Kitchen Elegy – Lindy Biller

The morning after Grandma Ree dies, I wake up to the spicy warmth of cinnamon. I untangle myself from the sheets, leaving my boyfriend sprawled in bed, his chest rising and falling like shifting snow. I come downstairs and she’s there: my grandmother with her burnt-sugar hair, brown-speckled cheeks, and a long bathrobe the pastel green of butter mints.

She’s drizzling icing over a tin of cinnamon rolls—golden, perfectly spiraled. She doesn’t look up. I can hear her humming: A tisket, a tasket, a green and yellow basket. 

Of course she can’t be here, not really. But that yeasty, cinnamon-spiced sweetness—my brain isn’t powerful enough to conjure that smell from scratch. It needs the right ingredients. The steady grip of her hand on the mixing spoon.

“That smells amazing.” My boyfriend, behind me. “Wow. What are you making?”

“Shhh.” I can’t take my eyes off her. “I’ll bring you some when it’s done.”

I know it comes out harsh. I’m worried he’ll frighten her off, like the deer at the metropark where Grandma used to take my sister and me for hikes—the tawny, white dappled fur and large eyes, gone as soon as we saw them, spooked by a snapping twig or the carelessness of our voices. I note that my boyfriend can smell the cinnamon rolls too, so maybe they are real, after all. I note that he’s naked except for his boxers, and he needs to make himself decent, put on some pants and a shirt and maybe a pair of socks, because my 90-year-old grandmother is here, for God’s sake. Any kitchen she is in becomes her kitchen and what must she think about my half-naked boyfriend wandering in, my grandmother who used to read me fairy tales before bed, who showed up at all my piano recitals with peach pie or gingerbread, who visited me in college even though she’d never been to a city larger than Madison and didn’t know how to parallel park?

My boyfriend kisses me on the cheek.

“Have I mentioned recently how sweet you are?”

He thinks I’ve woken up early to surprise him. We used to do this for each other sometimes—pancakes with nutella, waffles and whipped cream. Usually easy recipes, something stirred up from a box. I haven’t told him yet that my grandmother is dead. He was already asleep when I found out, and now—how can I tell him she’s gone, when she’s standing right in front of me?

Grandma sets down the bowl of icing, tastes the sweetness from the spoon. I don’t think she’s ever made anything from a box. I remember her grinding nuts for kalach, pinching the crust for apple dumplings before dropping them into hot oil, laminating the dough for homemade croissants, folding and folding again.

It’s just a mix, she used to say modestly—the only time I ever heard her lie.

“Can you see her?” I ask. “Over by the oven?”

“Hmm?” My boyfriend rubs his eyes. “See what?”

“Never mind.” The sun, pouring citrus-bright through the window, throws my grandmother’s shadow across the honey-colored tile. “Seriously, you can go get some more sleep.”

“Nah, I’m up now. I’ll make the coffee.”

He slips past me into the kitchen and walks through my grandmother, who shimmers and then stabilizes. He fills the gooseneck kettle with water. Grandma frowns at him—not upset, more thoughtful—and sets the bag of coffee beans next to him, which he picks up without a word. He reaches through her chest for the coffee grinder, and I feel a rush of panic. “Don’t!”

But Grandma doesn’t acknowledge that the barrier of her ghostly body has been broken. She’s using tongs to transfer the cinnamon rolls to a serving tray. My boyfriend doesn’t react, which is how I know the cinnamon rolls must not be real—they must be ghosts, too, an elegy of butter and sugar and grocery store eggs. According to my mother, who called at one in the morning, Grandma died of everything and nothing—the hospice listed failure to thrive on her intake paperwork. The last time I saw her was in the hospice courtyard, a Sunday afternoon visit. She looked smaller, her various ailments piled up like laundry in her arms. She was draped in a blanket and sounded breathless, like she’d just carried something a great distance. She was eating ginger biscuits, but she couldn’t taste them.

There are baby ducks living over there, she had said, and pointed a quivering finger toward the nook between the brick building and a wooden picnic bench. We think they’re orphans. We all keep dropping bread crumbs for them, but they won’t eat it.

I could see the ducklings curled up on the cement—at least six or seven of them, fuzzy, impossibly small. I know she would’ve liked to rescue them, or at least give them some comfort. How would they find their way forward, with no mother duck to line up behind? Once, Grandma would’ve scooped up the whole brood, made them a home in a basket lined with fleece, fed them oatmeal and dandelion greens. But that day, she was too tired to stand. She crumbled up her ginger biscuits, inviting the ducklings closer. Instead, they huddled under the bench in a soft mound. The bench was engraved with the name of somebody dead, somebody who was loved and whose family had money. My grandmother’s name won’t be engraved on any benches, or even on a headstone—she has asked for a simple cremation, ashes in a plain wooden box.

But here in my kitchen, last wishes and next of kin and failure to thrive don’t suit her. She shimmers again. Then she smiles at me.

“Good morning, little love.”

And the memory it triggers in me: coming downstairs when I was four years old, and finding Grandma Ree in the kitchen, instead of my mother, the curlers in her hair, the pastel green bathrobe.

Your parents are at the hospital, she tells me. Your baby sister’s on the way!

And I felt the same way then as I do now: disoriented, thrilled by my own disorientation. The way my mother’s kitchen became her kitchen. The way she took over, grabbing measuring cups and spoons from drawers as though she’d put them there herself.

Back then, Grandma was solid all the way through. Now I can see the stand mixer through the floppy collar of her robe, the handle of the tongs through her strong, sure grip. My boyfriend is pouring coffee into the Chemex—slow, blooming circles. Grandma Ree only ever used a plain coffee pot. I should call my father, who is grieving his mother. I should text a picture to my sister, who is most likely to believe me. I should hold perfectly still and make no sudden movements.

“Well,” Grandma says, “what are you waiting for? Why don’t you set the table?”

I’m afraid to take my eyes off her. I lay out three plates, three forks, three coffee mugs. If my boyfriend notices the extra place setting, he doesn’t mention it.

You have to lead the dough, Grandma Ree told me once, when I was nine, preparing a special family recipe for show and tell. It’s like dancing. Go on, don’t be shy!

She showed me how to tell when the dough was right—soft and pliant enough to roll, but not so wet that it sticks to itself. She told me that the best kneading happens through memory, not effort. My hands were so small that the dough could have swallowed them, all the way to my elbows.

You’ll get a feel for it, she told me, her hands in the dough with mine.

We sit down together, my grandmother and my boyfriend and me. I eat quietly, so I won’t spook her, but I can’t control everything: the clink of metal forks on porcelain. The engine backfiring out on the street, like a rifle cracking, stealing a bird from the April sky. Her hands are flickering in and out, like a bad signal. There’s icing and flour on my apron, which I don’t remember putting on. There’s a scrunchie holding back my hair and clumps of dough under my fingernails. My boyfriend is impressed, says I’ve never made anything like this before. He says I seem a little more tired this morning, a little sad, and he’s sorry if he did something to hurt me, or if anyone else did, and just tell him if there’s anything he can do to help.

I’m not sad, I tell him.

And that’s when it hits me, all at once—a jar of cinnamon spilling out all over the counter, my grandmother’s hands, the orphaned ducklings, and did their mother come back, and did anyone ever figure out what to feed them?

My heart snaps like a twig, and Grandma Ree is gone.

Lindy Biller

Lindy Biller is a writer based in Wisconsin. She grew up in Metro Detroit, where she spent many childhood mornings hiking and feeding the chickadees at Kensington Metropark with her grandmother. Lindy’s stories have recently appeared in Passages North, The Masters Review, Barren Magazine, and Sunlight Press.

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