Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Conversation: Of Families of Origin and of Choice

We gathered on a Wednesday night to celebrate and remember my grandfather. He passed away late at night the Tuesday before. He lived in Arizona. I am in San Francisco. I received the news from my mother, his daughter, at about 10pm. She lives in Minnesota, the state in which I grew up. She was weeping, and I wanted nothing more than to wrap my arms around her. I had no words and actions are impossible over the phone.

The news didn't hit me immediately. His death was sudden, yet not unanticipated. He had Alzheimer's and was slowly slipping away. He started slipping even faster around Christmas, and with a blink he was gone. I didn't get to say good-bye, and in some ways I am grateful. I get to remember him as he was not how he died.

Wednesday started the same as every other day. I got dressed, packed my backpack, and head to the cafe. My brother and I talked on the phone during my short walk to Progressive Grounds. "The funeral will be in the spring or summer", he told me. I have to wait until then for the final closure and resting.

I plopped down at a table and opened my computer. I needed to send a few emails, edit a couple
of recipes, and promote an event or two. I stared blankly at the screen wondering why the emails didn't write themselves. It might have helped if I had my email open. Facebook stared back at me and with it status updates about the Arizona shooting, saving American bees, upcoming drag shows, and the occasional music video. The music videos I could handle, and while watching one posted by my friend Shon, a memory flooded everything.

I was playing in my grandparents family room, distinctively different from the living room that was off limits. I could see the seventies' decor with those earthen-colored woven curtains that matched the brick fireplace. There was a crate of records and a record player too. I was rummaging through them trying to find something to play.

Two stood out in my memory: Snoopy versus the Red Baron and Hank Williams, Senior. I could hear the scratches from the record spinning and the twang of Hank's guitar as if it was playing in my ear buds. I went to YouTube and found "Beyond the Sunset" and pressed "share" on Facebook.

Moments later my hands were shaking and my mind was spinning. It wasn't the loss of my grandfather that was hitting me. It was being thousands of miles away from my family of origin. I knew at some point during the day my brothers and sister would make the trek to touch bases with my mom and dad. I wouldn't. I could only call, which isn't the same as being there. I needed some family time.

I am blessed with both a family of origin and a family of choice. I am also blessed with some mad skills in the kitchen and fondness for the foods of my Swedish and German heritage: meat and potatoes. I knew the remedy to family time was family time.

I sent a text to a few folks inviting them to dinner and memories. I knew exactly what I was going to cook: my grandfather's favorite meal -- pot roast, carrots and potatoes, and vanilla ice cream with Hershey's chocolate syrup.

The time between sending the text invitation and starting cooking was uneasy. My husband beared with me as I aimlessly wandered Safeway unable to make decisions. My nap was cut short by my racing mind. Memories of my grandfather kept popping up.

I remember him teaching me hot to drive a four-wheel ATV. I remember the tears in his eyes at my wedding to my husband. I remember playing cards and dominoes for hours on end. I remember him fostering my love of theater by taking me to see shows at the Old Log Theater every holiday. I remember him frying rosettes every Christmas. I cried, and I'm crying now as I write this and remember him.

Then, I started cooking. I shoved cloves of garlic into the pot roast and rubbed spices all over it. I cut the potatoes and carrots and tossed them with Lipton's Onion Soup Mix. As I lost my self in the minutiae of chopping, I found peace.

Two hours later there was a knock on the door. My first family member arrived. Then, another. And another. We were all together sharing my grandfather's favorite meal.

As I sit on Market Street with my warm coffee and morning bun writing this down, I am struck by how important family truly is. Family, to me, are folks in your life that show up when needed. Showing up can be a phone call, text message, Facebook note, or it can b gathering in your living room with a plate full of food. Need can be a death, a graduation, or those moments when nothing major is happening other than a silent breakdown. Family are the people that truly know you. They see you in all your imperfections and love you.

I am also struck by how meals breed family. While not everyone in my family of choice knew my grandfather, so much of his story was told in the meal we shared. Everyone gathered had a flavor of his life in each bite. His heritage, as silly as it sounds, lives on in vanilla ice cream with Hershey's chocolate syrup. I will never be able to eat that dish without thinking of him. Share meals are also how I have found and deepened my family here.

I am grateful that I don't have just one family. It makes being away from my family of origin during uneasy times easier. I can't imagine not having family; living would be unbearable. I couldn't be who I am fully without it. The S. Kitchen wouldn't exist if family didn't exist.

My dream for 2011 is growing and continuing to deepen my family by showing up when needed and sharing a meal. I need to continue fostering cuisine, conversation, and camaraderie. For once we've share cuisine and a conversation, we have started building camaraderie. And that is just a fancy word for family.

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