My grandmother’s love language was food.
Biscuits and gravy. Bacon and eggs.
Pancakes, stacked high with butter and syrup, sausage on the side, mixed and crispy-hot in the pan just before daylight.
Home fried chicken. Ham and beans. Cornbread in an iron skillet. Mashed potatoes, perfectly white, whipped to an inch of their little lives. Homemade cinnamon rolls, homemade ice cream. Chocolate chip cookies. Banana splits.
My grandma made iced tea so sweet it crunched, and then she sent me out to the garden to pick little sprigs of fresh mint. She laid the green leaves gently on top, and the smell of that sweet mint tea was as fresh as the sun. We are Southern after all. There’s really no other way to drink it.
In the winter she made hot chocolate, and cappuccino from a tin.
She made grilled cheese. Macaroni and cheese. Sandwiches with three slices of American cheese. Cheeseball. Pimento cheese. Fruit and cheese.
Oh, and pepper jelly on a Triscuit. With cream cheese.
Fresh. Everything so fresh. And almost all from scratch. Pie crusts rolled out early in the morning. Fruit picked from her own trees and sugared by her own hands.
Berry pie. Cherry pie with whipped cream. And apple pie with melted cheddar cheese. The first time she handed me that delicacy, I thought someone had gotten confused.
But it was good. Like all of it. So good.
Move the chairs out and bring in some tables. Turn yourself sideways to make your way through the bounty, stack up your plate, and don’t be shy, honey, come back for more.
On Thanksgiving, my grandmother cooked for days around her teaching job. Deviled eggs could be done early. The pies too, they could be done ahead. Salads, chopped the day before and tossed in the morning.
She still made jello molds, maybe the only thing she made I didn’t love, but they were pretty and somewhat gravity defying, and what kid isn’t entertained by carrots jiggling in gelatin?
My grandmother was a schoolteacher and a children’s librarian. Besides cooking, she dressed in costumes on the holidays.
On Christmas, she was Mrs. Claus, Santa hat, red sweater, matching skirt, and a huge black belt with a shiny gold buckle.
And on Thanksgiving, she alternated years, one year a Cherokee maiden with construction paper feathers in her hair.
And, other years, a pilgrim in black and white, complete with a little collar and funny hat, flaps around her ears.
And she did it all while caring for my grandfather, wheelchair-bound from polio. My grandmother sold everything she had after he came home from the hospital, and she went to school to become a teacher.
She was loyal to him until he died in his fifties, and she never remarried. She still wears her wedding band, even though I’m not sure she remembers why.
She doesn’t know us anymore, and she gets upset if she forgets where she is.
But her love language is still food. She got afraid at my house the other day, and I said, “Grandma, do you want a cookie?” She nodded.
I gave her two cookies. “One for each hand,” I said, like I do for my kids.
She smiled and took a big crumbly bite.
It wasn’t until I had my own kids and tried cooking for a family, day in and day out, that I realized what a gift she gave us.
After I had stayed home for ten years, I realized that I had prepared over 10,000 meals, many of them spit out and proclaimed “disgusting” by children who had just been eating dog food.
I know they did. Dirt, too. I saw it with my own eyes.
Even so, I baked and meal-planned and hunted recipes to delight them.
One time as a young mom, I tried to make beans.
I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to make the whole bag at once. When the water boiled, I happily watched the beans soften and swell.
Until I realized they were swelling right out of the pot.
I called my grandmother.
“What do I do?” I asked her.
She laughed so hard. Couldn’t even talk.
“Grandma, stop laughing,” I said, “they are seriously coming out the top! What do I do?”
“Just get another pot, honey,” she gasped. “Start spooning them in to something else on another burner, add more water.”
“Ok, Grandma,” I said. Her laughing made me laugh. I spooned some in another pot.
The beans kept swelling over the top.
I called her back. “Grandma, I think I should just throw it away. There’s too much, it’s still overflowing. I give up.”
She thought this was hysterical.
“No, honey,” she said. “Don’t you have four burners? Just keep adding pots, keep spooning it out. You can fix this.”
It was a vote of confidence from a woman who knew her food. I did fix it, on the phone with her, laughing and spooning and babysitting beans.
She kept asking, “What does it look like now?” and laughing.
I wish I’d had a cell phone back then. I would have texted her a picture of the four bean volcanos erupting on my stovetop.
I think she got the idea.
It’s a little memory.
But I’m so thankful for it.
The food is a small thing too in a way, but in another, it’s the soundtrack of my childhood as much as any music.
A soundtrack of flavor and love poured out and laid before me by a servant of God and family who lived to bring us comfort.
My grandmother worked hard in her gardens and at school to provide the food for a big family she fed all the time.
And then, unless you’ve planned meals like she did, and gotten up at all hours of the day and night to make sure it came out right, and tended to every little bite like it mattered, it’s hard to explain the time and the effort, the cuts and the burns and the sweat and the tired arms over a hot steamy stove.
I remember conversations at these meals.
Conversations that often ended up with someone raising their voice and walking away mad, and the awkward silence that followed.
And I remember my grandmother leaving the angry adults and swooping us all up in her arms. She had holiday books that she read in the most soothing, sweet voice, a voice and a cadence made to order for children’s stories.
I’m sure the conversations mattered to her, but her babies mattered more.
She had worked hard to make a beautiful meal and space for gathering. She was not about to let them ruin it for her or for us.
She was a woman who never stopped smiling.
I’m amazed by her restraint, and inspired by the way she always chose love.
I want to give that same gift to my kids and my family.
I’m planning what I’m cooking this year.
My kids have never seen a jello mold. This may be the year that changes. That jiggly delight just might find itself a place on my table. Some old things are worth resurrecting.
And I’m planning what I’ll say.
“Hey kids, want to read a story?”
And. My sister has this hilarious game. Telephone pictionary. Great for a crowd. Directions here. Might play that, too.
There’s a time and a place for everything, it’s true.
But Thanksgiving is about making a joyful noise, not an angry or fearful one. And about making memories that will still be sweet for a long, long time.
I’m praying for love, words of love, sweeter than honey, and more savory than turkey, and sweeter than music, to grace your lips, your ears and all your gatherings.
Pleasant words are a honeycomb, Sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. Prov16:24