My grandmother always wore an apron through the entire day. Maybe during earlier times the blue checks on the fabric where vibrant and crisp, but by now they were soft and blurred. She wore this apron because she would never stop making food. In the morning, it was eggs with rich yellow yolks and deep soy sauce. She would make Chinese treats throughout the day, from pastries so flaky that I would be sure to leave crumbs everywhere to soft pillowy steamed buns filled with earthy and sweet red bean paste. Dinner always felt like a banquet: a whole fish dribbled with shiny oil, lush green vegetables and pink shrimp with fragrant mushrooms.
I had always correlated my grandmother to food- I wasn’t thinking if it was bad, wrong or good- it just was. She had always been the familiar shape in the kitchen and the one with hundreds of recipes stored in her head. She took pride in feeding the family, and I took pride in eating her food.
I wonder now how much I would have savored that last flaky pastry, or maybe the last steamed bun. It had never occurred to me that there would be a last. My grandmother and her food were constants--- until they weren’t. Last year, my grandmother had two bone breaking falls resulting in a year’s worth of surgeries and rehabilitation. It was hard for the entire family to lose a vibrant person that we loved and even relied on. But it was hardest for my grandmother. She lost her independence. She lost doing what she loved: cooking, knitting or even enjoying a good soap opera. She lost it to the creaky metal walker, she lost it to the aching pain in her back. She lost it to two fleeting seconds where everything went so so wrong.
On her first day back from the rehabilitation center, she tried to get up to the stove and make a dish that was a family favorite- juicy cubes of honey sweet meat. What had once brought me so much joy- to bite down on a rich, warm cube of meat- now brought me a heavy fear. To let myself enjoy her food once more was to let her do the unthinkable. I couldn’t let her leave again for another year, or maybe even forever. As long as I could protect her, that’s what I would do. My family and I gently coaxed her back to the sofa and tucked the soft fleece blanket around her amid some soft protest. We simply wanted her to be safe. We couldn’t understand how a dish could take precedence over her safety and life in her mind. I realize now that to do so was taking part of her. Food was a way that she expressed her love for the family. Being able to have us all smile and never be hungry was a gift my grandmother always wanted to be able to give. Perhaps it came from always feeling the ache of hunger when she was young, or not being able to give my father all the food he wanted. Perhaps it came from our Chinese culture where to eat is to be happy and to be happy is to eat.
It took her time to accept that although she may not be making our stomachs full, we knew she loved us and we loved her. Although I may never be able to make complicated Chinese dishes, I could put my own love into food the small selection of food that I could make. It had been odd to see the roles reversed, but it should have been something our family started doing a long time ago. My grandmother didn’t need to tell us she loved us anymore. She had been doing it for my entire life and longer still. We needed to start telling my grandmother that we loved her; and that would all start with a table full of food.