As the year ends, it’s easy to focus on the ways in which this holiday season could be better. The health of grandmothers is too present: mine and her sadness in the face of her first major holiday in a nursing home; my wife’s grandmother on hospice; the neighbor’s who passed away suddenly two days ago, which I learned when I opened the front door to a street full of Oakland Police cruisers. A dear friend recently lost her grandmother, too.
These are the women who created Christmas literally from the sugar in their kitchens and the yarn in their hands. As I hang three of my grandma’s treasured hand-blown-glass icicles on our tree, our own plans are fragile as a skiff of ice–rushed between work projects and the likelihood of an emergency bereavement flight to Texas.
I’m thankful for so many things, though–my wife, my family, my work, my job, my health. That these blessings are obvious to me makes them feel even more like dumb luck. But I had to prod myself to remember these last night as I cleaned a litter box in the rain. I couldn’t think of a worse, more angering chore to conduct at 10 p.m. under a broken porch light–especially after having just spent four bone-chilling hours in an outdoor pool for a swim class. Erin had gone to bed, my work was overwhelming me, and I couldn’t stop sneezing. Under these conditions, it’s difficult to grasp what’s actually, specifically good about obvious blessings, so I focused on one other thing I have always been grateful for:
I was thankful for having an appetite.
My history with food is long, warm, and undiscriminating. I came inside, dried the rain off my hair and sweatshirt, and poured the rest of the leftover chili over rice. I ate two pieces of cornbread while it heated up. I opened a beer. I finished the chili and beer and made hot chocolate, pausing just to feed some marshmallows to the dog. Then I ate the leftover tortellini and meat sauce and took a dessert of dark chocolate to the couch. This is normal enough. This is how I feel happy and taken-care-of in the depths of any dark mood or piece of ambivalent holiday news.
In my family, food is love. My grandmother learned to cook from her mother-in-law, a widow from Lebanon, and when we cousins were children she would bring us a sample of whatever she was cooking: a little thumb-sized lump of food in a napkin that she called a “mouse.”
My favorite kind of mouse was kibbeh niyeh–raw lamb with bulgur wheat, salted and served cold. Its flavor was mineral and oddly refreshing. But I loved any sort of food she gave us, and it was easy to do partly because she made the best stuffed grape leaves on this side of the Mediterranean, and mostly because it was the one time she didn’t mind us gathering around the kitchen doorway with our appetites and bad jokes and bottomless hunger for her attention. She never refused a hug, and whenever I went home, she always dropped whatever she was doing and stood in her driveway, hand on her hip, and waved goodbye to the car until she couldn’t see it anymore.
Last night, satiated and growing warmer, I sat on the couch in a room lit only by my computer screen and the Christmas tree. I let the calico cat pick over the crumbs on my plate. (I forgive this animal too quickly, Erin says.) The glass icicles refracted the colored lights. I missed my grandmother–she’s still alive and I saw her last week, but she is 92 and in wobbly health, and I only see her twice a year. Christmas is a milestone that looks further away every time.
“I’ll see you in May,” I told her.
“It’s too long.”
“I’ll talk to you on the phone a lot between now and then.”
Still, she’d labored up from her chair and set aside the pork loin and grape leaves I’d brought her, and walked me all the way to the front door of the nursing home. She clomped her walker over the doorframe and struggled out to the porch. Erin and I drove around the roundabout and tooted the horn, and she stepped away from her walker long enough to wave goodbye. When I checked the rearview mirror, she was still waving.
Holidays or not, this is my grandmother’s tacit wisdom: the equivalence of food and affection. You feed someone if you love them. If you love them, you feed them. It’s no wonder that the first gift I ever gave Erin was a container of homemade chicken noodle soup.
So, here’s my wish. May you always have someone to feed, and someone to feed you.