Thursday, June 19, 2008

Nana, the Passive-aggressive Baker

My dear, departed, diabetic Nana used to bake for us grandkids. A lot. Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? The first dozen times or so it was. After that - no. No. No. Every day. Every damn day. It was like the movie Groundhog Day only with Bundt cakes.

We'd come home from school, the witching hour for kiddie appetites, and she'd appear with a big ring of dry cake. She'd parade right past my mother, who would be preparing dinner, often within reach of sharp kitchen utensils. "Have some cake," Nana would say to us, which is Gaelic for If you love me you will eat this now or I will die and it will be your fault.

She would then sit down and stare at us, waiting for us to eat. Our mom, knife at the ready, would stare daggers at us, then at Nana. Our stomachs would growl at us. There was no way out without some sort of home-baked Irish angst.

Nana: I made you a cake.

Mom (staring icily at us): What a surprise.

Nana: Well, I had nothing better to do.

Mom (eyeing the paring knife):……thanks.

Nana (heavy sigh): Guess I’ll go home and watch The Price is Right. Alone.

I took up sports just so I wouldn’t have to come home right after school and witness this scene.

The flip side to this logic was if you truly valued food, you took only what you needed. A daily dose of Bundt cake was a loony extravagance. Eventually I began to associate cakes and sweets with an uneasy maternal glare. While it later made dieting easy, I absolutely freaked out in bakeries.

Nana lived next door to us on the farm, close enough to tinker with our lives but far enough away to duck the house rules. She had lived through the Great Depression and treasured every bit of food she now had. As a result, she was quite fat and suffered from diabetes. Not to judge her, but no matter how hard she stared at me, she was not going to make me eat Bundt cake until I weighed 200 pounds.

She was born in Brooklyn of Irish immigrants, living there all her life until her husband, my Pop-pop, passed away, at which point she moved in beside us in the country, with the cows, crickets, and velvet-dark, quiet nights. Many things I loved about the country probably terrified her.

City folk don't ever get to know true darkness. Or silence, for that matter. There's always something lit or noisy. Like a street light or a trash truck beeping away, I guess that's comforting if that's what you know.

But in the night of the countryside your eyes don't always help you and your ears pop for lack of better things to do. To me this was magnificent - I felt like my other senses kicked in and I could think without any distractions.

To my Nana this was disturbing. It probably didn't help that I pointed out all the creatures that came out at night - the giant moths, the various snakes, the skittery mice, bats, etc. that owned the darkness. Maybe the Bundt cakes were payback for scaring the daylights out of her.

Once she moved to the country, Nana had to learn how to drive. This was mind-boggling to me - how could anyone make it through life without driving? I had been driving tractors since I was twelve years old. Those odd city people got by without driving at all. No ‘D’ train in the boondocks, though, so Nana had to buckle down and learn.

We owned a bunch of Volkswagen Beetles, most likely because they were expendable and didn’t injure pedestrians too much when they hit them. I don’t recall many details of my grandmother’s driver education, just my dad requiring a few extra beers and colorful curses. I do remember Nana yelling at him in that special voice reserved for special offspring. Her timing was poor because at that particular moment they were heading down our precarious driveway. The one with the sharp turn and the cliff.

Somehow my dad made it through teaching his mother how to drive, but when I turned sixteen and could officially take the wheel, Nana was assigned to be my teacher. Not sure who was being punished for what, but somehow we both managed to survive. Nana was quite patient, at least on the surface, however when I didn't slow down fast enough for her liking, she would stomp on an imaginary and therefore non-functioning brake pedal, very nearly putting her foot through the floor of the passenger side of her car.

Me: Everything ok, Nana?

Nana: Just fine. (stomp!)

Me: Want me to slow down?

Nana: No, I’m fine. (stomp!)

Driving with Nana was an experience. She always made the sign of the cross before putting it in gear. After riding with her a few times, so did the rest of us.

Eventually she bought an AMC Gremlin, a car even uglier than its name insinuates. Nana’s Gremlin was baby blue with white racing stripes, a rolling exhibition of lipstick on a pig. It was unique enough that when townspeople saw it coming, they quickly learned to hide behind sturdy trees and posts.

As she aged and her eyesight faded, I questioned the sanity of her continuing to drive. "I've thought about that," she replied, "From now on, I'm just going to drive the roads I already know." Unfortunately this wasn’t comforting to anyone in her path. As you may have guessed, Driving by Braille was about as successful as Closed Captioning for the Blind. But hey, she knew the road, she drove the road, and everyone else had to get the hell off the road.

Like any grandmother, Nana needed help with some things, for instance, crossing icy pavement. Unlike other grandmothers, she had the vice-like grip of a Teamster. "Help me across the street, Ann Frances," she'd say and daintily take my arm. I'd grit my teeth for the pain that was sure to shoot through my bicep as she grabbed hold, her fingerprints later tattooed on my arm in the form of a florid, multi-colored bruise. More payback, perhaps, for not eating all those Bundt cakes.

We would bring our soda and beer cans to her to flatten for recycling. We had to carry the bags of cans for our poor, frail granny, yet I witnessed her crushing the old-style, thick, steel cans with her bare hands. This show of strength made it even tougher to turn down her Bundt offerings. If we didn't eat her cakes, she might flatten us like so many beer cans.

Nana helped out at our church, assisting the teachers with religious education. In other words, she was the bouncer. If a kid didn't behave, he was handed over to Nana, whereupon he very quickly saw God and understood the pain of penance. As the disruptive student was led away to face Nana the Corrector, other kids stared at me like it was my fault my grandmother was a drill sergeant.

I'm sure she loved us, but she had a unique way of showing it. She babysat for us kids a few times, not that we needed the watching but it made her feel needed. A classic Nana babysitting visit went something like this-

Me (watching television): Hey, Nana, what’s up?

Nana(heavy sigh): Nothing good on tv, so I thought I’d come over and look at you.

She would then plop herself in a chair right next to the television and literally stare at us. I don’t care who you are – you cannot enjoy television with someone sitting next to it staring back at you.

One night when our parents were out, Nana felt the need to use our oven. Our mother had complained that the oven wasn’t working right. Perhaps Nana felt compelled to fix it or prove Mom wrong. Whatever the reason, I was watching television in the living room when Nana called for me casually from the kitchen. Casually, as in whenever you have a moment meander over here because I’d like you to see something a smidge amusing.

Nana: Ann Frances, could you come in here?

Me: Can it wait until a commercial break?

Nana: ……I don’t think so.

Me: Is something wrong?

Nana: ……

I raced to the kitchen to see flames from the oven licking the ceiling. Nana was frozen in shock, staring at the growing fire. I grabbed the extinguisher and put it out. Thank goodness Nana was there to take care of us, and to tinker with the ornery oven while our parents weren’t around. At least now we knew something was definitely wrong with the oven, also known as the large black hole in the kitchen wall. It was burnt to a freaking crisp.

And if there was a Bundt cake in there, it was well-done.


Lauri Ann said...

This was such a great post! Truly enjoyed reading and so many things that sound like my kids talking about my mother. It caught my attention because of the "Passive Aggressive" since I blog about living with a passive aggressive boyfriend. So glad I found you.

insomniac said...

"if i knew you were breathing, i'd have baked a cake"

Anonymous said...

My mother set fire to the wastebasket in my kitchen one Thanksgiving. Not to this extent (thank goodness) but still quite dramatic,what with all the company.:)


PracticallyJoe said...

I lived with my grandma for a few years after my grandpa passed away. I was 8-years-old. Every morning her and I sipped hot black coffee ... the real Italian black coffee, blended with chicory. She taught me to tilt my cup enough to dribble the coffee into the saucer. We would then sip from our saucers. My mom wished I was drinking milk.