Last night, I cut myself while cooking. Actually, I kind of carved myself. If I hadn’t had a split second “oh crap!” moment, I probably would’ve lost half an inch of my thumb and fingernail, and embarrassingly requested that my husband drive me to the hospital. As it was, I stood there holding my paper towel-wrapped thumb high in the air, calmly saying to him, “Don’t freak out, but…” It worked! He didn’t freak out (although we both know he wanted to) and I forced myself to clean and bandage the wound up without throwing up or passing out. I now know what mommyhood will look like. I still feel like passing out thinking of the blood, the pain, and the reality of what the awkward, sliced fingernail looks like. Blah. Ick.
But, while I saw the blood instantly fill the layers of paper towel, I couldn’t help but feel proud. I’ve been cooking for quite awhile and have had plenty of mishaps – mostly involving collecting burn scars – but this was the first “does that need stitches?” sort of injury. My thoughts instantly went to my grandmother.
“Grandma Heidi” was called by this confusing nickname because, for whatever reason, our sets of grandparents were named for their dogs: Grandma and Grandpa Heidi, Grandma and Grandpa Ginger. As I came along, it got even more blurry since the dogs had long since passed. Regardless, the nicknames stuck. The only way I could remember the names was when Grandpa Heidi showed me an old “Heidi” movie and I started to associate the book (along with the grandfather in it) with him.
Anyhoo, we spent a lot of time with the Heidi grandparents. I would guess that we actually spent an abnormal amount of time at their house compared to most families, between living in the same village, their VERY close proximity to our elementary school, and their silent, ever-present willingness to help Mom in the tough raising of four children alone. We were incredibly lucky.
Grandpa, as far as my relationship with him goes, has always been my hero. If I start to elaborate, I WILL cry. Needless to say, he was one of the several men who raised me, and he was full of patience and kindness for me, with just the right levels of discipline and intimidation. I will surely be struck down when he passes, one day.
Grandma Heidi, on the other hand, was a pip. She was the undisputed matriarch of the family. While she and Grandpa were both Marines, serving during WWII, she was the one who seemed to embody that strictness. Simultaneously, she seemed to have a vein of mischief that you knew she used to unleash with her lady Marine buddies back when she was living that life.
There are countless stories to prove her conflicting sides. For example, my sister and I had to make the bed when we stayed over…but our way wouldn’t do. She taught us how to make the bed as she was taught in the Marines (although I don’t recall whether she actually did bounce a quarter), and always checked before we could go about our day.
At the same time, her naughtiness came through when she gave the Sign of Peace in church. You knew it was coming, yet it was disrespectful NOT to shake hands. CRUSH. Grandma would squeeze so hard she’d flatten the bones in your hand and leave you on your knees howling…to which, Mom would turn and snap at you. Not Grandma. You. And I can’t count how many times, while teaching me how to play Gin (or several other card games) she blew smoke in my face when I started to learn how to win. It was also her cue to suddenly change the rules.
But, ultimately, her love was palpable, even if not stated or even shown regularly. That’s just how the family was.
So, how is this all relevant to my Band-Aid finger? I watched her cook from the time I could peer over the countertop. I was sometimes lucky enough to get picked up and sit ON the counter to help mix cookies. (I remember Mary getting frustrated and jealous over that, but they had a much deeper connection, so no hard feelings harbored.) While she might not have been the best cook on Earth, the sights and smells are deeply-rooted memories. Her spice cabinet was unrivaled as far as smells. The taste of grape jelly in the middle of a spaghetti dinner – yes, a palette cleanser, don’t judge. The anticipation of watching molasses coloring her famous molasses cookies.
As much as everything else, I was mesmerized by her hands. The arthritis bulged her joints slightly, the skin rolling like uneven hillsides covering ancient cities, and lines showing as much age as experience. Accompanying and interrupting those lines, you could see the nicks and splices that had built up over her many decades of cooking. Those years cooking for her large family when her mother died. Those years that she cooked, as a newlywed, for her new husband along with his siblings. Those years that she made meals of indelible memories for her five children – who cared so much about their Sunday food routines and famous recipes that I was asked to compile a plethora of stories and memories into a homemade cookbook for them to share. Those hands meant a lot to a small, exclusive club of Cunningham (and subsequent) family.
I recall intensely staring at her fingers. I do remember her having the occasional Band-Aid, or making that clinched-teeth-sucking-in-air sound while chopping, then rushing to run water over it. While I didn’t look forward to being in pain, I looked forward to being Grandma. And, incidentally, Mom – they have the same hands, although Mom’s are less soft but definitely hard-working and gentle.
I didn’t feel like either of them until last night. After making my initial “chchhchceeee” clenched noise, I smiled and laughed. I had gotten my badge. And I’d avoided getting blood in the onions.