I grew up in a relatively small town in Eastern North Carolina. But we had plenty of stoplights, a shopping mall, and before too long, Walmart. It didn’t seem small at the time, but as I moved from there to Raleigh and then to Chicago, I realized the difference in volumes.
My dad (or ‘pops’ as I’ve called him since my brother and I dubbed that his name as teenagers) is from an even smaller town. If my hometown is a chromosome, his would be but a single gene on one. Chicago? An entire cell or two or three. Beulaville, North Carolina: one (no wait, two) stoplights, two grocery stores (one family-run), and as many tractors as there are cars – you have to pull over when you see them as, rather than the way pedestrians, bicyclists, cars, and buses share the roads in Chicago, the tractors have the right of way here. Always.
And I say here, because I’m here now (or was, for most of this week). It’s rare for me to spend more than a few short hours in this town; we visit at Christmas, a visit constituting one of many short visits with friends and family. But now I’m here for my pops – his mom is very sick. My gramma – she’s 94.8 years old – she’d be a fierce 95 next month, but that accomplishment would be the result of a miracle, and only that – has been in poor health for a number of years. Declining mental status due to Alzheimers disease, near-blindness due to macular degeneration, and near-deafness due to what I’d assume is just pure ‘oldness’, she has been fighting for her life in this way for almost eight years now. And no matter how sick she is, she has always, instead of complaining about her own ailments, worried about those around her. “Did you eat lunch?”, she’ll ask, and repeatedly. “Are you too hot? too cold?”; it never ceases to amaze me. She never ceases to amaze me.
And here I am, typing on a tiny iPhone (no computers for miles, it seems) at her bedside, watching her sleep, occasionally waking for moments at a time but never once taking food nor drink, nor has she for six days now. Her heart is the culprit now – she’s had a bad heart ever since my grandpa had a stroke thirteen years ago – she almost beat him to the grave then, dying of what we would have considered a broken heart. But she forged ahead, and she beat the odds back then. I don’t think we will be so lucky this time.
They say an adequately-nourished person can live at least two weeks without food or water (many even longer, depending on a number of factors). I don’t consider my gramma adequately-nourished by a long stretch, especially now with her frail body, porcelain-appearing even. A China Doll, but more beautiful with silky soft almost-white hair and eyes that speak nothing but innocence, love, and selflessness. And strong as an ox – she would outlive someone twice her size and with optimal heart function. And so even still, one week into this horrible part of her life, she amazes us – and only by continuing to breathe.
Instead and soon, she will be the lucky one. Whatever is waiting for her on the other side, be it her husband, parents, all of her siblings, my brother, all of them or even not nary a soul, she will finally find out. No matter what, she’ll be happy because she is always content with what she has. Or will have, that is.
What I wouldn’t do for another one of her home-cooked meals – her fried chicken, biscuits, cream corn and those sugar-laden strawberries alongside my very favorite pound cake. I would rewind fifteen years if I could, just to savor it all again, just to see her cooking, moving, talking, and truly living. Breathing, with purpose.
But instead, I can attempt to recreate those memories through food. I’ll start simple here, with those strawberries that I so sneakily ate, spoonful after spoonful while the rest of the family talked in the living room. So sweet, so perfect, so full of sustenance. Come to think of it, it’s no wonder I love them so, for they remind me so clearly of her.
Gramma’s Sugared Strawberries
2 lb washed & hulled strawberries, sliced into chunks
1/3 c sugar
juice of 1 lemon or 2 T water
in a medium bowl, combine strawberries, sugar, and juice. let sit for a few hours or overnight.