Blood is thicker than prune juice” was one of my paternal grandfather’s go-to phrases. If you didn’t know better, you would think my family lineage snaked back to Sicily or somewhere equally well-connected. But no, the Midwestern bank president was staunchly Protestant, and only meant to warn us that in the worst of times, your best resources lay in the deep close bosom of your immediate family.
And it was to this bosom I retreated this week, when, faced with challenges I cannot share with you prune juicers, my brother, Larry, rose to his full and majestic height and gave me the best advice of my adult life.
I had a series of three phone conversations with him this week, after returning from work. I sank into our other grandfather’s chair, recently reupholstered in a distinctly non-grandparental fabric, but retaining the elegance and comfort of its original 1925 bones. It’s gaily striped back, seat and arms embraced me as I dialed his number, and started to talk. Both the first and second nights, I had interrupted him in the process of eating something.
“I’m sorry, did I catch you at dinner?”
“No, Sis, I’m just having some ice cream.” And we proceeded, my conscience soothed by the fact that in spite of the difficulty of our conversation, he was having something agreeable.
The second night, when I again interrupted him while he was eating, he told me that he was having some ‘leftover macaroni and cheese,’ and my mind briefly bounced back to the night of our maternal grandfather’s funeral, yes the one from the chair, when three of his adult grandchildren, all married and some with children, had returned to our grandparent’s home to mark the end of this beautiful man’s life.
We were all ensconced in our childhood beds, in the attic bedroom over the garage, and adjacent by a set of steep wooden stairs to the kitchen. We must have been 26, 28, and 30 respectively, and the day had been difficult.
My brothers, even more than me, had been close with Grandad Coon- each having spent a summer working for his construction company and concrete company, and yet their tales of the hard work that summer had never obscured their affection for our grandfather. They had both been given the task, immediately upon arriving at the construction company, of donning ear protection and going into the cement mixers, each with a jackhammer, to clean out the old cement that had coated the truck’s large belly. I remember hearing from all involved that it was both an initiation to the hard work they would do that summer, and a demonstration to the other workers in the company that the two grandsons would not be handed anything they didn’t earn outright. And so, while the other workers didn’t retire to a lovely home with a swimming pool and cozy dinners with the owner and his wife at night, they could rest assured that the nepotism ended with the acceptance of the job by my teenage brothers. That was the kind of man my grandfather was: good, solid, Republican, as it turned out, but I can hardly hold that against him now.
But that night, in the quiet February darkness of rural Pennsylvania, my brothers and I lay in our beds talking about the day, and oddly, exchanging recipes.
“How do you make macaroni?” I had asked, because as a new wife, my cooking skills were still being honed- I had grown up as the privileged one to be in the kitchen with our mom, who was a skilled alchemist of the mundane. By that, I mean no insult; Her dinners were excellent yet routine. And so, having not paid close enough attention, I now sought to know how to make the macaroni and cheese.
Larry began in a careful treatise of how to craft (pardon the bad pun) the best Mac and cheese recipe I have ever eaten. And somewhere in the middle of his cheese roux recipe, intoned solemnly from under a purple sateen comforter from the darkened corner to my right, somewhere over near the bookcase filled with back issues of National Geographic, the absurdity of dealing with death by sharing family recipes began to tickle me. Soon, the three of us were gasping for air, alternately laughing and crying in the dark privacy of the mahogany-filled attic bedroom.
Now, 28 years later, I pushed that shared event aside as my critical brain said, “ice cream and macaroni and cheese; these aren’t healthy but I am in no position to lecture my big brother.” And so, I didn’t, but listened instead to his excellent counsel.
And the next night, I made the macaroni and cheese, deftly, with a shared inheritance of knowledge and experience. And this morning, with the leftovers, I crafted an omelet with zucchini and leftover Mac and cheese.
To my Grandfathers, I say “Thank you for the lesson that though blood may be thicker than prune juice, our expectations that you will succeed due to merit rather than privilege are clear.”
And to my brother Larry, I say “Thank you, for the best Mac and cheese recipe in the world and for being such a stellar supporter of me.”