When I was twelve years old, my grandmother sat me down in one of her old kitchen chairs to let me know she was retiring. After eight children, and with a daunting wave of grandchildren swelling in number around her, she casually, and without emotion, told me that she would no longer be cooking. No more Thanksgiving dinners. No cookies. No birthday cakes. As for the food in her house, she declared nothing off limits. I was welcome to anything I could find in the “ice box” or “cupboards,” as long as I understood I was responsible for making it, or cajoling someone else to make it for me. My grandfather took over cooking duties for himself and my grandmother. My cousins and I quickly learned the location of the peanut butter and jelly. The location of the white bread was already well known, under a plastic Tupperware cover on the kitchen counter.
For thirty-plus years my grandmother has kept her promise. For three decades under her watch, her kitchen has not produced anything for consumption beyond strong black coffee – served morning, noon or night. And with that coffee came conversation. Conversations about growing up in Charlotte and stories about her father, a professional musician from Austria who had an infatuation with American Indians and who may have jumped ship in order to see them firsthand. I have fond memories of stories about Washington, DC during the Great Depression, and about her being the wife of a Navy sailor (and later a Merchant Marine) who globetrotted during most of the war and the years that followed.
Sprinkled through those conversations were lengthy talks about books we had read, often discussed with episodes of Murder She Wrote and JAG playing on the TV in the background. My grandmother read voraciously and favored novels, a shared interest that kept us close in lieu of warm chocolate chip cookies.
Now in her early nineties, my grandmother is in the midst of a mental decline. The names of her thirty-plus grandchildren and great grandchildren are not always immediately available for recall. The names and details of the spouses of those relatives are, more and more often, out of reach. But there are days of clarity. Surprising clarity. Days so clear that if she knew I referenced her in connection with any mental decline, I would be chastised on the spot. And I would probably be forced to make my own coffee until the storm blew over.
Last week, I stopped by to visit my grandparents. (With the support of a large family they are still living in on their own, with constant supervision from a parade of family members.) I entered the house and found my grandmother on the sofa, slumped slightly to the side in a seemingly awkward position. From my angle, it seemed as if she were about to fall, her face just out of view.
As I approached, she leaned back on the sofa. Her eyes were open and alert. She held a book in her lap and for a moment I wondered if she was reading with comprehension, or perhaps going through the motion of reading to embrace a lost passion. I wondered if parts of the plot and characters frittered away as she progressed through the book. As I found my seat next to her, her assessment of the book she was nearly finished reading gave me an important lesson about moments of clarity. Turning the cover of the book towards me, my grandmother said, “You sure killed off a lot of people in this one. I like the main character Dan Lord, but I didn’t like the prostitute.”
At ninety-something, she had been reading my latest novel, Favors and Lies, and from the conversation that ensued it was evident that she had followed the story. Maybe in a week she wouldn’t remember the book. Maybe in a month she won’t remember that I even write them. But on a rainy afternoon last week, my grandmother and I had another meaningful conversation. And those moments are what life is about.
Mark Gilleo is a nationally bestselling author. His latest book, Favors and Lies, is currently on sale for $1.99 through November 17. Visit our website for information on where to buy your copy.