I keep a photograph of my grandparents on my living room wall. My mother’s parents sit shoulder-to-shoulder and my Grandpa casts a sideways glance at his wife, who looks straight into the lens through her cat-eye glasses with a wide, toothy smile. They look happy, content as if they know a secret. When I look into their satisfied faces, I remember being a child in their home, and I miss them.
Every Sunday afternoon, my parents, brother, and I sat ourselves around my grandparents’ big, round kitchen table for a lunch worthy of church clothes, tablecloths, and polished manners. With heads bowed, as Grandpa asked God to bless the bounty of crop and kitchen before us, I squinted against the plate of cornbread in front of me—my favorite. With the “Amen,” I seized a golden muffin, stuffed it with butter, and filled my plate with Grandma’s cooking: purple hull peas my brother and I spent summer afternoons shelling, the corn we husked that Grandma scraped and creamed, potatoes dug from sandy soil then boiled, salted, and mashed. The crowning glory was the cornbread, soft, warm, golden like the afternoon sun in August, sweet but salty with edges crisp from the cast iron pan. Grandma’s cornbread was perfect. To my child’s mind, Grandma was perfect.
Grandma’s house was a sanctuary, a place where you could find not only a home-cooked meal but a warm slice of cake to finish it off before you curled up in an armchair to read or nap. Her home was warmth, comfort, contentment, and rest.
Grandma never worked outside the home, but that is not to say she did not work. She served with her hands, sent her daughter to prom in homemade dresses worthy of the department store, filled the Methodist church with gospel hymns on piano, placed a warm meal on her table three times a day.
She knew how to want not because she wasted not, knew how to economize—canning what she could, freezing what she couldn’t, mending clothes she sewed for husband and children—because her husband’s modest single income required her to be so. She worked the invisible labor of caretaker of home and family, until one day she couldn’t do any of it.
I was ten years old when Grandma had the first stroke. What followed was a blur of medical equipment and change. I saw my mother wade through a mess of at-home care while her own mother faded before her eyes. In spite of doctor visits and extended stays in a rehabilitation hospital, the strokes did not relent, as if insistent on the defeat of a woman who sat down only to read her Bible.
Our Sunday lunches were replaced by afternoons in a nursing home, where I did my homework on a cold vinyl chair while my mother asked her mother how the nurses were treating her, whether she liked the food, whether she needed clothes from home. Grandpa was left alone in the house he shared with his wife for 60 years, until my mom found him one day unconscious on the floor by the kitchen table. The official cause of death was a heart attack, which is another way of saying heartbreak.
By then the conversations with Grandma were more about explaining who we were and whether she knew us until the conversations stopped altogether and her smile became something familiar but foreign, the way a toddler smiles at strangers. Then she was gone, too.
I first felt Grandma’s absence the day I graduated high school. After the ceremony, my parents and I took photos outside the big baptist church along with the rest of the graduates. Sandwiched between my mother and father, I smiled under my cardboard graduation cap as a friend snapped a few pictures of the three of us, then a couple more with my brother. As I walked to my car, I noticed lingering groups scattered around the parking lot. A handful of classmates, still draped in their wine-colored polyester robes, stood encircled by beaming family members. I saw my peers embrace grandmothers in soft-hued dresses and share congratulatory handshakes with nodding grandfathers, and I felt a loss as if I’d forgotten something essential.
With each milestone—college graduation, marriage, motherhood—I felt the same absence again and again. There were no photographs to take which might reflect the relationship I craved. As friends described holiday dinners at Nana’s house or obligatory lunch dates with Gram, I named my hunger: Grandparent Envy.
I wanted more than memories cut short by death. I wanted more time to sit in the dim evening light of my Grandma’s living room and ask her questions about who she was and who I might become. I wanted to exhort my grade-school self to ask more questions and take good notes before it was too late. I wanted her to hold my babies and read them stories, or sing along as her great-granddaughter played “Amazing Grace” on the piano. I wanted her to visit my kitchen and show me how to cook peas and make cornbread come out right.
What I ended up with was a handful of physical leftovers from a life—a few handwritten recipes, a box of photographs—and a child’s collection of memories. The rich aroma of cake batter as I sat on a squeaky step-stool and watched sugar, flour, butter, and eggs blend into something delicious in a domestic miracle. The red skirt she sewed just for me that spun like a pinwheel and made me feel like Annie Oakley. The soft, floral scent of her dusting powder and the cool touch of her hands while she read me picture books in the big armchair. The joy when she said “yes” to ice cream sundaes and soda, never making me choose. Her kitchen table, covered with warm home-cooked meals, and her perfect cornbread in the center of it all.
April is a wife, mama, and native Texan who loves hands in the dirt, hikes in the woods, and the company of good books. When she isn’t homeschooling her three wild children or muddling through their messes, you can find her barefoot in the garden, baking in the kitchen, or adventuring with her kiddos. During all the minutes in between, she writes. You can find her blog posts, personal essays, and fiction writing on her blog. She shares moments from her life at home and elsewhere on Instagram.