“Do you think I haven’t seen what you just did?” My grandma said as I jumped, startled by her voice. I tried to ignore her as she approached the table, one hand on her hip and a greasy wooden spoon on the other. I gripped my fork tightly as I struggled to cut through the piece of veal sat on the white porcelain. I glanced at my grandpa as he looked down his plate. We both carried on eating in silence.
“I know you didn’t eat these green beans,” she said accusingly whilst brandishing her spoon and pointing it towards me. “They didn’t simply disappear from your plate,” She turned to my grandpa. “Was it the dog this time or was it you? You’d just say yes to anything when it comes to her!” My grandpa rolled his eyes and shrugged as she gave out a loud sigh. She turned back to the stove and loaded food onto her plate. My shoulders relaxed as she sat down. I happily dug into the mash and veal I had finally managed to cut. On the opposite side of the table, my grandpa lifted his gaze towards me. We both shared a smile as he took a mouthful of the green beans I had put in his plate.
I had always been a hungry, but picky kid. I sometimes got up at midnight to spread Nutella on toast or melt sugar cubes underneath my tongue, and when it came to food, my grandparent’s house was the place I could count on to get what I wanted. I relied on the consistency they put into stocking vanilla yoghurts, apple purées, Camembert, baguettes, and Petits Beurres. Cupboards crammed with jammy biscuits, milk chocolate Pepitos, buttery madeleines, and every kind of Lindt chocolate bars you could find. The garage held the “just in case” scenario where they stored cartons of semi-skimmed milk, Tropicana smooth orange juice, cans of Coca-Cola and mini Ice Tea bottles on top of the dog’s kennel. Behind my grandad’s toolshed, they kept potatoes in the dark to avoid their sprouting between cans of sweetcorn and jars of white asparagus.
As they lived ten minutes away from my house, I spent most of my childhood at theirs. I knew every hidden spot my grandma would hide sweets in. I would barge in every day without knocking like I owned the place. I slumped my entire body on the couch, turned on the TV, rummaged through the cupboards and ignored adults when they came to visit. I was there in the mornings, at lunch, and after school until Mum came back from work to pick me up. She worked full time and couldn’t afford childcare, making my grandparents’ help more than welcome. It didn’t matter that I was a fatherless daughter whose dad had chosen not to be involved, I was lucky enough to have two homes, and two substitutes parents.
“Maman, can we pay Pépère et Mémère a visit?” I pleaded every Sunday afternoon.
“Why do you want to go? You’ve been all week already,” She sighed as she soaked the dishes into the sink.
“Just because… I like being with them,”
“Well… Sometimes it’s nice not to be with them as well. To be in your own home,” she sighed, because she knew I didn’t seek being at home where she was busy with chores, and my brother with video games. I was an odd child with too many books and not enough friends. During the week, my grandparents would play with me when no one had any time for it.
“Can you come and do a jigsaw with me?” I suggested to my grandpa as he sat in the living room.
“Beauty and the Beast one?”
“Yes, let’s do it before lunch starts!” He said as he got the box out of the cupboard. My grandparents didn’t match the portraits of other children painted of their grandparents. I heard my classmates complain about having to spend Sundays with wheelchairs, canes and deaf ears when my grandpa still mowed the lawn and my grandma knelt on the floor to play with my Barbies and stood back up with no difficulty.
“Catch me if you can!” I yelled as I rode my bike and she easily caught up with me. They led me to believe they were immortal.
From my first days at schools until I was fourteen, I had lunch at my grandparent’s five days a week. Mondays were soft chicken breast with crunchy peas; Tuesdays, green lentils and salty bacon; Wednesdays, beefsteak, French fries and homemade mayonnaise; Thursdays left room for soft green beans and torchon ham; and we traditionally finished off on Fridays with carrots matching the fish fingers paired with translucent over cooked basmati rice.
On Wednesdays, I was off school and witnessed their cooking ritual from the morning. My grandpa first retrieved potatoes from the garage, scrubbed any dirt beneath the tap, rolled them into a kitchen towel to dry, and carefully cut their flesh into thick rectangles. With my elbows on the kitchen table, I studied his large wrinkled hands holding a knife in-between his thumb and index finger. I watched as the skin layers fell with a soft noise on the table cloth. He then finished by handing the potatoes to my grandma who poured oil into the deep fryer.
“Who cut the fries?” I asked on one of the rare days I wasn’t there in the morning.
“Why are you asking?” She replied as she hushed me away from the burning oil.
“Is it Pépère? Because otherwise, they won’t taste the same,”
“Of course it’s him. I know you think my cutting is different,” she said curtly and turned away. I sighed, but quickly forgot about it to take refuge in my grandpas’ softness, cradling his creased hands into mine when my grandma resented me for being difficult.
“She doesn’t eat green beans, she doesn’t eat tomatoes, she doesn’t eat courgettes. She despises spinach and beetroot! I don’t know what to do with this child anymore!” She would complain to my mum or her friends, putting her hands up in the air in exasperation whilst she kept on loading my plate with rice rolled into creme fraiche, potatoes splattered with sunflower oil, and pasta swirled into butter.
Out of eleven grandchildren, I was my grandparents’ favorite. I could lick the batter off the spoon whenever my grandma baked without ever being told off. I could get four raspberry bonbons from the sweets jar when I was only supposed to have one. My grandparents transformed any form of resistance to food into bread and butter, pickles and pâté, mayonnaise and eggs. Even Sunday lunches turned into an occasion to get a treat. My grandma would buy me a salambo when everyone else shared a homemade apple pie I didn’t like.
“Why do you need to get her something else?” Mum complained.
“She doesn’t like it. She can’t just have nothing. It wouldn’t be right,” my grandma retorted. “Just mind your own business,” Mum would just shrug and let it go, as if to say she knew the fear ran deeper than the food for both of them.
It was the early thirties when, abandoned by his mother and subjected to an abusive father, my grandpa and his brothers had been taken into care. Dragged from one foster family to another, he was forced to eat his own vomit after he had been ill and still wet the bed until he was ten, punished with being sent to school with just an orange for lunch.
“Times were tough. People didn’t care back then,” my grandma said with a somber look whenever we talked about it.
Ten years his junior, she held memories of curfews, bombings, ration stamps, twenty-kilometers bike rides to feed her three younger siblings, the 1944 liberation, soldiers handing chocolate bars and chewing gums, the hollowness of her childhood belly. It was growling stomachs which had kept my grandparents up at night when they were sent to bed with nothing but watery soup down their throat. It was having to wait until morning to get another portion, fully knowing it would not be enough, that made them ignore risks of child obesity, cholesterol, or diabetes when it came to me. I could see the ghosts of the starved children they had once been dance before their eyes when they saw me, or when they lacked the means to raise five children on small wages. My grandpa worked from dusk until dawn to put dinner on the table.
“He wasn’t mean. He never lay a hand on us. He was just… Tired. He stood at the end of the table, making sure we all finished our plates. It wasn’t like now. I guess being a dad didn’t mean the same thing when you didn’t want your kids to be hungry,… And I don’t think he knew what being a parent meant. How could he?” My mum often said when I asked her about it.
“What changed then?” I asked her.
“They retired. They had a bit more money, so… They spoiled you and your brother in a way they could never have done with us,” I stayed quiet.
What my grandma couldn’t express, she narrated through chocolate mousse and gigantic quiches, whilst my grandpa became the dad he never had the chance to be. They coated my early years with too much food, but oh so much, never-ending, never enough love.
In 2006, I stopped going to my grandparents every day as I started going to high school in a city nearby, but I still went for lunch every Sunday.
“Mrs. Laran told me she saw you with a boy,” my grandma said after I had kissed her on the cheek on one of these Sundays. She held a big chunk of butter in her left hand and was about to throw it into a large pan.
“I don’t see how that’s any of your business,” I shrugged as I said hello to my grandpa and caught my mum biting her lip as she came in and caught wind of the conversation.
“You’re way too young to be with any boy,” she remarked, turning back to the stove. She made a tutting noise as the butter cracked on the teflon. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. I was now fourteen-years-old, uninterested in what my grandma had to say about my whereabouts, but I was still stuck in the kitchen in a never-ending conversation.
“I don’t care what you think,” I knew the mistake I had made as soon as the words were out of my mouth but I couldn’t help myself.
“Don’t speak to me like that!” She yelled back. Grease splashed on the front of her flowery apron as bubbles formed on the pan. Time stood still in the kitchen. My mum and my grandpa stared at us.
“Mum knows, so it’s not any of your business anyway!”
“Fabienne? Fabienne, is that true? I don’t see how you can let her,” Mum stayed quiet. Her shoulders tensed. I clenched my jaw and got my phone out of my pocket. Sat in the same spot near the window, my grandpa tapped his foot against the floor. He gave out a loud sigh and I turned to him as he gestured with his hand. Let her speak, I read on his lips. I didn’t listen.
“I don’t know why you always think everything has to be your business. What does it change for you?” I continued.
“You should focus on your studies. You remember Danielle? Well, she had a baby, and then she couldn’t go to university. Now she lives in a council flat down the road, and the boy she had it with left her. It happens is all I’m saying,”
“STOP IT! Just stop talking!” My phone made a loud noise as it fell onto the floor. My fists went to my side.
“Show me some respect! You can’t speak to me like that! Fabienne, just say something!”
“Don’t speak to me like that either then! I’m not stupid! I know what I’m doing!”
“Stop it! Both of you! Enough!” My mum intervened. She sighed and gave me a somber look which meant we would talk about it at home. My brother chose this moment to barge into the kitchen and talked about his upcoming holidays. I breathed with difficulty and tried to hold the tears back. I stared at the melting butter which had turned dark as it rolled onto the sides of the pan. My grandma stayed quiet. I kept glancing at her back. The voices buzzed around us. I closed my eyes and let the rising smell bring me back to happier times where we would, at least, be able to communicate.
“It will be ready in a few, so you can all grab a drink in the living room for starters,” she said without turning away from the stove. I bent down and took my phone from the floor as they made their way into the living room. I was about to follow them when my grandma grabbed my forearm.
“I got you a coffee éclair because they didn’t have salambos at the bakery. I hope that’s ok? Unless you want me to go and get you something else,” She looked worried.
“No, it’s fine, thank you. Don’t worry,” I smiled weakly.
“Good. Go and find the others then,” She said as she put her hand on the small of my back to hush me away.
“Do you need help?” I asked, but she had already turned back to her cooking. I glanced at her one last time, and with a tight throat, retreated to the living room.
“Why do you bother?” My grandpa whispered to me as we took our place at the table. “She will never listen to what you say. Don’t listen to what she says, okay? Just ignore it and you’ll be much happier. You know it’s going to end up badly anyway… Sometimes you’re both wrong. There’s no need for a winner,” I nodded and convinced myself I could shut up, but I knew none of us ever backed down. He was the good cop. Whilst she yelled, he spoke in a soft voice, trying to make me understand that she wasn’t entirely wrong, but we still drifted further apart.
“Can’t you just take my side for once? I know you agree!” I asked Mum before my grandma came in.
“Because… It’s not just… I can’t do that to her,”
“Why is she so mean to me then? Why does she care so much what I do?”
“Well… If you can’t figure it out by yourself, you’ve said it. She cares. That’s what she does. She just doesn’t know how to show it,” She shrugged. Except she did. Only with food, but she did.
In January 2014, I was twenty-one. It was my third year of university, and I was preparing for midterm exams whilst working part-time as a retail assistant. I lived in my own flat and didn’t do much except partying like any student, and have a routine of my own.
On Wednesdays, my friend Clara and I usually had lunch in my student flat. We piled the entire contents of my kitchen onto our plates, from sweet potatoes to chicken nuggets and cheese. As she also worked, we took this occasion to relax, chat about upcoming exams, money problems and guys we were seeing.
“What are you doing on Sunday?” She asked as we put the plates on my coffee table the week following New Year’s Day.
“I’m not sure… I’ve been to my grandparents last weekend and I’m probably going to do the same,”
“You really see your grandparents a lot,”
“Do I? I’ve never noticed… I guess it’s always been the case.”
“Yeah… I see my grandma twice every year or something like that, and she only lives one hour away. I don’t know. It’s cool though, “
“Also, you have to remember, there is a lot of food at my grandparent’s,” I smiled as I stared at the green beans and sautées potatoes, stomach grumbling, fork in hand, ready to dig in. I brought the food to my mouth but put it back down as my phone buzzed. My mum’s name appeared on the screen.
“Oh… Sorry. My mum is calling me,” I said to Clara as I left the room to go to the kitchen. My heart stomped in the same rhythm as my feet on the floor. She never called without texting first. It took me a few seconds to pick up.
“Yes. What’s wrong?”
I could hear the crackling of the line. I stared at the cars passing down my street outside.
“Pépère passed away this morning…” I heard her gasp. I pressed the phone against my ear. What did she say afterwards? I can never remember. Maybe she told me how it happened then, but I only remembered her telling me in the car a few days after. He died around 4 am that morning. He had been ill for a while but hadn’t told anyone. I stared at the death certificate and tucked it under my pillow for months on end. I imagined the scene. His coughing started before he went to bed. He spat some blood in the toilet downstairs and flushed it away. Then, around 3 am, he coughed up some more at my grandma’s feet when he got up. She hesitated before calling an ambulance. It was nothing, he said. He was fine. She watched the scarlet pond grow on the duvet as she held him. When my mum arrived, around 6.30am, the ambulance was already there. My grandma came down the stairs and refused to let anyone into the room. She went up with a big gallon of bleach and pink Mappex gloves on. She scrubbed the floor and the bed frame for an hour or two, and then she held his face. She wiped the blood across his face, his lips, his whole body. She changed his clothes. She couldn’t leave the blood on him, but she soaked herself up in it. She threw away her nightgown, along with the mattress, pillows and bedsheets.
What had we even said to each other on New Year’s Eve? I put my hands around him and touched the thin mop of hair on the top of his head. A habit I had kept from when I was a child and used to play hairdresser with him. He cracked jokes at the end of the table, putting steak into his mouth, serving wine around the table.
I threw away the contents of my plate after the call. I swallowed the tears as Clara hugged me, trying to taste the salt on my tongue.
“Have some pain au chocolat, come on. Would you like some more coffee? I have orange juice if you prefer. Coca Cola? Sparkling water?” I heard my grandma going around her house with a tray full of treats as I sat on the sofa’s armrest next to my aunt.
“How does she do it? She just buried her husband…” I asked my aunt.
“I don’t know… She’s a force of nature. Just try not to stare too much,”
The house was crammed with family members and strangers. My mum had ordered food from the bakery and my grandma had insisted on helping with service instead of going around accepting people’s condolences.
“I don’t want to hear what they have to say. They’ll all be the same thing anyway,” she shrugged when I asked her if she wanted to sit down. She went from one guest to another, tray in hand. She planted herself in front of me and the buttery smell made me feel ill.
“Do you want anything?” She asked.
“I’m good, thanks,” I swallowed the bile of what had just happened down my throat.
The funeral home.
Head low, I avoid my grandpa’s face. I grab his hands instead. They’re my refuge. I always grab one when we’re out on a walk. It doesn’t matter that I’m too old. Mine fit perfectly into his. As I reach for his palm, I shiver at the cold and rigid skin against my fingers. I caress the soft creases of his palms. I see him peeling the skin of potatoes with a pointy knife. His palms on my cheeks in the cold December months as he tries to warm me up. By my side, my grandma leans over his chest and leaves a kiss on his cheek. She grabs his red tie. I can see his cologne-scented handkerchief poking out of his jacket. He lends it to me to dry my tears.
“Why did you leave me alone?” My grandma whimpers. I lift my head and look at him behind the curtain of my tears.
He is gone, but so is my grandmother as she scurries off to serve other guests.
As the gathering died down, I made my way to the kitchen. Leaning against the door frame, I watched the way my grandma carefully dried knives and forks before putting them back in the drawer.
“Why are you doing this now?” I asked.
“I need to sort this out for later,” she replied without looking at me.
“You don’t need to do it now. We can help when everyone is gone,”
“No, no, I want to do it now, otherwise it will be messy. Your grandpa usually helped and dried the dishes, so… I have extra work.” I stayed quiet. Her hands trembled, but she carried on.
“You haven’t had any food. I have things in the fridge if you want to,” she mentioned.
I stared at her for a while. Where did she find the time to think about me? When did she even go to the shops? My stomach sank. I turned my head to the jammy biscuits and chocolate bars stacked on the shelves. She had thought about me, with more than sixty people in her small house. I went to open the fridge, and here it was: my favorite spreadable cheese, leftover chicken, and red grapes sat on the bottom shelf. I got all of them out and took the bread knife from her as she was about to put it in the drawer. I cut the baguette sat on top of the fridge in half. Crumbs stuck onto my black corduroy dress. I spread the velvety cheese onto the dough. I sat down at the kitchen table as I had done so many times before. My grandma sat in the opposite chair, leaving the kitchen towel on the side. Her eyes shifted towards the seat next to me, where my grandpa would usually sit. I pushed the bread towards her. We both bit into it eagerly.
Food was never the same after his death. It couldn’t fill the gap, but I reminisced his memory thought my palate as much as I could. I searched for his crunchy and salty fries everywhere. I stuffed myself with McDonald’s, frozen, crinkly, Burger King. I went to countless fast foods and restaurants. I vainly attempted to make them at home, but only ended up burning myself. I sought refuge in the nostalgia food could bring, even if it didn’t work. I couldn’t accept he was gone, and I wasn’t the only one. My grandma stopped eating and cooking. She lost weight to the point I couldn’t recognize the body supporting her head. I watched her putting large amounts of food onto her plate. She picked around it, played with it, and constantly found excuses to rise from her seat. Salt and pepper. Mustard. Kitchen towels. At the end of every meal, she had not touched anything. I, on the other hand, stuffed myself with grief whenever I visited. I went straight to the kitchen. I couldn’t bear the sight of the empty armchair in the living room, but I noticed how empty my grandma’s fridge was: a pack of ham, cucumbers and leftover soup. I left the house with a bloated stomach and a flat heart.
Since my grandma had stopped cooking, family gatherings had ceased as well. With their five children and my eleven cousins, my grandparent’s house had always been full. Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries, random Sundays. It didn’t matter when. My grandma would wake up in the early hours of the morning to prepare her traditional roast chicken, potatoes and rice pudding. I watched her chopping the meat on a wooden board, focused on the task at hand. My uncles, glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other, would pop by and kiss her on the cheek. My cousins and I got excused from the table without having touched anything but crisps and salami. We played in the back garden and only reappeared for a table full of rice pudding, chocolate mousse, apple tart and my grandma’s yoghurt cake. My favorite. It stayed moist for days, and I always snooped around her kitchen in the hope that she had made it when we arrived unannounced on Sundays. At the end of every family gathering, we all sat around the table, well-fed and sluggish, playing tarot or Trivial Pursuit as she put the plates away. No one would go home without a leftover Tupperware and a piece of cake wrapped in kitchen foil.
“Bring them back when you’re done. I don’t have any left in my cupboards!” She complained to her children as if the containers were the only way to bring them back to her.
After 2014, Mum and I often stopped for coffee as my grandma didn’t want to host any lunches or dinners anymore. We sat in the living room, waiting for her to bring the cups and the pot on the table, along with a tin of palets Bretons. She would sometimes have a yoghurt cake ready, one she made using a cake mix.
“It’s exactly the same… It doesn’t take as much effort. I made it for you,” she pushed the plate towards me. I brought a slice to my lips out of politeness and put it back as she got up to fetch something else. I couldn’t tell her how dry it was. As we sat in the living room, the conversations slowly started to blend into each other from one week to another. There were mentions of doctors and pains that she thought she had when exams showed nothing. She talked about people dying in the neighborhood and in the town she lived in. It was hard to get her onto another topic.
“I’m too tired. I’m too old. I don’t want to cook anymore… Even for myself. I hate it, but I’m alone… It’s hard. Maybe I should.” Mum and I stared at her.
“You don’t have to cook… We’ll still come. No one is asking you to,” I once said to her.
“Will you?” She faintly said as the tears strangled her. I pushed a slice of cake towards her on the table and smiled.
Angèle Eliane is a writer living in London. Her work has been published in The Mechanics Institute Review, L’Enclume, Psyche Riso and Entropy Mag. She is currently working on her first collection of personal essays.