December 4, 2013
Grandma on my father’s side was an interesting character. I never knew what she was thinking. I assume she loved me only because I had no real evidence to the contrary. When I was around 13, I used her phone to call a friend of mine and she said “now you owe me a dime.” I wasn’t sure if she was serious or not, and to this day I may still owe her that dime. There were times when she would remind me that I owed her the dime, and another time when I tried to give it to her and she got upset with me.
Grandma was not a good cook. At best, her food could be described as edible, bland, and tasteless. At worst it was burnt and raw (at the same time) and awful. One year, when the whole family was gathered for the holidays, she made meatballs. They were, I think, some sort of Swedish meatballs. They were little grey lumps about an inch across submerged in an awful brownish-grey sauce. I assume they were beef, but they didn’t look appetizing like, say, a Kobe steak. If gray has a taste, this was it. In later years I came to discover that they looked a lot like Ikea meatballs, just greyer. Of course, Ikea (home of the build-it-yourself bookcase with three missing Swedish pieces) was found to put horsemeat in their meatballs. Even given that Ikea made them with a cut of meat most Americans will never taste, Grandma still did not come up to Ikea’s culinary standards.
We all hated them. Looking down the dinner table, I saw at least two or three nearly untouched meatballs on everyone’s plate. And we all only had two or three to begin with. After the first no one wanted a second. Looking back, it is a good thing we didn’t have a dog. All of us sneaking the dog our meatballs under the table might have killed him.
At some point during the meal, Grandma asked how the food was. Everyone answered with the usual lies, (“everything is great” was mine) but for some reason my brother (and being two years younger than I was no excuse for this), in a fit of love, or politeness, or maybe out of a mental disorder brought on by gastric distress from grey meatballs, declared, right at the dinner table in full earshot of all his horrified relatives, that he loved the meatballs. “Love them!” You could hear a pin drop. The looks of shock and disbelief that were etched on my cousin’s faces sitting across from me will never, ever leave me. I hear that people who survived serious danger, when others died, like soldiers in combat, have the same thing. But Grandma beamed. She loved the compliment. And because my brother loved them, every single year she made her “delicious” Swedish meatballs just for him. We hated them! And we weren’t too happy with my brother either. From that day forward we were forced to forever eat her meatballs. What usually happened was that my brother would eat most of the meatballs and everyone else would make some excuse like “I filled up on rice,” or “I had Swedish meatballs for lunch” or “I ate three when you were in the kitchen.” I’d force down one or two because as the years went by, although the meatballs didn’t get better, I built up a tolerance for them, like you would if you took a small amount of arsenic every day. The meatball recipe died with my grandmother, immediately making her death look like a suspicious homicide.
Just this past week I was telling the story to my brother’s new wife. As the story went on, a look of disbelief grew and grew on my brother’s face. It turns out that for all these years he thought we all loved the meatballs. For real! He was almost as shocked as I was when I found out that he wasn’t really simply complimenting Grandma, he really, really did, love the meatballs.
That’s family for ya.