My Grandmother’s House

I would like to walk into my grandmother’s house and be greeted by the scent of her tomato sauce bubbling on the stove in a tall metal stock pot. I’d like to see her standing over the stove with her apron caked with splashes of crushed tomatoes. I’d like to be able to hug her, have her cup my face in her hands and kiss me on the cheek, her lips dry and pencil thin. I’d like to sit down with her at the kitchen table with seating for four. The windows would be open to the street noise; a soft summer breeze would blow the sun-faded curtains that hang above the sink. The black and white TV on her counter would be tuned in to The Young & the Restless. She would bring me a plate of her homemade chocolate chip cookies with walnuts and a tall glass of cold whole milk, never watery skim like at home. Whole milk was always a special treat. She would ask me about my love life, and I’d share with her the heavy thoughts that have been weighing me down. She’d hold my hand and tell me everything will be OK. I could feel her veins in the palm of my hand, purple and blue, raised like rivers on a map. She always made me feel better.


My grandma, me and braces on the night of my first semi-formal.

When I think of my grandmother, I remember her hands the most, pushing and pulling dough across her kitchen table with a wooden rolling pin that looked like a stick of salami. Flour dusted her hands like powder. Ravioli, cappelletti, macaroni. She made the best pasta.

I still keep her olive green leather rain coat and winter swing coat—the one with the green and gold plastic buttons—in my coat closet. I shove my hands in the pockets from time to time hoping I’ll find a memento of hers left behind, something else to cling to. I bury my nose in her coats and breathe in the memory of her. It still smells like my Nonne, a mix of makeup, Aqua Net, Kleenex and her kitchen. It’s been 14 years since she passed, and each year that passes, I pray that the scent will not fade from her coats. I don’t ever want to forget what she smelled like. Scents are powerful; they can bring us back to our childhood, the nostalgia, the longing to return to what was before I had to grow up and life got harder. Life was easier as a kid. Wasn’t it? There was always grandma’s house, where all was right in the world the moment you passed through the door. I felt safe there, but most of all, loved.

Sometimes, on warm nights, the earthy smell of the air, the humid breeze, take me back to my grandmother’s TV room, where I’d sit with her for hours watching Golden Girls and The Lawrence Welk Show. We’d sit side-by-side on the couch holding hands; hers felt fragile like a bird. It was so hot you could smell the metal of the screen in the only window in the room and hear the sound of the traffic on the street, passing under the amber glow of the street lights.

Right now, I’m thinking of summer days on my grandmother’s porch and the metal glider that smelled like a box of staples. I can still picture her there in her favorite chair rocking, waiting for someone to pull into the driveway and lift her spirits.

I remember the two-liter bottle of red soda she kept in the house—Crystal Club’s Cherokee Red. It tasted like a carbonated cherry popsicle, and I loved it. She still offered it to me when I was older and outgrew the taste of liquid sugar in a glass, but I never refused it, and nostalgia made it still taste good.

My grandmother has been appearing in my dreams a lot lately. I never remember what happened in the dream, but I do remember her presence and her sweet face smiling at me. Her entire body glows like a white aura. I always feel so good when I wake up from those dreams. Is she visiting me to tell me everything is going to be OK? In the moments when I feel lost, I still talk out loud to her, asking her to guide me, send down some good stuff from wherever she is.


My beautiful grandma.

I realized just the other day that the anniversary of her death is coming up. She died on Oct. 21, 2002. I was 22. On Sept. 18, 2002 I wrote her a letter from the Midwest during the summer I graduated from college. I told her about my first visit to Chicago—grown up and all by myself—and how I was waiting back to hear on two newspaper jobs: one in Indiana, the other in Michigan. I wrote:

Just think, in about two weeks I could be living in a brand new state, my own apartment filled with my own things, my furniture, my pictures!!! How exciting! …

It is such a beautiful day today. I wish I could share this day with you. The sky is this amazing bright blue filled with feathery white clouds. It rained this morning and made the afternoon cool and breezy. … I wish I were there with you so that I could give you tons of kisses and hugs and watch the afternoon soap operas with you.

I week or so later, I moved to Michigan. My life as an adult was just beginning, and hers was ending. I never did get to see her again.

Yesterday my mom sent a link to an online listing of my grandma’s old house. My mom warned us that it was a mess, but curiosity made me swipe through the photos anyway. From the outside, the house looked tired and worn, the porch sunken. Inside, the walls were painted hideous colors of watermelon pink and lime green—very bad combo. It was kind of heartbreaking to see this house, that brought me so much comfort, take on a new identity. But then I reached the photo of my grandma’s kitchen and it was just as I had remembered it. The linoleum floors that looked like a mosaic of mustard yellows, olive greens and various shades of white. The original glossy, wooden cabinets and hardware, and the old-fashioned white ceramic sink. I could almost smell the containers of flour. In the photo, a ray of sunlight is shining through the kitchen windows above the sink, the only thing occupying the hollowness of the room, no sign of life.

Nothing remains the same. Not even houses. But the memory, the feeling it gave you, that doesn’t fade.


This is one of my favorite photos of my grandmother taken at Christmas. She is holding up VHS tapes of the Three Tenors and Andrea Bocelli.


Memories on the menu


I had the same lunch every day for the entirety of first grade – Campbell’s Tomato Soup and a grilled cheese. I got to come home for lunch because my school was so overcrowded we went on shifts and I got the early one and was done with my school day by 12:30.


The best thing about first grade

My lunch seemed like a worthy reward for standing in what felt like the dark of night with my mother waiting for the bus. That lunch, particularly the grilled cheese, is still a comfort food touchstone for me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the connection between food and memory lately. I just finished watching “Chef’s Table” on Netflix. It’s a wonderful and mouth-watering series about six renowned chefs from all over the world. Each chef talks passionately about the influence of personal memory on their cooking.

“I’m trying to take you back to when you were a child,” says Italian chef Massimo Bottura. He learned a lot about cooking by hiding under his grandmother’s kitchen table as his older brothers chased him. She taught him how to roll tortellini and today that is one of the most popular items on the menu at his three Michelin star restaurant, Osteria Francescana in Modena.

I miss a lot about my parents, not the least of which is some of those foods of my childhood that they prepared. My mother was a very good cook, far surpassing the casserole queens of her generation. She was modest about her culinary skills and always said,” If you can read, you can cook.”

I’m not sure I believe that. I think most folks can follow a recipe but it takes a lot more than that to be a cook who creates memories.

Growing up, we always got to pick the dinner for our birthday. I always picked stuffed Italian shells with my mother’s homemade tomato sauce. I have her sauce recipe and will make it from time to time. I can see her hands in my own when I open all the cans of tomato sauce and paste and mix them together.

And I think that’s where the secret lies with the best cooks – the hands. My mother had beautiful elegant hands and I loved watching the Dance of the Christmas Cookies as she would roll out the dough and cut the perfect shapes and press them on to the baking sheet.

Chef Nikii Nakayama is featured in "Chef's Table" on Netflix. It's all in the nands.

Chef Nikii Nakayama is featured in “Chef’s Table” on Netflix. It’s all in the hands.

I think of all the best cooks I know, and I’m quite fortunate to know a delicious plenty, and they all have interesting hands that move quite gracefully when they cook. And I loved watching the hands of the chefs in “Chef’s Table.” Their movements are deft and deliberate at times and then tender and almost poetic at others.

I’m telling you – it’s in the hands. I love watching my wife cut up vegetables. It’s sweet and sexy all at the same time. And she’s always smiling while she’s doing it – even when she doesn’t know I’m watching.

cheese danish

Visions of my mother’s cheese danish dance through my head every Christmas.

Holidays are rich with food memories. My mother made an extraordinary cheese danish from scratch – the recipe was two full long pages. We had it every Christmas morning and while I do have the recipe, I haven’t managed the courage to attempt it myself. Just thinking about it gives me a lump in my throat.


This is Christmas morning to me.

My father made oyster stew on Christmas morning and I have replicated that pretty well but in all honesty, it doesn’t taste as good without him to share it. Dad had a small repertoire when it came to cooking but what he did, he did damn well. His fried flounder is the best I have ever had and Lord knows I’ve done a lot of comparison tasting.

It’s funny when I think about it now, but my father was on to the farm to table movement long before it became trendy. He grew up on a farm and deeply appreciated and respected everything about that – the animals, the vegetables and the people who “worked the soil” as he liked to say.


Dad’s flounder was lightly fried with a vague sweetness.

He had a large garden and nothing made him happier than making a cucumber and tomato salad every evening for dinner from the bounty he just brought in. He never took food for granted and he was the kindest of audiences when you cooked for him. We never left a church pot luck supper that he didn’t say, “Your mother’s dish was the best.”

I love that part of his ashes were scattered in two different tomato gardens when he died 13 years ago. And the harvest in both gardens that summer was prolific. Coincidence? I think not.

The connection between our taste buds and our hearts is a profound one, marinated in memory. Chef Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne, Australia, beautifully articulates this association in an episode of “Chef’s Table” when he says, “I’m trying to take people back to these times in their lives when people who loved them cooked for them in a way that was really meaningful and satisfying.”

It’s time for lunch and I suddenly have a longing for a grilled cheese.

grlled cheese