My maternal grandmother emigrated here from Germany. Entering the USA through Ellis Island, she was fearless in a new land. Mary Simmeth came to the US for an arranged marriage. She worked as a maid for a wealthy family.
After skipping out on the marriage she ran into the arms of the plumber who worked on the estate where she lived. Victor Terwilliger would become my grandfather.
Mary Terwilliger was the quintessential grandma. She was an excellent cook. Gray-haired and buxom she stood in front of the stove for much of the day. She cooked by feel and rarely measured ingredients. I have some of her handwritten recipes. Her units of measurement were pinch, a little and some of whatever the ingredient is. Her food was always fantastic. I can still taste her vegetable-beef soup that I loved as a kid. I have tried to duplicate it for years without success, and I use her recipe. I can hold my own in the kitchen and receive compliments on the food I prepare. That said, with the soup, I am just missing something. I have given this some thought and think I know why.
My grandma saw a lot during the war. If you mentioned Hitler or The Holocaust, she would look down, every time. I was young and didn’t understand but over time I learned about the tragedies of WW2. My mother reminded me not to mention these topics in front of Grammy T. Occasionally, the topic would come up. After all, my grandfather was a vet, and we had the debacle that was Vietnam in the sixties when I was a kid. I do remember her looking down, though, ashamed and embarrassed. When she looked back up you could see decades of pain in her eyes. Her eyes were as blue as a September sky. But when you discussed the war, they became black and drawn.
After college, I toured Europe with two friends and my backpack for three months. We went to Auschwitz. I remember arriving on the bus. My friends were commenting that it was a gray and overcast day. I remember saying, “I think it is that way all the time here.”
When I returned home, I stopped by to describe my trip to my grandma. I told her the places I visited. When I mentioned the concentration camp, she looked down. She asked if I was hungry and went to the kitchen to make some food for me.
Grandma Mary became a great-grandma when our sons were born. She had an unlimited capacity to love all of us. She hid a lifetime of pain from a war that divided the world by putting some of that love into her cooking. I believe it was a coping mechanism for her. The pain was deep, which caused her to put more love into us. She also put some into her pots which only increased the quality of her cooking. My grandma passed twenty-one years ago. My parents asked me if I wanted any of her belongings to remember her. I went straight for the pots. They are all cast iron. I have a deep camp pot, two frying pans, and a small soup pot. I have one of her wooden spoons that has about an inch of the oval rubbed off, on a bias, from her stirring. I don’t use it but have it displayed in a cabinet in our kitchen.
I am certain there is so much love in those pots that when I use them a form of transference takes place. I have been saying this for years. When my kids or someone compliments me on my food, I often say it wasn’t me, but my grandma. Then I tell the story I have told here.
The moral here is to love your life. Regardless of what you have seen or experienced, you owe it to yourself. Find a way to put that emotion into something that someone else can enjoy. Put your love into your pots and your pots will put your love into your food.
I sense there is one ingredient missing from the soup I enjoyed so much as a boy. I believe my grandma left it out on purpose so I would look for it and think of her. She more than made up for it by ensuring everything else I have cooked tastes just a little better. And here we are in 2016, and I am putting my love into these pots to keep the cycle going.
My best, Chris
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