Nana’s kitchen made up a third of the house – a long, narrow affair that had been renovated several times, almost obliterating the fact that it was originally a trailer. The front door opened into the kitchen, which seemed appropriate as that was where you were most likely to find her, bent over an open oven or fussing with ingredients at the counter. Nana was happiest here, even when things went wrong. I once walked into the kitchen just in time to see her turn on the blender and walk away, and suddenly it began raining walnuts in the kitchen. She had forgotten to put the top on the blender. Realizing her mistake, she laughed merrily and exclaimed “Oh my soul!” as she shook walnuts out of her hair, then shuffled off to find the broom.
Baking was Nana’s passion, and several times a year my younger sister and I would join her and our cousin Shelley for a “baking day”. Mostly Nana baked while we banged on the organ in the living room, or played with her jewelry with our floury hands. At lunchtime we would all gather at the kitchen table for homemade English muffin pizzas. Nana would insist upon saying a lengthy blessing, her eyes closed and her palms upturned to the heavens, while we took turns kicking each other under the table and giggling. Years before we were born Nana had become a Jehovah’s Witness, which at the time was nothing short of a family scandal. Our lackadaisical Protestant upbringing had not properly equipped us for Nana’s passionate prayers, and it just unhinged us to hear her carry on about Jehovah. This was furthered by the fact that Nana had short, white, wiry hair that often looked as if she had tried to electrocute herself. Her hair was one of her trials, she said, but she prayed that when Jehovah came back people would walk out of their graves and be beautiful again. This inspired all sorts of whispering amongst us kids, as it sounded less like the Second Coming and more like a bad zombie movie we’d seen previews for on television.
Another peculiarity for us was the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate Christmas. Thankfully, our family was not one to let church dogma get in the way of a good time, and thus “Gift Day” was born. The Saturday after Thanksgiving all of the family would gather at my great-aunt’s for a long evening of food, drink and presents. We were all under strict orders not to call it a Christmas party, despite the presence of gifts wrapped in red and green paper and Santa-shaped sugar cookies. In truth, there wasn’t much holy about the event. My uncles would start drinking at noon, and by dinner time they’d be singing old Irish drinking songs and telling dirty jokes. My aunts were stationed in the kitchen, exchanging scandalous town gossip while churning out enormous turkeys, hams, pans of vegetables, molded gelatin fruit salads, and sweets. The children ran from one end of the house to the other, scattering plates of cookies and chasing the cats from their hiding spots under the furniture. In the midst of this chaos, Nana would be settled in a corner on a comfortable chair, from which she beamed beatifically at her progeny and assorted guests. There was something slightly regal about her bearing: she was the matriarch and we her loyal – if rowdy – subjects. After Nana retired for the evening things really got going or, depending on your point of view, broke down; it was not uncommon to see a certain portly uncle of mine parading around in one of my aunt’s negligees, a couple of balloons procured from the children’s table for added effect.
My uncles’ antics notwithstanding, the main event of Gift Day was Nana’s sticky buns. During our pre-Gift Day baking visit, I would perch on a kitchen chair and watch Nana’s gnarled 80-year old hands roll out the yeasty dough into a rectangle. The dough was buttered and then dusted liberally with a mixture of brown sugar, walnuts and spices. Nana then rolled the dough up tightly into a log-shape and sliced off thick circles, which were nestled closely together in baking pans. The aroma was sweet and engulfing, a smell you could curl up and nap in, so comforting and calming. Once baked, the buns were soft yeasty dough on the inside, and a little chewy and crunchy on the outside where the sugar and nuts had caramelized together. Much like Nana’s beloved Jehovah there was no problem these buns could not soothe, and yet wars were fought in their name: to wit, who would get the first one, and who would get the last?
On Gift Day sticky buns were considered dessert, and all of us would eye the platters as we waited for The Aunts to give us the green light to pounce. Our uncles were bigger, but we had the advantages of youth and sobriety in our favor. Later, our fingers licked clean, we were bundled into our snowsuits and driven home, our cinnamon-scented breath visible in the cold night air.
Before she was “called home” by Jehovah, Nana endured four generations of children under her feet. My sister and I were the third generation, her great-granddaughters, and by the time we came around Nana had seen pretty much everything. From wheelchair races down the nearby hill to having kittens put under her bedcovers, the antics of our older relatives (including our mother) had deepened Nana’s sense of humor and patience. At the same time, Nana herself was often the source of comedy – usually as a result of her absent-mindedness. Once she insisted on baking a cake for a granddaughter’s bridal shower and accidentally put Ivory soap flakes in the batter instead of confectioners sugar. Another time one of my aunts found a meatloaf in Nana’s closet. Unperturbed, Nana simply remarked, “Oh well, I wondered where that had got to”.
In fact, you did have to approach her beloved kitchen with caution. Every once and awhile Nana would invite my parents, my sister and I for dinner. The last time we went, her friend Dell was there. Dell was about Nana’s age, an elderly farmer who faithfully drove Nana to the Jehovah’s Witness services every Sunday and Wednesday night. We sat down for dinner and Dell gave the requisite lengthy blessing, and I was shocked to hear his voice; I had never heard him speak before and honestly believed he couldn’t talk. Out of the corner of my eye I could see my mother trying not to crack up, at which point I realized Nana was sitting there with her napkin over her head. Apparently this was done as a sign of deference to the men at the table. My mother, sister and I could barely contain ourselves as she explained the doctrine behind this.
As part of dinner, she made corn fritters, which are kind of like a plain donut hole with corn inside, fried up golden brown. For whatever reason, you eat these with maple syrup on top. She’d made these especially for my Dad, who loved them. The maple syrup was in a fancy gravy boat, which she passed to Dad. As he poured out the syrup, he noticed weird black things in the syrup. I saw him look closely, then his face blanched before he whispered something to my mother. Those black specks were ants. Dad was too polite to want to offend Nana, but the ants almost undid him. Nana realized something was amiss, and promptly jumped up to get more syrup…which of course was also found to be ant-infested.
Nana died at the ripe old age of 96. I was living in Memphis when she died and missed her funeral, which my family held in the Congregational Church right across the road from Nana’s house. I’m told that the laughter during the service shook the church, and the undertakers remarked that they’d never been at a funeral where people laughed so hard. My nephew, Nana’s great-great grandson, giggled through the entire service. Honestly, I can’t imagine a better send off for her.
© Lori Allen 2009