The crocuses are popping up all over Washington. I’m not sure what they are thinking given that it is still hat-and-glove weather here in our nation’s capital. I can hear them – “Really, we are on now? Can’t we sleep a little longer till the ground is softer and the sun outshines the gray?” Nope. Those are hardy ones, those crocuses. Like the predictability of scripted theater, come March, they follow the calendar’s orders and show up. No sign of spring is required.
Every late winter, when I see their stubbornness peak through the harsh ground, I am reminded of my grandfather. He was my favorite grandparent. On a piece of blank white paper, he attempted connection to my young adult self, then living far away. He’d scrawl words of simplicity – “the crocuses are starting to come up. Spring must be near.” My lonely heart melted when it met such an image. His love of garden combined with thoughts of home flooded my soul. I had chosen to leave and yet I missed the gentle kindness that came with his down-to-earth presence.
One Christmas, I stopped by my grandparents’ home to say hello. My grandmother was in her usual holiday frenzy, cooking all things southern and delicious to fatten her large clan. She was giving tasks to my grandfather as if he were the hired-hand. I don’t recall his ever saying no to her many demands.
“You want to help me stir the boiled custard?” he asked, rather pleaded, for my assistance. Mind you, homemade boiled custard, a southern delicacy, is a labor of love. You gotta spin that wooden spoon for hours. It was no surprise he wanted both my company and labor relief. Shit does roll downhill. I had arrived just in time.
Sensing his desperation, I reluctantly agreed. If not for the boiled custard, at least for him.
So, the stirring began. He with one spoon and me with another. A black pot big enough to manage both our monotonous rotations. We settled into a boring rhythm, accompanied by mindless chit-chat. We stirred while grandmother fussed over the rest of the multi-dish feast.
An hour went by. The consistency of the sugary liquid seemed unchanged and I had other things to do that afternoon. Not being a good cook nor wanting to question my grandmother’s culinary authority, I sheepishly asked, “how are we doing here?”
“Just keep stirring,” my grandfather said. “It takes a long time.” He clearly had surrendered years ago. He wouldn’t dare challenge his wife.
Another hour went by. Carpel tunnel was setting in and I had mined all the G-rated topics I knew that were appropriate for grandparent-grandchild conversation. Physical misery and sheer boredom were manifesting. But, this time, I kept my thoughts to myself – “I’m not ever making this shit. This recipe can stop right here in the generational line. The grocery store makes a good pre-packaged substitute.”
We kept stirring. Mice in a wheel, going nowhere fast.
Finally, my grandfather piped up and questioned reality. “Ruth, I think something is wrong here.” You could hear her huff in frustration from across the kitchen. Can’t my sous chefs do anything right?
She hustled over to supervise our endless efforts.
Turning beet red, as if knowing that she needed to apologize while not wanting to at the same time, she said, “the stove is not on. You two are going to have to keep stirring.”
I can’t recall if I laughed or cried. And, I have no recollection of how that batch of boiled custard tasted that Christmas. But, I do remember my grandfather and our shared moment of distress and determination. And, his chicken-scratch notes sent with love from Tennessee to Chicago. And his appreciation for that magnificent garden that covered his backyard.
I sure miss him. But, at least I still have those enduring purple crocuses each cold March day as a subtle reminder of his tender heart and that damn unforgiving boiled custard.