Images of my grandmother stick to me like tiny crumbs from yesterday’s lunch. The images are tenacious but incomplete, telling an imperfect story.
- A faded bowling ball bag in the trunk of her sedan. (Yellow/green? Leather handles? Circa 1972?)
- Grandma clutching her purse to her bosom in terror as we walked through Grand Central Terminal at rush hour.
- Thick warm arms around me, snuggled in bed as she recited The Story of Tammy for the thousandth time. (“First there was Grandpa Alfred and he married Grandma Ann. Then they had two boys… and then, and then…”)
- Drinking coffee together at the Pizza Plant restaurant in Buffalo, where she met my fiancé for the first time. He was a fellow New Yorker, so Grandma’s blessing was granted immediately. “Just don’t hit her,” she warned on her way out.
But the image that recurs most often, with the most clarity, is a mouthful of teeth. Perhaps because I spent so much time watching her talk when I was small, those teeth remain for me the most fascinating memory of my grandmother.
Off-white, not bright, but impeccably aligned and enormous, Grandma’s teeth demanded attention. Even with her unusually large mouth, the teeth seemed too big for her face. They took up so much room that there was little space for anything else.
What’s more, the teeth seemed to be in constant motion – punctuating stories and clacking opinions incessantly. If her mouth was empty, the teeth made a pleasant little click as she talked. If her mouth was full – which never deterred her from voicing an opinion – your only option was to duck and cover.
Yet even under the constant threat of a bagel/spit ambush, I loved spending time with my grandmother. With her, I was smart. I was funny. I was interesting. With her, I was special. So I ignored her table manners. I tried to avert my eyes from that mouthful of oversized teeth, simultaneously working their way through a meal and a treatise on my father’s naughty childhood antics. No matter what was in her mouth, Grandma Ann was the best storyteller in our family. So of course I looked forward to our time together.
Imagine my surprise when, one fateful sleepover, I wandered into her bathroom and found Grandma’s teeth fizzing away in a cup of water.
Grandma was unfazed. She calmly informed me that her teeth were false. Her dentist husband had replaced her real teeth years before, and now she had to clean her dentures every night in a glass of water with mysterious bubbles. “It helps with the coffee stains,” she explained. Eventually I got used to the idea of Grandma having false teeth. But when I slept at her house, I still kept myself far away from the bathroom after bedtime. A set of teeth with no mouth was just plain creepy.
But as it turns out, a mouth with no teeth is far worse.
I visited my Grandmother for the last time when she was on her deathbed. She was unconscious and breathing irregularly. We knew that she would be gone in a matter of days or even hours, and yet when I saw her, my first thought was how strange and shrunken her mouth looked without its dentures. I remember looking for the cup of teeth in her hospital room, thinking that if I could just put them in her mouth for her, maybe she would wake up and start spitting at me again. Then maybe if I could hunt down a bagel or a good Jewish rye, she’d perk up and start yelling at my uncle or my father, leaving shrapnel of crumbs in her wake.
But of course that didn’t happen, and my grandmother’s death came with the wistfulness and relief of knowing that she had had a long life, well lived.
I often try to revive my memories of her, to mold them into a fuller version of this woman who was my father's mother. In my imperfect catalog of the past, it seems that Grandma Ann and I shared bagels together at least weekly, and her first choice, inevitably, would be the pumpernickel. As a child I didn’t understand the appeal of that flavor. I preferred the sweeter, and decidedly less authentic, cinnamon raisin bagels. (Perhaps I already was traumatized by Grandma’s persistent spittle.)
But now that I’m an older, wiser Jewish mama myself, I appreciate the rich, chocolaty, earthy allure of a good pumpernickel. This week's Baking With Julia recipe for pumpernickel bread incorporates prune lekvar, caraway, chocolate and rye – making this bread worthy of any Jewish Grandma’s approval. As I sink my own teeth into it, I’ll be remembering Grandma Ann and her big beautiful dentures.
Thanks once again to Julia Child, Lauren Groveman and Dorie Greenspan, for giving us another opportunity to bake up memories. This bread is complex, dense, and worth all the fuss – even the elaborate sling-rising process.
For more information about the TWD project, check out the links to our fabulous other bakers. For a perfect poem about Grandmas and their pumpernickel, check out this post. For the recipe, I hope you’ll buy the book.