandpa napped. I so idolized Grandma that I would repeat things she said. One day, when I was about 3 years old, I sighed and said with a thick Irish brogue, “I have a hard life.” There was no question as to whom I was imitating.
Unlike me, my grandmother did have a hard life. She was the runt in an impoverished family of 12 kids. As a child she suffered unbelievable abuses at the hands of school teachers and family members—many of which she did not have the courage to speak about until late in her life. Her individuality was undermined; she never knew when her real birthday was, and when at the gates into America they translated her name “Nellie” into “Helen”, she calmly accepted the change. She came out of this childhood selfless, never taking for granted even the smallest acts of kindness. Only one time in their 50+ years of marriage did my Grandpa ever make her a cup of tea, and it was after she’d fallen off a chair in the basement, and unable to walk, crawled her way up the stairs. She talked about that all-to-rare act of generosity for years.
Instead, she spent most of her life nurturing other people. After coming to America in her late teens, she found work as a cook in the house of the Boston Mayor and Senator James Michael Curley. She helped to raise his children, and for the first time in her life, felt loved and appreciated by a family. She went on to raise four children of her own, and found work as a nurse’s aide, a job that came naturally to her and in which she was incredibly successful. Finally, of course, she helped to raise me and seven other grandchildren. All of the doting and nuturing she’d lacked as a child, she bestowed upon us.
Maybe it’s another testament to her modest upbringing that her amazing pork chops had surprisingly few ingredients: pork, butter, Crisco, salt, onions. Water (not wine) to deglaze the pan; water (not bouillon) to add to the roux for gravy. She stood next to me, hunched over, giving directions and enthusiastically praising and thanking me for each completed step. I realized why cooking with her was so important; she taught me to really brown the meat and not be impatient or afraid; she instructed me over and over to add more heaping spoonfuls of butter and Crisco, and cringing, I obeyed.
After putting a giant pan filled with 20 browned pork chops, melted fat and onions into the refrigerator, I left until the next day. I asked her when to come back in the morning, and she said, whenever I want. She never mentioned that the pork chops would need to cook for three hours.
When I strolled in at 11 am just an hour before our family’s arrival, she was freaking out. She was hobbling around the dining room with her walker, trying to switch the table to the formal dinner setting and move chairs around. I smelled the pork chops cooking.
I stopped in my tracks and thought: HOW did that giant dish get from the refrigerator to the oven? There was no way Helen could have lifted it herself.
Apparently, that morning she had used a cookie sheet to slide the casserole dish from the refrigerator onto the floor. She then used her walker to push the dish across the floor of the kitchen over to the oven. And somehow, using 110% of the remaining strength she possessed, she was able to bend down and pick up the dish and put it into the oven.
I love this story about her. She could have called me, or waited for me, but her selflessness, her reluctance to rescind her independence, was fierce. And she wasn’t upset, and didn’t make a big deal about the feat she’d accomplished, despite the fact that it had literally defied the laws of physics. Instead she worked tirelessly throughout the day to make sure the dinner went smoothly. It was delicious, and I only hope she’d stopped worrying about everyone else for long enough to really taste it. That, however, would have been unlike her.
Grandma died yesterday at 3 in the morning. 18 hours later I was sitting around a table with my friends, and we were eating her pork chops.
Things I thought about yesterday: my grandchildren eating these pork chops. Also, trying to be more like Grandma Helen. Cooking for people, taking care of people, and praising people, and nurturing people. Remembering that I have more strength than people might expect. And not being afraid to add another generous spoonful of butter.