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The taste of salt and summers past

Childhood memories of my grandmother’s house have a distinct flavor that never fades.

Jon Cannell for the Boston Globe

My “Munca” was not one of those sweet grandmothers who knit sweaters and smell vaguely of mothballs; she was salty, and proudly so. She took her vodka martinis at 4 o’clock every day. She drank them with her lean, tanned body stretched out on the leather recliner in the wood-paneled den, her legs propped up on her old black dog, Chloe. From this position, she watched all of her shows — from Sex in the City (“those clothes!” she would exclaim) to the many Law & Order spinoffs, whose gruesome autopsies made me pale.

My presence in Munca’s house when I was growing up came of tragedy. My mother was only 27, and I just 2, when her VW Bug collided with a lumber truck. Munca could have simply mailed birthday cards to me at my dad’s and flown me out for one of the big holidays. But from age 3 until I was well into my teens, she took me into her home in Kewanee, Illinois, from the beginning of June until the end of August, when I returned to San Francisco for school.

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I surely reminded her of the daughter she’d lost. Everyone says we look exactly alike. But Munca never talked about the past, especially the painful parts. I could only find pictures of my mother by digging into the bedroom drawers and back closets when Munca was playing tennis at “The Club.” My Munca lived in the now. She loved to suck on the briny olives in her evening martinis and enjoy her family and whatever was on TV.

I remember her fingers, bent with arthritis, wrapped in her tan, papery skin, salting her sliced tomatoes over cottage cheese. For the rest of us, my aunt and uncles and cousins, she cooked meals we named for her, Ann’s Potatoes and Ann’s Chicken, her hands in constant motion — washing potatoes, stirring chicken broth, sauteing the onions until they were translucent and fragrant. And there was salt, just the right amount.

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Salt is the flavor of summers in Kewanee. It’s my bare legs in short shorts sticking to the upholstered front seat of Munca’s Lincoln Town Car, running endless errands with only classical music on the radio. It’s the extra shake from the shaker as Munca salted her bialys and cream cheese over breakfast, the sound of the cicadas like maracas in the late afternoon walks around Windmont Park. Salt is the French Open and Wimbledon playing on TV in June, and the US Open playing in August, squeaking sneakers interrupted by applause as I lay on the sofa and later on Munca’s bed beside her. Salt is boredom. It’s open space. It’s me running in back of the house through the tall grass or lying perfectly still because I’m too hot to move, to even turn the pages of my Seventeen magazine. Salt is the end of summer, when the grass has browned and the fall wants to come, when the air is heavy with humidity and melancholy.

Before every visit to Kewanee, Munca and I would check in by phone. She would make me the same promise: “We will coddle you. We will cosset you. Do you know what it means to ‘cosset’?” I knew, but pretended I didn’t so I could listen to her elaborate. “We will feed you. You can sleep. We will take care of you.”

I’ll never again know a summer like those I knew in Kewanee. I’m no longer anyone’s grandchild. I’m the one who pays the mortgage and the bills and the gas. It’s my errands I must attend to. And my TV is quiet, replaced by the urgent pings of my iPhone. But if I can get myself to the local farmers’ market, I’ll grab a bag of fat, ripe tomatoes. With the computer turned to tennis clips on YouTube, I’ll slice the tomatoes and have them with salt over cottage cheese.

Alysia Abbott is director of the Boston Literary District and author of “Fairyland, a Memoir of My Father.” Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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