This column explores the often subconscious connection between the places we are from, the spaces in which we write, and the places we write about.
I am writing bent over a grimy countertop, covered in small pieces of paper. Bills, post-it note reminders, index cards filled with recipes. I have my shoes on inside, which to me, is generally considered sacrilegious, but the kitchen tile is visibly dirty. There was once a time in my grandparents’ home when my grandfather would have picked up on the slightest indication of dirt or dust, and swiffered the entire home until it sparkled. But now he is bed-bound.
My grandmother, who once ran this kitchen, is in the late stages of dementia. She doesn’t remember much of who I am, apart from my name and the fact that I’m a writer, but she does remember every story I’ve ever written, which I believe is a testament to the power of storytelling, and the ways in which women have historically passed down their cultures’ histories.
“Tell Kenz to please send us more stories,” she will say to my mother whenever my mother is visiting her.
I always sigh, exasperated, when my mother repeats this information to me. “I can’t just churn out stories!” I protest.
“I know!” My mother says, “they just want to be a part of your life.”
I know this, and I am secretly always as touched as I am frustrated when my grandparents ask for my work. I want to give them a part of my life in a way they can understand and absorb, even if they can’t and won’t remember me, hug me, see me.
My mother will print out pages to give to them and they’ll dissect each line and ask me “how I come up with this stuff,” which is one of the questions writers hate most (we hate all questions, but some more than others. The question at the top of this list is “what do you write about”).
My grandmother, like me, majored in English in college and wrote short stories and submitted them to magazines. She claims she received several kind rejections before she eventually stopped writing creatively and became a secretary.
She kept reading for fun though, as did my grandfather, and they passed down that love to my mother and uncle, and then to my cousins and me.
When I go to visit, I am confronted with the question “are you writing?” Oh god.
Everything at my grandparents’ house is filed on small scraps of paper and tucked into drawers or magneted to the fridge or left on the counter that I currently preside over.
“Patty—prescription pick up Thursday”
“Keith—neuro appt 3:30”
“Eggs milk coffee tin foil”
I am standing in my grandparents’ kitchen, where my grandmother baked hundreds, thousands, of desserts and casseroles, rifling through one of her old cookbooks that has her notes scribbled in it:
“Half sugar in this”
“Bake at 400 NOT 450!!!!”
“Chrissy’s birthday cake”
My mother has since taken the majority of her mother’s recipes in the index, written on cards in her secretary writing, and we occasionally transcribe these recipes as the ink fades and oil and water spills have blurred the words. I prefer my grandmother’s old handwriting to my own, even though I can’t read her cursive half the time, it looks nicer.
I write “call Joanne” with Joanne’s number in giant block letters on a post-it note somewhere that my grandmother or her caretaker will see.
My grandmother can no longer sign her own name, which makes me feel very selfish writing this column. I should be writing more. I should have stories to give her, but the truth is, even if I had new work to send I don’t think I would.
Instead I compare her recipe writing to the “signature” she left on a recent birthday card and cry.
“It’s like you’re taking care of a child,” I tell my mother.
“I know it is,” she says, shaking her head.
I write down the recipe for pumpkin bread and will make it, and then I will write a story about what the day might have been like when my grandmother first made it.
Maybe she was a child or a young adult, standing at her grandmother’s kitchen counter. Maybe she was writing a short story that she would submit to Seventeen magazine.
Or maybe she and her mother were watching her grandmother closely as she poured in the flour, as she turned on the oven, ensuring she turned OFF the oven.
I am watching my mother watch my grandmother as I rifle through her recipes, old paper layers of her past. She is now one layer of paper skin and my mother gently eases her into a chair to prevent more bruising.
I watch an entire story unfold and nearly close in one afternoon, and then I will be back on a plane to my apartment, and as soon as I walk in my door I will be on the phone, crying to my mother about my inability to write anything, about how much I miss my grandmother who is still alive who I just saw, about how much I hope she, my own mother, doesn’t get dementia too.
“At least she’s happy,” my mother says, “she’s forgotten too much to be upset about what she no longer remembers.”
My grandmother’s mother died decades ago. Yet weeks earlier, when my mother had gone to check on her, my grandmother was sitting, as always, at the kitchen table. She was trying to figure out how to dial a number on the phone. My mother asked what she needed, who she needed to call.
My grandmother answered quite plainly: “I need to talk to my mother.”