Grandma Jenny’s kitchen was six hours away, but it felt like home when I was visiting. In many of my memories I am tucked into the burgundy vinyl-covered bench of the breakfast nook, watching her zip around the kitchen on her mobility scooter. She’d drive up and down the length of the counter, stopping quickly and standing slowly, leaning heavily on the counter. She’d pull ingredients from the corner next to the microwave, then sit back on the padded grey seat of her chair and drive down to the stove, standing again to stir a pot on the front burner or gently turn the bacon. She couldn’t reach the top cabinets, so she stored most of what she needed inside the unused dishwasher.
When I tell my children about my dad’s mother, I tell them first how she loved me so much she pinched my cheeks each time she hugged me hello, like she couldn’t help it. I recognized this feeling in myself years later, as I eyed the delicious fat on my toddlers’ arms and fought hard not to hug them too fiercely. I can still see her making what we now call the “Grandma Jenny face,” nose wrinkled and teeth clenched, pulling a grandchild close and squeezing their face with her fingers, soft skin over aching knuckles.
Then I tell them how she loved us with food. If we were visiting over holidays, I’d watch her spend an afternoon making batches of biscuits and cornbread from scratch, only to tear them up a day or two later, combine them with onions, a bit of sage, and chicken broth, then bake the mixture in a large metal pan. At dinner, she would watch my dad give the dressing, his favorite, a place of honor on his plate.
To her grandchildren, she became most famous for her Chocolate Gravy, a thick, warm, sugary concoction that we poured over biscuits. As I grew older, I was surprised to find the recipe was not only quite simple, but also easily found on the internet. It’s apparently a well-known Southern dish, but as a child I believed Grandma Jenny had invented it. Though the homemade biscuits took far more time to prepare, it was the “gravy” we poured over them that I linked forever with her.
She never met my children but would have loved them, squeezing their cheeks and giving them rides around the living room on her scooter, just like she did with the great-grandchildren that came before she was gone. Each Thanksgiving, my dad crumbles biscuits and cornbread and turns them into a pan of his mom’s dressing. Last weekend, he made Chocolate Gravy for a Sunday brunch and we watched as my kids devoured it, still hot, as he and his sisters did six decades ago, as I did three decades ago.
When my birthday rolls around again, I will remember how she called every year to sing to me from her kitchen six hours away. I will put on my best Grandma Jenny face and pull my kids in, squeezing them a bit too tightly, for as long as they will let me.