Chicken Soup for A Granddaughter's Soul
Now, my boys have the swine flu. I knew they had the flu, but I didn't expect it to be anything but the run of the mill influenza A or B. But when the doctor and both nurses returned to the exam room after doing nasal swabs on the boys, swathed in latex and wearing surgical masks, I knew it was a wee bit more serious.
And people, they are SICK. This is some bad, bad mojo. You don't want to get this, and you don't want your kids to get this. So far, Husband and I are still healthy, but we are effectively quarantined for 5-7 days.
EDITED: To add a picture, for which my son will some day vow to never forgive me. Yesterday, he was fever free much of the day, but suddenly, around 4 o'clock in the afternoon, it spiked to about 104. So what did I do? I snapped a picture. No, first I gave him some Ibuprofin and then I snapped a picture. If you look closely, you will see that even his earlobes are flushed.
So anyway...I'm making chicken soup for my sick boys. And, as always happens, I'm thinking of her. So I thought I would repost this piece in rememberance. Enjoy.
It happens every year. The kids go back to school and bring back a surfeit of germs and plethora of pestilence. They get a little sniffle sniffle, a little koff koff. I get the head cold from hell with a full complement of symptoms. And it seems, that as an adult, I don’t have the resilience or the fortitude that I had as a child. I take to my bed where I languish in agony, mentally cataloguing my symptoms and praying for just the slightest opening in my nasal passages to assuage the pressure in my head.
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 sir. No quivering, reconstituted 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).
Their recombitant genetic Teotonism created four children who could have been poster children for the Aryan race. So the name of this soup has nothing to do with lineage, nor do the Danish hold a patent on chicken soup...at least not to my knowledge.
It's a true mystery.
This soup is a badge of honor in our family. It's difficult to make because success relies upon more than the ability to 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 floury...one 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 sliiiiiiiide 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 it slips into the bubbling broth. It must sink quickly and then bob to the surface where it will be steamed into plump and tender perfection.
Needless to say, I have had my fair share of failures.
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 its 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, warty little clods that did not look remotely edible.
But I've got it now. My dumplings are perfect (Well, most of the time. I still have the odd culinary lapse here and there) and that means that I have passed the test. Now I'll always be one of the family elite; 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 and I miss her.
My mom often tells me that my Grandmother was terribly proud of me. My mother was born to my Grandparents late in their lives. Her closest sibling was already 17 when she arrived, so by the time I was born, most of the grandchildren were teenagers. There had been no babies for quite some time.
I had a full head of black hair, and my mother would tell me, smiling, how Grandma always had to take off my bonnet and display my plentiful jet black mop to new acquaintances. The other cousins had all been fair and bald; one until the advanced age of three. So Grandma delighted in the novelty of a baby with an abundance of hair, which was so riotous and unruly that my mother plastered it to my head with Johnson’s baby oil to affect some semblance of tidiness.
Grandma knitted me sweaters and booties and bonnets. She sewed me dresses. She combed my hair into fantastic creations which she 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.
One cousin, who was 13 years old at the time, declared that it had been the absolute worst day of her life. Because my Grandmother was the quintessential apron wearing, cookie baking, doll clothes sewing, home canning, full metal Grandma.
Then, of course, I couldn't realize what a loss it 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 as it had come the anger would fade, leaving only contrition and sorrow. Of course she hadn't wanted to die. She hadn't meant to leave us without a grandmother. She just never thought that death would claim her so soon or so suddenly. None of us do, I suppose.
Not long ago, while cleaning out my Aunt's basement in preparation for their move to a retirement community, my mother came across several old reels of 8mm home movies. She brought them home and showed them to me on my last visit home. 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 farmhouse. Startled and embarrassed by the camera, she smiled. That smile took my breath away. She was so 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 cameraman 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 sweetly 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. She lives on in all who remember her. 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 named Rena. I would have told her all about the woman she was named after, and I would have taught her to make Dane Soup. I would have laughed when she got it wrong, and praised when she got it right.
Maybe someday I’ll have a granddaughter to whom I can pass on the secret of the soup. Maybe I will be the quintessential Grandma. And maybe someday someone will mourn me as much as we mourn her.
May they celebrate with soup and remember.