A Matriarch Passes

| Say Cheese!
This isn't an entry about food per se, but when it comes to my passion and the way that I live my life day to day, the things I do... this post is about a piece of who I am. Literally, like chromosomes and all that.

And I suppose it really does have to do with food on some levels... and it starts today at work, which is of course all about food.

This is perhaps the busiest week for those of us in the retail grocery and specialty food business. Today was my 14th day in a row at work with hours anywhere from 4 to 14 in a day, and I still have 6 more days until a scheduled day off. And yes, on some levels it's exhausting and my feet and back hate me, but it is very much equally if not more exhilarating and exciting and fulfilling. The customers, the interactions, the bonds formed as strangers entrust me with their menus and food choices that could make or break their dinners, dates, and more.

Honestly, it's like a game. A puzzle. A riddle. A mathematical equation. A painting. A contest... a fine balance when it comes to all the orders I've placed leading up to this holiday season over the past couple months. Time to see if my planning pays off, if I made the right educated guesses, and also if my staff can keep up with me and help send every guest who walks into the store home with some beautiful new flavor they never knew they'd love.

I went in to work early today, a couple hours before we opened, in order to make sure all my cases were stocked, that everything was in order and ready to go. I didn't want my staff to need to leave the cutting or sales floor for anything. Noon came around and Camden and Tomi were both on the cheese counter, so I decided to take a minute to eat lunch before cracking into a new wheel of Parm.

I checked the time on my phone and saw I had a voicemail and missed a call. It was my dad. Now... my grandma has been ill or sick on and off for the last few years, and as time's passed I keep imagining my dad calling to tell me the bad news. I thought that again for a moment, then brushed it aside remembering when he called on my birthday a few weeks ago and said he'd try calling more often on my days off. Since today was technically my day off, I figured he was just touching base.

I dialed my voicemail and there was my dad's cheery voice... alas, masking the bad news I've been fearing he'd call with. I stepped into the front door of the offices next door, and Alex and Josh were sitting at the table eating lunch... as soon as my dad's voice said "Harrison called to tell me..." I began to cuss under my breath and walked swiftly into the kitchen as words I never wanted to hear passed through the air... I leaned against the counter and took a deep breath, but instead of a calming exhale, I began to sob... and I cried, and Josh came in and put his arms around me and held me while I cried. Alex followed and I told them the news, and we hugged and I cried some more and then talked a little bit about her.

Those are awkward moments, but I'm glad they were both there. I'm blessed to work with people like them and everyone else at the shop. We're pretty much family more than coworkers. One of the benefits of working for a small shop full of passionate, creative, and caring individuals.

I didn't eat lunch, but stayed in the house a while longer to try and center myself enough so that I could leave on my own and drive home. I told Kathy the news when she came back inside and we talked for a spell as well... then I went back into the shop and got some more hugs, doled out some last instructions for the crew for the day, bought myself a marzipan stollen, and made my way home with Metallica's "Fade to Black" blasting fittingly over the speakers as I drove.

I got home, walked in the door, opened my mouth to speak but only a muffled sob escaped... so I fell onto the bed and into Lia's arms and I cried harder than I have in several years... so hard I couldn't breathe, every muscle in my body conducting the sadness and loss I felt inside.

Once expelled, I lay prone... and eventually came to... enough to listen to the message on my voicemail again and call my dad back (left a voicemail for him), then call my mom. Talking to my mom always helps, even when it's just the two of us sitting quietly on either end of the phone. Eventually, my dad called me back, and my mom was going to call my brother and hopefully be able to let him know by way of other than a voicemail. My father apologized for that one, and we talked for a while. He also apologized for not telling my that she'd been diagnosed with acute leukemia about a month ago and given from 6 weeks to 6 months to live... before she caught pneumonia... He thought he had, but he'd forgotten. Regardless, as I said, it was a phone call I'd been expecting, but you never really can prepare...

My grandmother, Lulu Lee, was a beautiful woman. She had a light about her that shined and touched everyone she'd ever come in contact with. It emanated from her big glowing smile to the laughter that seemed to be wrapped about every word she spoke. There was simply a great joy in everything she did. That was the woman we all knew and loved and called grandma, ma, Mrs Hon, Lulu.

I always loved visiting her when I was a child. Being around her made me happy... and the candy dish she kept in the living room helped a bit I'm sure. The butterscotch drops were my favorites... those and the White Rabbit candy she broke out for us now and then. She knew also how much I enjoyed good food and always loved to cook for us and feed us.

We would play out back in the garden and pick fruit from the myriad trees... big juicy black plums, oranges, tangerines, persimmon, pomegranate... there was always a bounty growing in her backyard at her house in Stockton. And while we played in the back, oh the divine scents that would come wafting from the kitchen window!

When people comment on my Chinese cooking (and cooking in general), it's my grandma they have to thank for that! I loved sitting in the kitchen and watching her prepare and cook food... all the meticulous steps, and never a one skipped... from washing every leaf of spinach in the sink to the painstaking way she folded her foil wrapped chicken... even the way she wrapped our sandwiches in wax paper when we'd go out fishing. Anyone who's seen me on the cheese counter wrapping pieces of cheese or folding slices of charcuterie in butcher paper can see my grandmother's touch emulated by my hands.

And the flavors! There is absolutely nothing better in the world than my grandma's Chinese American home cooking. I can only wish to be able to do even the simple things as good as she could. You've never seen a more perfect pot of stove cooked rice. Tender and fluffy and able to carry every nuance of flavor from your bowl (we didn't use plates much except for breakfasts) to your mouth... and the best part? The crunchy "bottom rice" that was always a perfectly pale golden hue. Never a burn mark or uneven browned spot. Seriously... if that was her rice... I will always strive to be as good of a cook as she was. I only hope I can pass on the joys I found in her food with my own.

My grandma, Julia Child, and my dad... those were my Holy Trinity when I was growing up (with several other key notables... i guess one could infer them to be saints or apostles, then. heh).

So many memories. So much food!

The last time I visited my grandma was too long ago, just over two years gone by now. I rented a car and drove my brother and my mom out to see her, and we visited then went out for our favorite Chinese: Emerald Restaurant. If any of you live in or find yourselves in Stockton, this is a must eat at place. We've been going there for decades, and they serve some of the best tasting authentic Chinese food I've ever eaten... and I've eaten a lot!

When my grandma walked in the door, everyone recognized her and shouted smiling greetings our way. The owner came out and took her hand and began chatting away with her in Cantonese. This was a normal occurrence anytime my grandma would take us out on the town. She and my grandpa used to own a couple grocery stores decades and a lifetime ago, and there are many people in Stockton who will never forget the service they received there. They were always more than happy to help people out and go further than that extra mile. There was nothing but good karma stashed in their spiritual bank.

We were seated at tables that I'm pretty sure are the very same as when I first remember eating there as a young child. The building is an old Union building with a second floor that has windows looking inside where the old bosses would sit or open the windows to speak to those gathered below. It's right by the freeway in a pretty sketchy neighborhood. We always parked right in front. It was the food that always brought us back.

My grandmother ordered all of our old favorites and even some of hers that we hadn't really had before. Everything came perfectly cooked and in heaping amounts. The giant family sized bowls of wor wonton soup are always a treat for the senses... light yet rich golden broth swimming with fat meaty wonton, prawns, squid, lap xiang, bok choy, char siu, baby corn, and black mushrooms. And as always, we left with enough food for another meal.

That was the last time I saw my grandma in person. Before the broken hips, the convalescent home, the painkillers, the alzheimers... before any of that. And while I unavoidably sit here and wish I would've called her more, gone to see her more often, etc... I'm glad in some ways to have that visit as my last physical memory of her.

I'm going to miss my grandma... but I've missed her for some time. Alas, that seems to be the case with growing up and getting older.

I know that she was proud of me, and I hope that I can honor her life and the efforts she made to give us ours by striving to be even a fraction as beautiful, honest, caring, compassionate, reliable, and loving a person as she was.

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This page contains a single entry by Emiliano Silva Lee published on November 22, 2009 4:00 PM.

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