I am not an apron kind of girl. I don’t do bows, frills, flounces, or flowers.
But, I do like to cook. And if I am making something messy like buttermilk biscuits, paranthas, or alfajores–basically anything that involves working with dough and flinging clouds of flour around–I like to wear my grandmother’s apron.
In a way, I never knew my ‘real’ grandmother. When I was 3, she and my grandfather were driving home from a livestock auction on a rainy winter night when their white pickup truck was slammed into by a tractor-trailer. They both survived, but my grandmother’s injuries were serious. She moved from intensive care to a regular ward to a nursing home. When she finally did come home, she was, as my mom would say, “not the same person.” She was listless, petulant, distant. After the accident, she mostly sat still in her chair in the front room of their log cabin, beside the Franklin stove.
A look through family photo albums shows the lost woman my mom was missing. Grandma in a man’s winter coat and rubber boots, carrying a rifle, heading off squirrel hunting with her sister. On vacation, waist-deep in the Chesapeake Bay. Leading my 5-year-old mom around the barnyard on the back of a Holstein calf. Her white hair tucked under a hunting cap, riding on her Saddlebred mare, Sugar. She was a Yankees fan, a backyard geneticist (chickens!), and she eloped with my grandfather–a German sailor who had jumped ship in New Orleans and made his way north–and for months didn’t tell anyone in the family that she was married, just kept bringing her beau to Sunday suppers with the family. I don’t remember a single photo of her wearing a skirt or dress – quite an accomplishment for a woman born in 1910.
Pauline was the second youngest of nine children born on a farm. The boys worked in the fields and the girls worked in the house. That’s just the way it was. She was a good country cook, and she cooked for her German sailor, too: fried chicken, chipped beef, potato salad, coleslaw, fruit cake, peach pie.
We spent a lot of time with my grandparents, especially after the accident, when we moved next door to help take care of them. I was always happy to visit– My grandparents were glad to see me, and they ate food that we didn’t have at home. There were packages of Nutter Butter cookies for my grandfather, and bags of chalky pink peppermints. There were cold slices of squirrel and rabbit refrigerated in margarine tubs, that we ate with Blue Ribbon margarine on Roman Meal bread. There was Braunschweiger and sliced genoa salami. Their dirt-floored cellar was a treasure house of canned peaches, pears, and fruit cocktail, jars of cinnamon-sugar applesauce, and big cans of Hi-C from the canning factory where they used to work.
And down behind the white Westinghouse fridge, where they kept six-pack glass returnable bottles of Coke (for Grandma) and Pepsi (for Pop-pop), was a flowered vinyl shopping bag, and two aprons – one red, one blue, hung on a hook.
I don’t like sports. I’ve never been hunting–I’ve been a vegetarian since I was fifteen. But, I, too, ran off and married my husband –another foreigner–and called my mom to tell her the news after the fact. I learned to ride before I can remember, and the feel of a horse under me is as natural as walking.
The cooking thing skipped a generation. My mom didn’t learn to cook until her husband taught her, and when he died when I was eight, I took over the cooking. It wasn’t until I had grown up and moved out and was visiting my mom, digging for some cobwebbed necessity when trying to make Christmas dinner in her neglected kitchen that I came across my grandmother’s apron.
It all came back to me. My whole childhood. My grandfather’s bolo ties, and his snoring in his armchair in front of the Orioles game. Eating squirrel sandwiches at the claw-foot table in the kitchen. Feeding the chickens, and stroking the feathers of the pale gold spring peeps. Sledding down the mountain lane in winter, and scrambling barefoot up trees in the summer, gathering black raspberries by the bucketful and spooning them with sugar over vanilla ice cream. Riding my Shetland pony, and falling under her feet when the girth slipped on her grass-fat belly. Crawling through barbed-wire fences, watching out for copperheads, playing tag with my cousins. Eating sassafras leaves, birch bark, and teaberries, and ‘cooking’ grass and acorns in a beat-up old saucepot on the tar-paper roof of the springhouse.
My mom didn’t need the apron, and I took it with me. When I wear it, I know the Pauline who I never knew. When I wear it, I continue the best of the women in my family. Women who know the Appalachian woods from the inside, who ride horses without fear, who marry the men they love, and ask permission later.