Blogs Are Stupid

Doesn't anyone believe in Dear Diary anymore? What happened to the joy of putting actual pen to paper? And why does every ordinary Jane and John think they can write well enough to burden the world with their scribblings? It’s a mystery that badly needs solving. My first entry contains my thoughts about blogging and will set your expectations. The rest will probably be stream of consciousness garbage, much like you’ll find on any other blog. Perhaps we will both come away enlightened.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Chicken Soup for the Granddaughter's Soul

I'b sick. It happens every year. The kids go back to school and bring back germs. They get a little sniffle sniffle, a little koff koff. I get the head cold from hell with a full complement of symptoms. If you're like me, nothing is more comforting than a mug of steaming hot chicken soup when you're under the weather.

But not just any chicken soup. No reconsituted quivering chicken flavored goo from a can will suffice. When I'm sick I want chicken soup made from my grandmother's age old family recipe. "Dane Soup" they call it, though I don't know why. We have a smattering of Danish heritage, but we are mostly of German descent. My Great Grandmother's name was Willhelmena Ernestina Steinberg, (Steenberg, not Stineberg)and it doesn't get much more German than that. My Grandmother, Rena, married my grandfather, Edwin Schroeder (ShrAY-der, not ShrOH-der). The combination of their genetic Teotonism created four children who could have been poster children for the Aryan race. So the name has nothing to do with lineage, nor do the Danish hold a patent on chicken least not to my knowledge. It's a mystery.

This soup is a badge of honor in our family. It's difficult to make becuase one must do more than just follow a recipe. The ingredients are fairly simple, the combination unremarkable. But for the dumplings to come out right...firm but springy, light but substantial, doughy but not has to have a certain sense of when the batter is right. It must be thicker than pancake batter, but not as thick as drop biscuit dough. It must be elastic but not sticky. It must sliiiide off the spoon, clinging, stretching, until the filament breaks and springs back. It not only has to look right, but it has to feel right when slips into the bubbling broth and it must sink quickly and then bob to the surface where it will be steamed into plump and tender perfection.

Once, I used self-rising flour in ignorance. When I expectantly lifted the lid off the pot, I was stunned to see that the dough had absorbed all the liquid and swollen into one giant dumpling with bits of chicken, celery and carrot protruding from it's craterous surface. Another time, I forgot to add the melted butter and the dumplings crumbled into the soup leaving bits and pieces of gluey debris floating in the rich yellow broth. Once, for no particular reason that I could think of, the dumplings sank to the bottom of the pot and stayed there, where they became tough, chewy, warty little dough clods.

But I've got it now. My dumplings are perfect and that means that I have passed the test. I'll always be remembered in the family as one who got the dumplings right. But it means more than that to me. It means a sense of connection to a grandmother I never knew. Every time I make this soup, I think of her. Every time. And I miss her. She died when I was an infant, of a myseterious heart malady. A cousin of mine, who was 13 at the time, told me just recently that it was the worst day of her life. Because according to everyone who was lucky enough to know her, Rena Mary Schroeder was the quintessential, cookie baking, doll clothes sewing, apron, glove and girdle wearing, in your face with hugs and kisses Grandma.

My mom often tells me how proud Grandma was of me. My mother was born late in my grandparents' lives, although these days, 35 isn't "late" at all. But her closest sibling was already 17, so by the time I was born, most of the grandkids were teenagers, and there had been no babies for quite some time. I had a full head of black hair, and my mother would tell me smilingly how Grandma had to take off my bonnet and show everyone that unruly mop of fine jet black baby hair. The other cousins had all been fair and bald (that Teutonic blood again) until the advanced age of three...and Grandma delighted in the novelty of a hirsute baby. She knitted me sweaters and booties and bonnets, she sewed me dresses, she combed my hair into fantastic creations secured with bows and ribbons and pink plastic barrettes. She showered me with love and attention and then, quite unfairly, she died abruptly at 59 with no warning and no word of good-bye.

Then, I didn't realize what a loss her death was, but years later as a young girl, with only one remaining Grandma, who was enjoying her freedom after years of raising three boys to adulthood on her own and wasn't particularly interested in baking cookies or sewing doll clothes...I felt monumentally cheated. Every Christmas and every birthday I missed her. When people spoke of her, I was jealous and I was angry. Why hadn't she gone to the doctor? Why hadn't she taken better care of her health? Didn't she care about being there for her last three grandchildren?? And then just as quickly, I would feel contrition and sorrow. Of course she hadn't wanted to die. She hadn't meant to leave us without a grandmother. Like all of us, she just never thought that death would claim her so soon or so suddenly.

Not long ago, while cleaning out my Aunt's basement in preparation for their move to a retirement community, my mother came accross several old reels of 8mm home movies. She brought them home and showed them to me on my last visit. I had seen many photos of my grandmother of course, but its hard to divine someone's essence from a motionless black and white photo.

As I watched the grainy flickering image on my parents' living room wall, she emerged form the screen door of a white farnhouse. Startled and embarassed by the camera, she smiled. That smile took my breath away. She was beautiful, but it was more than that. It was proof that she actually lived and breathed and existed somewhere other than my imagination. She patted her hair and then waved her hand as if to indicate that the camerman should not waste any more precious film on her. As she walked away, I was struck by a sense of overwhelming familiarity. I knew that gait, I knew the shape of her body. But how? Was it an actual memory, or just the desperate need to identify with her somehow?

Just then my sister breezed in, and once again my breath was snatched from my chest. I had always wondered where my sister got her beautifully aquiline nose and her sweeetly shaped lips. But it was more than shared features. It was the sway of her hips, the curve of her bosom, the spring in her step. They were so similar that it gave me goosebumps. And now I have something other than a crumpled photograph or a grainy home movie. She is more than just a hazy, amorphous grandmother ideal. She was real and she lives on in my sister, and all of us really. Nearly 40 years after her death she is always a topic of conversation at family gatherings. She is spoken of as if she was here only yesterday.

So I stir my soup, and I think of my Grandma. The comfort is not in the soup itself, but in the history of its making. I feel close to her and I like to think she would have been proud. I did it Grandma. I made the soup.

If I'd had a girl child, she would have been name Rena. I would tell her all about the woman she was named after, and I would have taught her to make Dane Soup.


  • At 7:31 PM, Blogger Bea said…

    You are quite a writer, BA! I was marveling at how you described the dumpling batter in a way that made me see it (and believe me, I have NEVER attempted to make dumplings!). And then I got to the part about your grandmother and, just like your recent funeral posts, I was amazed at how fully and evocatively you captured her personality. But my eyes were dry, right up to the end - and then you got me. "I made the soup." This is really such a beautiful celebration of the value of those parts of women's lives - the soup-making, the childbearing - all of it.

  • At 8:02 PM, Blogger Her Bad Mother said…

    This took my breath away.

    I miss my own grandmother desperately. I haven't writen about her because I worry that I wouldn't be able to capture her.

    You captured yours. So beautifully.

  • At 10:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    God you are such a storyteller. I could see it all -- through my tears at the end -- and through my laughter when you mentioned the dumplings. How I can relate to them sucking up all the liquid. Your experience is like mine has been if you substitute matzoh balls!

    You can teach your boys to make the soup, and then one of them will name their daughter, Rena.

    ((HUGS)) I think everything you write is worthy of praise and awe.

  • At 6:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I always made chicken soup for the children when they were sick. It works wonders! There really is an antibiotic property (although mostly in the feet of chicken which I didn't put into the soup).

    You and Suri Cruise with your mops of hair as babies.

    My brother is 15 years younger and I'm sure when he has kids I'll dote on them so much more than my mother will as she was 38 when he was born.
    Hope you feel better....

  • At 7:10 AM, Blogger Chickenone said…

    I really appreciated your post. It inspired me to write about my own grandmother. I enjoy reading your blog. Great stuff!

  • At 3:00 PM, Blogger Teacher lady said…

    This is a beautiful, perfect post. What else can I say?

  • At 8:14 PM, Blogger Karyn said…

    Lovely, poignant, perfect.

  • At 4:44 AM, Blogger wordsonwater said…

    I have been enjoying your blog for some time silently. My husband's German grandmother, Anna Hoffman Gantt, made the soup and taught me. She told me stories of it being made in giant iron pots over outdoor fires for corn huskings and barn raisings in her rural home in NC. If you would like to read about her the post is on my blog on April 05. I am the age your grandmother was when she died, and I am yearning for grandchildren that I would spoil with homemade cookies and doll clothes. I remember gloves and girdles however, and I am glad I'm a modern woman unfettered by same.
    I had a wonderful grandmother that blessed my life for many years (Sept 05 on my blog). I had a tear from your post, knowing the truth of what you missed. She would have been so very proud of you.

  • At 11:59 AM, Blogger Sandra said…

    Wow. This is some of your finest writing.

    I devoured every word and was so touched by your story of your grandmother. She lives on in her soup, in your sister, in your family's memories ... and now also in your stellar words.


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