Grandma's Special Sauce
I was thirteen when Grandma announced she was “giving cannibalism a try.” It was a dark day for our family and meant the end of a lot of things. Sunday afternoons spent watching her homemade spaghetti sauce burp and bubble in a tall silver pot , hour long debates that centered on which secret ingredient made her homemade chicken soup so sweet, yet salty at the same time, and listening to her hum hymns as she dashed about her small kitchen adding a pinch of this and a pinch of that to her beef stew. It was the end of Sunday dinners as we knew it. After that, no one in the family would eat at her house. When she rang our phone with the promise of a week’s worth of leftovers, my mother slammed it down with a refusal.
Dad took it the worst. The oldest of seven, he was appointed Grandma’s keeper by the rest of the siblings. This new found taste for flesh was a failure on his part. He had worked so hard to save her from the grip of old age, and saw this latest battle as one he could not win. In his mind, this was the end of Grandma.
“Grandma, where do you get the people that you eat?” I asked her one Saturday evening. My parents were at a wedding, and only after exhausting every other option, they left my little brother and I in Grandma’s care. (With the strict instruction not to eat anything, of course).
“My friend Murray has friends at the nursing home. When old people die, we get one,” Grandma said and continued maneuvering a gold hook through a bundle of yarn like a ship dipping in and out of colorful waters.
“What do you do with it when you get it?”
“Well, Murray takes care of it,” she replied.
Murray was trouble. After retirement, Grandma decided to join a Senior Citizen Center. Dad thought it was a great idea. She could make new friends, do something constructive with her day, and maybe even go on a sponsored trip or two. Then she met Murray, the maintenance man. Murray was about ten years younger than Grandma, making him about sixty-five. He was dashingly handsome and all of the woman at the center loved him. Some of the women, the one’s Grandma referred to as loose, even went as far as seducing him. But Murray only had eyes for Elma, my grandmother.
Together Grandma and Murray got into all sorts of trouble. Once in the middle of the night Dad got a phone call that Grandma and Murray had been arrested for indecent exposure. It turns out they were picked up making out and half naked in Murray’s Buick in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Dad despised Murray, and had no doubt that Murray was behind this latest change in Grandma’s cuisine.
“What do you mean Murray takes care of it? He eats it?” I continued my line of questioning as the quilt grew from Grandma’s lap in front of me.
“Oh heaven’s no. Murray knows a butcher. He takes the body there at night after the shop is closed, cuts it properly, and gets it to me packaged. Ugh, I just hate blood. I could never eat something with blood on it.”
When I told Dad the next morning, he was upset.
“I knew it! I knew that sonofabitch was behind this!” Dad said.
“Now, Tony, let’s not overreact. This could just be a phase,” Mom yelled in from the kitchen. She was doing a lot more cooking since everyone stopped going to Grandma’s.
“A phase? A phase? She’s eating people!” Dad yelled.
“Well, you don’t know what’s going on. She could just be saying that,” Mom responded.
“No, Mom, I don’t think she is. I think she’s really eating people,” I interjected.
“Maybe it’s time,” Dad whispered to himself in defeat.
Dad knew Grandma had been showing signs of old age. About a year ago her memories started fading from the canvas of her everyday life. Where she once remembered every detail of a story or picture, she now was left with a fading image. Then her hearing left her. Dad bought her a hearing aid after she misheard Katie Couric announce on CBS Evening News that aliens were taking over New York City. Turns out that Woody Allen was premiering his latest film there and it was drawing quite a crowd. Hence, Woody Allen was taking on New York City. Still, Grandma refused to wear the hearing aid. She felt it bogged her down.
Then went her vision. Soon she was holding my head with both hands and staring so close that I could hear her false teeth sliding around in her gums, just to see my face and make a positive identification. Still, despite all of these things, Dad kept her out of a nursing home. He refused to give up on her youth.
Dad decided to bring Grandma over for questioning the next day. Mom made her very best lasagna, hoping to convert Grandma back to eating animals and plants. The whole house smelled like garlic. It reminded me of a Sunday afternoon at Grandma’s. Dad wasted no time. He walked Grandma over to the kitchen table, sat her down, and began his questioning.
“Mom, please, tell me why you are turning to cannibalism,” Dad begged.
“Honey, don’t knock it till you try it! Listen. I might be an old lady, but I’m not crazy. A young gentleman knocked on my door and asked me if I’d like to eat people. I invited him in and we talked for hours about the benefits of eating people,” Grandma’s tiny lips were turning at the edges into a forbidden smile.
Dad leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table, “Do you mean to tell me that someone knocked on your door and recruited you?”
“What kind of world do we live in? What kind of people would do such a thing?”
“Honey they are good people. They belong to some church of later saints or something. I can’t remember. Anyway, this man, Moose,”
“Moose?” Dad was growing more and more angry.
“Yes, Moose. Moose told me I could feel up to ten years younger. I could shave five years off my life. There are proven studies you know.” Grandma shook her small crooked finger at him.
“Mother,” Dad didn’t know what to say. He had no facts or points to invalidate her response. Instead he told her how he had expected everything a son should expect when a parent grows older. The eyesight, the hearing, the forgetfulness. He had even prepared himself for diapers and bathing. But the thought of his mother eating flesh from another human? This was unimaginable.
Grandma didn’t want lasagna. “You know what perks a lasagna right up?” she asked Mom. “A good old fashioned human kidney.”
Mom stared at her, the lasagna steaming in the pan between us at the center of the table. Dad and I sat quietly while Grandma picked at some salad and Mom tried not to freak out.
Later that week it was determined by a popular vote of Grandma’s children that she was to enter a nursing home. Dad and Uncle Jimmy drove her to the nicest facility in town, Meadow Lake Forest Acre Pines. They spent the whole day assimilating her to the culture. Dad spent more than an hour in the dietician’s office, carefully examining the menus. He had to be sure, he told me later, that this cannibalism phase wasn’t spreading throughout the whole elderly population.
When Dad got home he was a beaten man. He had spent his entire life loving and taking care of his mother. His father died as a young man, so Dad was always the man of the house. While Grandma was active and vital in her own way, she was still a woman of her generation, and needed a certain level of doting. Dad’s eyes were red and his cheeks puffy as he walked through the front door. Mom ran to him and threw herself around his neck. Their embrace was intense and I felt like I should be ashamed for watching.
“Honey, I’m so sorry,” Mom said, peeling her arms from him.
“It’s okay. I’ll be okay.”
“Would you like something to eat? I made spaghetti sauce,” Mom walked into the kitchen and her voice trailed behind her.
“Yeah that sounds good.”
Just then the doorbell rang.
“I’ll get it!” I yelled to Dad as he vanished into the kitchen. I swung open the heavy wood door and found a thin, older man standing on our porch.
“Hi young lady,” he said and pulled a brochure from his inside jacket pocket. “My name is Bruce. How would you like to meet new people?”
I stared down at the brochure in my hands. The Church of Latter Day Saints was building a new Community Center downtown. One where you could meet new people and shave five years off your life!
“Um, Dad?” I yelled, “I think you may want to come here.”