My grandma Ruth is, in memory, among other sour smells, canned salmon and mothballs. She kept the latter in every enclosed space of her East Meadow, New York home, the home my father lamentably declared cost her less than he had just paid for his 1984 Datsun 300ZX.He had his mid-life crisis a bit early and, in addition to purchasing the car, he began dyeing the early gray out of his beard. I had not, and still haven’t, ever seen him clean-shaven. Grandma Ruth was his mother, and as my own mother, still young with still-unpermed hair, shuffled my younger sister and me into the red, red kitchen, weary after our flight from Chicago, that combination of smells was the first thing to greet us.
Invariably, the pantry door would be open, stocked with boxes of Froot Loops and Cookie Crisp, the “sugar” cereals that my mother would not allow us kids to have at home. And behind these boxes, carefully tied sachets of mothballs, their camphor stink commingling with the salmon patties Grandma Ruth always flipped in the kitchen, whenever we first arrived from Chicago. My mom hated them. My father, on the other hand, thought they were the living end.
Ruthie was a spectacle of a woman—a hunchbacked Jewish grandmother with dyed orange hair, thick swaths of baby blue eyeshadow, and garish, bubblegum pink lipstick. I’m sure she hid the true nature of her skin behind other powders and creams and greases, but that revolting blue, and that sick pink remain the most indelible. Her morning routine reflected her dedication to face-paint. Before my family could leave the house for our typical diner breakfast, we would have to wait for Ruthie to complete her ninety-minute make-up routine.
She would allow me, after five minutes of obligatory, playful protest, to photograph her, newly made-up, with my Polaroid Pronto SX-70, in a series of unflattering poses—her eyes narrowed and tongue hanging out, her cheeks puffed and hands fanned, thumbs wedged into her ears, her mouth scowling, pointer shoved up her nostril in some bitter defiance—maybe against me, or her coming death, or my father’s bellowing for her to hurry up her Clairol-sponsored procedure.
No matter: she is canned salmon, mothballs, and chalky rouge. I still smell the ghosts of her salmon patties every time my wife, Louisa, opens a can of tuna in our Michigan kitchen. Last night, we had a variation on pastaputtanesca (virtually the only time we use any sort of canned fish—and the tuna is imported from Italy and packed in olive oil—so that’s okay, right?), that Campanian dish of stunning “dirty” flavors reputed to have been created by Neopolitan whores.
This afternoon, sitting under the porch overhang in the backyard, watching the early-March rain thicken to an embryonic snow, I ate the leftovers and was again transported to that kitchen in New York, bearing those illicit cereals and a red Naugahyde breakfast nook that squeaked so loudly whenever we shifted our weight. I saw my mother making her “gag me” face as my father eagerly devoured a plate of salmon patties; saw my sister laughing, her mouth carrying a small vacancy—her first lost baby-tooth.
At about the same time Ruthie died, my sister got engaged to be married and my mother bought a new car. This was about six years ago. It was a shockingly hot summer day in Chicago. The news had been warning the elderly and parents of small children to stay inside, crank-up the air conditioner. I remember hearing about a bunch of people dropping dead, people who didn’t heed the advice, or didn’t own an air conditioner.
In this heat, my mother and sister drove the suburban streets to the wedding dressmaker. My sister was due for a fitting. My mom, who by now, after chemotherapy, was sporting a cropped curly hairdo, drove the Honda CRV, odometer proudly boasting its infancy. This was a car my Grandma Ruth would never get to ride in—another in a series of cars that, like certain foods, restaurants, dishes, seem to mark the pockets of my life by the mile.
They pulled into the parking lot; one of those lots that fronts a busy street. My mom hated those—hated having to reverse directly into traffic. The sky was a cracking blue. My mom opened the driver’s-side door and stepped out into the sun. My sister opened the passenger side door, and, excited to see the alterations that had been done on her dress, leapt onto the burning asphalt. Something, as yet unknown, materialized inside the car, tumbled mid-air, end-over-end, to the floor of the front passenger side, and rolled under the seat.
They had both, in periphery, seen it.
“What was that?” my mom asked.
“I don’t know,” my sister replied, and was already bending into the car, reaching with her arm beneath the passenger seat.
What she retrieved was small enough to fit into her hand, to disappear if she closed her fingers around it. What she retrieved was slender and warm. She held it up so my mom could see—a black plastic tube of lipstick with a clear top. Already the sun had started to burn the backs of their necks. They both knew right away, cocked their heads like a dog’s at the tea kettle’s steam-whistle. My sister lifted the clear top and, spilling into the summer air between them, a plume of scent—mothballs, salmon patties, chalk. The lipstick was that sloppy sick pink that Ruthie so favored, wore proudly with her blue or green or purple or orange papier-mâché earrings that she would purchase every winter at the Thunderbird flea market in south Florida. My sister peered into the tube as if to find an easy answer, and saw that the lipstick had been pushed down as if with a finger.
Ruthie came of age during the Great Depression, her father was a furrier and, like so many, had little money. As such, Ruthie never wasted a thing. I remember watching her, so many mornings in New York, as she dipped her finger into a near-empty tube, and wiped the pink dregs over her lips.
So, they both knew. Still, my sister felt compelled to say, aloud, “This is Grandma’s,” as if to test the cosmos. But the cosmos had said enough, opened the nebula like a mail slot, pushed this lipstick through.
At the wedding ceremony, my parents and sister organized to have a seat in the front row left open. On that seat, bearing witness, so small in such a large sea of white cloth drape, sat Ruthie’s supernatural tube of lipstick. This capped channel. This black plastic tunnel with pink light at its end. Perhaps it’s best that she attended in this incarnation. She wouldn’t have approved of the wedding food. As someone who once declared (to my passionate dismay) that she’d rather eat leftover pizza crusts than the black-olive oil poached salmon she ordered at a gourmet restaurant in Chicago, she would have labeled my sister’s choice of hors d’oeuvres “too fancy.”
As much as my mom and sister knew that day, I know. The ghosts are watching. The ghosts of people. The ghosts of food. Every time I eat cold leftovers on a porch on the cusp of a Midwestern spring, I know. Though I have become what many call a “food snob,” I realize that there is often honor in food I would normally dismiss. Honor, because these foods, however processed and modified, bear the weight of memory. Maybe not mine, but someone’s. As long as food is loved, who’s to say it’s not good food? Surely these culinary outcasts can join the ranks somehow—I certainly don’t want to offend any ghosts. So once in a while, because of salmon patties, canned tuna.
When Ruthie succumbed to Alzheimer’s a couple years before her death, she began craving foods she shunned for most of her adult life—foods she loved as a child: pies, chocolates, matzo brei with plenty of sugar. The rules had changed. So if sensory desires can circle back, if the present can twist and spiral and revisit the past, overlapping just slightly, perhaps with just a little imaginative alchemy, we can make of the mundane something gourmet. A larger-than-life grandmother. A Froot Loop soufflé.