This piece was published in the Padadena Star News on September 24, 2000.
The first time I tried, I failed. I wanted to make fried chicken and it ended up looking like chicken dumplings. Gommy had always prepared everything perfectly in the pressure cooker. I failed miserably. I wanted to give up.
Gommy was my adopted grandmother. She was my husband’s grandmother so I did not have the privilege of knowing her from the moment I was born. My biological grandmothers were notable by their absence; one by an early death and one by indifference.
Once Gommy came into my life, she became my grandma and I loved her dearly. After the chicken fiasco, I decided not to give up. I remembered a hot summer night when I stood on Gommy’s screened-in porch and watched her try to light cherries jubilee as assorted relatives looked on.
I was a young mother with the greatest admiration for her fabulous desserts. She had a culinary reputation to uphold. A legend in her own time, she stood, with her white hair silhouetted in the soft summer light, as she tried, again and again, to ignite the booze that was supposed to lightly char the cherries.
Despite her efforts, the alcohol did not ignite and the grand finale was not to be. She got mad, really mad, and uttered a stunning curse that no one expected from an 80-something great-grandmother of four. We caught our breath before we let out a sign and then a laugh.
I knew then why I loved this grand old lady and wanted to follow in her footsteps. As grandchildren do, I idolized Gommy. Even though I was an adult, I sat at her knee and soaked up her crusty charm. I relaxed in her leather easy chair by dim lamplight and listened to her tall tales as her beloved Gompy sat by her side. I had a second chance at having a grandma and I wanted to make the most of it.
When Gommy and I met, we hit if off. As a child who grew up with an extended family divided by geography and dissension, I craved a wise elder who could guide me in the ways of cooking, homemaking and gardening. I loved Gommy’s garden, her well-scrubbed kitchen and her screened-in porch with lush potted plants. In my neophyte stage, I saw the fully formed butterfly and I flew toward the light.
She prepared all her vegetables in the pressure cooker. An organic gardener myself, I gravitated to the idea of cooking vegetables in less water, retaining more nutritional value. The day she gifted me a pressure cooker of my own remains among my favorite moments.
My precious pressure cooker is among my most prized possessions. It is my heirloom. Other people may point with pride to a quilt, antique dresser, crystal or china. Those fine and fragile pieces represent a time gone by, tradition followed carefully with reverence and devotion. I, too, treat my battered old pressure cooker with care, reverence and respect.
As I put a batch of asparagus in the 25-year-old pot and attach the top, I remember Gommy. As I listen to the hiss and watch the back-and-forth motion of the top piece, I see Gommy. I see her, in all her glory, making fancy desserts, taking car of her grandchildren, watching over Gompy, tending to her home.
I hold that image close and try to capture if for myself. I didn’t live in the same house for 50 years as she did. I didn’t attain the perfection she achieved in her garden. I never even tried to light cherries on fire. In my quite moments of remembrance, it doesn’t matter.
I hope, in the deepest part of my heart, to be a grandma to a tiny child one day who will see my best. He or she will not see my faults, dashed dreams or failures. Perhaps the biggest disappointment that child will see is a failed desert.
When frustrated, I may utter a grandmotherly curse. The crusty part of me will give her strength, the generous part will teach him to give. I hope the fun of being with me will be remembered with love.
I hope that small soul will recognize and emulate the best part of me. I don’t know what name I shall receive from the early vocabulary of my first grandchild. I don’t think it will be “Gommy.” If not in fact, it will be in spirit and I hope I will live up to the name.
Kathleen Vallee Stein