I opened my grandmother's recipe box this week. I was trying to get a head start for Thanksgiving and wanted to make and freeze her poppyseed cake. Along with Texas cake and carrot cake and pumpkin pies,her poppyseed cake made an anticipated appearance each year. While thumbing through the thick collection of recipe cards , I found myself pausing to remember many friends and beauty shop ladies who shared recipes with one another on a weekly basis. Many familiar names topped the carefully written recipes. “From the Kitchen of Dorcas Herren” announced the recipes belonging to my piano teacher, Mrs. Herren. She arrived at my grandmother's beauty shop every Saturday morning before dawn to have her hair done for over 20 years.
As I read her recipe for peanut butter bars, and Amish friendship bread I remembered how competently her hands flew across the keyboard and how she never once was grumpy at my obvious lack of practice. I read so many names and could see the familiar faces, now gone.
I read my great-grandmother's recipe for lye soap and wondered how she managed a chore involving dangerous, combustible chemistry and simultaneously keep watch of her 17 children. I wish I would have thought to ask her how she managed.
I found favorite foods of my grandfather- like the mock strawberries my grandmother would make at Christmas. They were made with condensed milk, sweetened coconut, and strawberry Jello and looked and smelled like real strawberries. Not caring for coconut, I never thought they tasted as good as they looked- but it was the comfortingly familiar process of making them that announced that Christmas was coming. I found the Swedish Meatball recipe and recalled how much Papa loved them and how my grandmother had made the tiny, labor intensive meatballs by the hundreds for my parents' wedding reception.
I found an old photo of my brother, Nick, tucked between two recipes. Nick is wearing a chef's hat and rolling out pizza dough. I remembered that day and taking that picture. It was a good, happy day- one of thousands spent together. I am comforted that he knew how much he was loved.
I finally found the poppyseed recipe, but was momentarily daunted to find that it only listed the ingredients- not directions how to put them together. My grandmother must have assumed that whomever made the cake would have the experience needed to put it together. I should have payed attention. I forged ahead, overly confident in my abilities to remember how the batter should taste.
The resulting mixture looked familiar and as the cake baked, I was hopeful . During the last 5 minutes, however, it collapsed completely. I must have botched critical steps. Luckily, my grandmother is still with us, I have time to ask her, time to learn.
The recipe box is a tiny time portal. It can connect me with faces and events that once were. It contains glimpses of a life lived well- with family and close friends. I can open the box and within seconds, am transported to Christmases and holidays spent with people I loved, whom I love still-but whose time with me was limited. We are never certain how long we will remain together for grief and loss visits us all. Although I sometimes ache for those who have passed, I am grateful for having the chance to know and love them. I think of the wise words a friend once told me about loss: “ The holes in our lives created by those who leave us are enormous and will never truly go away, but somehow, we reassemble ourselves around it.”
I hold the recipe box in my hands- it feels warm and alive with the voices and faces it contains.
A mini Pandora's box of love and memory. For this, I am truly thankful.