missing my sweet gran

my grandmother should have turned eighty-nine today. her name is Arlena. i know that the word “should” sounds a bit harsh and implies overwhelming selfishness, but if it had been up to me she would have outlived me and my children. i know in my heart, that the eighty-two years she spent here was more than enough for her and that she longed to be with those that she loved but had passed on before her. including all of her siblings and her only son, my father.

brunch at the mission inn for my twenty-somethingth birthday.

gertrude and i; brunching at the mission inn for my twenty-somethingth birthday.

she’s my favorite person. she was born and raised in oklahoma. moved to california in her twenties, married, changed her name and had kids. she is still Arlena to many people, but i called her gran, or gertrude. i grew up with her. she raised me and taught me a sizable amount of what i know and everything you can’t learn in school. she was always eager to share and maintained an honorable quest for new knowledge. occasionally she would ask me a question, with a hint of mischief in her eye. when i would respond with my answer, she would say “that’s right, but you didn’t think i knowed that didya?” she was a hoot!

me and my gran! shortly after she got legal custody of me. i think i twas about 8, which made her 58. doesn't she look sweet?

me and my gran! shortly after she got legal custody of me.
i think i was about 8, which made her 58. doesn’t she look sweet?

Arlena wasn’t just my grandmother. from the age of seven to almost thirty-two (when i became a mother), she was my world: my hero, my father, mother, sister and best friend. she took care of me, provided for me and filled in the gaps as best she could. wherever there was lacking, my gramma spackled in love. she had an abundance of love. her cup overflowed with unconditional heartwarming, bear-hug type love.

she was a sweet girl full of country charm, southern sass and good ole fashioned etiquette. to me, she was the queen. her siblings called her “Brat”, as she was the youngest of five, born and raised in ardmore, oklahoma!

she said she was about fourteen in this picture. she manicured her own eyebrows with a straight razor! :/

she said she was about fourteen in this picture. she manicured her own eyebrows with a straight razor! :/

she had a sixth grade education, but stands alone as one of the most intelligent people i’ve ever known. she was a jack of all trades, with book knowledge, street knowledge, and the knowledge of experience. she was kind, generous and genuine. there was nothing fake about her and you knew when you met her. i have many friends extending as far back as elementary school that continue to ask about her. the mothers and fathers of those friends attended her funeral and shared their heartfelt love and admiration for her. when people ask about her, i always lead with “she was the best”. she really was.

free from oklahoma! fresh to california. all of twenty years old. and gorgeous (third face from the left).

free from oklahoma! fresh to california.
all of twenty years old. and gorgeous (second face from the left).

below is a photo that i think epitomizes my grandmother’s persona. from left to right is her sister Arlevia, her mother Annie Pearl, her eldest sister Ardailure and her. the front row is husbands, but i can’t remember one of the names, i don’t know who the other guy is and my grandfather is missing from this photo. but i don’t think i need to tell you the difference. which one of these women is not like the others? three old maids grimmacing in house dresses standing next to my smiling glamorous strapless choker wearing sunglassed hottie of a gramma!


duck, duck, duck, swan.

when the bestie and i were just lil bits, my gramma and shannon’s nanny (from arkansas) used to cure and trade salt pork. do you know what that is? it’s a huge chunk of bacon-like pork with a god-awful ratio of fat to lean on it used to season foods. particularly beans and greens. my gramma used to buy it and put it on the top shelf of the pantry on top of the holiday china. she would leave it there until the white fat turned yellowy translucent. and then she would send it with me to give to shannon’s gramma. seriously. i mean, can you imagine? it used to make me shudder, but they would send them back and forth and be pleased as punch to receive.

during the years that we lived across from shannon’s family, my grandmother owned and operated a group home for developmentally disabled men. i believe she cared for more than a dozen men over thirty years. these gentle souls were once referred to as “retarded” or “slow”. for me, they were friends; the minds of children locked in the bodies of middle-aged men. she cooked and cleaned for and the same five “guys” for most of the life i knew with her. i don’t know where she developed the patience to raise her own children, care for handicapped children that weren’t hers and then love and care for me, before retiring and caring for preschoolers in the local head start system. i can’t say that i know anyone as compassionate as her. it takes a big heart to care for others, especially children, and children with disabilities. she did it all with a smile on her face. i don’t recall hearing any complaints about any of it. not once.

she was also a diehard dodger fan! the woman bled dodger blue! she was a baseball fan, but more of a dodger fan. and she looooooooved Vin Scully. she proclaimed that he was the best sports announcer to ever hold a microphone. she would watch the game on tv, but listen to Vin Scully on the radio. she could not stand to hear another voice pretending to know what they were talking about. through the Special Olympics program associated with her group home, we actually met several dodger players. they came to SBVC and signed a baseball that i cannot find. the players included Mike Scioscia, Mike Anderson and Orel Hershiser. tragic? I KNOW!!! in the last few years before she passed, she would call my friend Alfonso for baseball game information. her eyes were pretty bad and she didn’t have an understanding of the directv channel guide to surf through and find what she was looking for. she would call me to call him, and one time i just said “call him, gran”. so she did. later, he told me how he enjoyed receiving those calls. he said that he looked forward to hearing her voice and in knowing that he’d made her happy.

not a day goes by that i don’t think of her. she passed away (i really hate that phrase) seven years ago, on her eighty-second birthday. she had been ailing for some years. a horrid concoction of long-term hyper-tension, diabetes, and congestive heart failure. but what a marvelous eighty-two years it was! i was a part of her life for thirty-one years and i cherish everyday. my memories of her are abundant, thoughtful and often hilarious. again, i tell ya, she was a hoot. she could always make me smile. she’d been on hospice care for over year at home before we were no longer able to care for her. she was admitted to a hospice facility, and passed away just a couple months later. she was planning a thanksgiving feast.

it took a few years before my aunt and i were able to try and enjoy the thanksgiving holiday. with gran making plans to cook and needing our assistance, we were broken-hearted to say the least. thanksgiving had been a big deal in my younger years. over the years it had dwindled down to just the three of us and cooking a turkey day feast was a serious project that my gran just didn’t have the stamina for. she was excited and energetic about that upcoming thanksgiving. we’d discussed the menu and i was sent out to the garage and far reaches of the house to find miscellaneous pots and pans. old, antique, well-seasoned pots and pans that are part of the family. she’d even asked me to polish the silver (i’m rolling my eyes STILL at that undertaking).

in the last three years or so, my aunt and i have made our own thanksgiving. i don’t think we are “family ready” just yet. we enjoy the shopping and cooking, but it’s such an emotional event. last year i attempted my gramma’s sage-cornbread dressing (stuffing) and it brought tears to my eyes. i have no recipe to go by, so the secret lies within my nose and eyes. i’m looking for a particular texture, color and smell. i did pretty good. the peach cobbler was one level shy of gertrude-tacular, as well as the sweet potato pie. oh how i miss that woman!

she knew that i was pregnant but didn’t make it to see my sweet boy come into the world. i was five months pregnant with kenneth when she died. i desperately wanted them to meet. i could see the photo opp in my head of my sweet gran holding my sweet baby boy. my son named after her son. i’d hoped to share with her the joys and frustrations of my motherhood so she could laugh and heal me with her wise words. and now that i’m bringing the twins into the world, i just can’t imagine what she would say about my shape and size. i would love to hear it though.

while this post may seem somber, i am not as sad this day as i have been on this date in the past seven years. i miss my grandmother dearly, but i feel her love and guidance running through my veins daily. i wouldn’t be who i am without her. she taught me the most quintessential things that make me exactly who i am supposed to be. i cherish the memories of her, the stories she shared and the things she taught me. i wrote about her today to honor her existence in this world, in my life. i wrote about her to share with you the most amazing person i’ve ever known. and in the interest of not completely bumming you out, i will leave you with this:

me: gran, don’t you want a friend or a boyfriend type person? someone to go to lunch or the movies with?

gran: no.

me: why not?

gran: honey, i already get headaches, i don’t need one with a name.

on another occasion, i asked the same question and her answer was:

sweetheart, if i’m going to babysit, i want to get paid. you don’t get paid to babysit grown men at the movies.

BAM! it don’t get much more honest and southern than that! she was a hoot!

baking blog ~ 2: lena b’s banana nut bread


i love to bake.  particularly desserts, but if you can put it in the oven — i’ll give it a try. my favorite things to bake are stand alone favorites: several types of cookies, a killer chicken pot pie, cupcakes and banana bread. i think we all (except for those that are allergic) love banana bread, don’t we? well i have a story to share about some banana bread and it is going to knock your socks off. the bread is divine. but the story, well, the story makes it better.

outside of the facts learned in school, i got (most of) my intelligence, my humor and my county-girl charm from my grandmother. she was a phenomenal person. she also taught me respect. the born-and-raised in the south and we-don’t-take-none-of-that-backtalk-’round-here respect. she taught me about personal space, real friends and why you should never keep your car and house keys in the same place. she taught me how to sew, bake and gave me Kitchen 101.

it was during our time in the kitchen that she shared with me her many recipes.  i have lots of hand written recipes and notes from her.  i have newspaper clippings, magazine pages and even some word search puzzle entries that contain recipes that she enjoyed. or at least, wanted to enjoy. of all the years and all the recipes, one of them outweighs the rest. it is her recipe for banana bread. here is an image (the measurements have been eliminated to protect the integrity of the recipe and elude the plagiarizers):

when i was in high school, the upper left corner fell off and i laminated it in an after school print shop program. we determined from the writing on the back that she had written it down in approximately 1956. *mumbling* minus the …  carry the .. and then move the… hey, yeah! that’s fifty-six years ago. that is about the same age as my parents. 🙂 i cannot provide you with any more historical information than that. she gave me the recipe and told me to hold tight to it. and i have.

i made it from time to time. not really enjoying the process or the outcome. she gave me compliments and critique along the way. if i had known, then, what i know now — i would have spent every day, since the day she gave it to me, perfecting it and honing the recipe into exactly what it is today: a legend. it’s that good.

my high school spanish teacher, used to purchase loaves from me at two dollars a piece. that was a nice little allowance until she got a loaf that wasn’t quite done in the middle and she gave up on me. understandable. i don’t remember making them too often during my college days either. what bread i did make was for my grandmother, at her request. i enjoyed it, but not enough at that time. she once told me “you make it better than i ever could”, which of course warmed my heart. i would make it for her and never think more about it.

eventually i grew up and moved out. i got a few jobs and when the spirit moved me, i would bake and share the famous bread. as time passed, i came to find that it was a certifiable crowd pleaser. it has never failed me. it has been mixed incorrectly and undercooked, but that’s user error, you see. the recipe, itself, remains consistent and predictable. exactly what a baked good should be. it has always been moist, delicious and impressive. at least, that’s what my fans tell me. 😀

i made it when i worked as a police dispatcher and have been reminded of how much it is missed.  i have made it for people along the way and always received compliments on it. i also made it for my friends at the hotel. i remember taking a loaf to the housekeeping department who promptly grabbed their morning cups of coffee and sat in silence enjoying the bread. it wasn’t until a few days later that i learned the bread was the topic of discussion that day.

i have been asked for the recipe many times to which i reply “i’m sorry, that recipe is going to make me famous. it’s a secret.” a certifiable look of disappointment comes at me followed by “well, if you change your mind”. i’ve only shared the recipe three times:

  1. after many years, my grandmother told me that she wanted to share the recipe with someone she worked with. i don’t know if you’ll believe this, but i actually refused to give it back to her. she scolded me. i retorted with my standard “make me famous” line. she didn’t buy it. i gave her the recipe. she was the author, after all.
  2. to my best friend’s grandmother (Nanny). she’s a sweet old bird who used to share “our grandkids are crazy” laughs, cured salt pork and southern lady conversation with my gramma. i made the bread, she loved it and i gave her the recipe. hesitantly.
  3. earlier today, after a little more than three weeks of deliberation and a few pleadings i shared the recipe with two of my coworkers.
    1. cee-dub (cw or coworker)one is a fellow baker who has promised me three things: a) a secret family recipe of her own, b) her help and her kitchen in creating a new baking masterpiece and c) her first-born grandchild. i intend to collect on all three.
    2. cee-dub two saved my rump last week and if my gramma were alive she would have said “you better give that girl the recipe, she helped you when she didn’t have to”… i can actually hear my gramma saying it. ugh.
    3. i started this entry a couple of months ago and have actually shared the recipe with several other people. now, you might be saying “but you didn’t share it with aaaaaaaaaaaall of those other people from way back when” and you’re right. but the fact of the matter is that i don’t follow the recipe. 😀 it’s true. i know it by heart, can predict it’s outcome and have tweaked it just enough to call it my own, so sharing it — is just a formality. it stands true, always delivers a quality product and those that have received the recipe and followed it’s instructions have yet to stop thanking me. it’s that good.

as you can see, i’m stingy. this legend of a recipe is going to put my son through college. maybe. speaking of son, he’s the number one fan. he loves the banana bread and can hardly wait for it to get out of the oven. seriously. he’s touched several hot loaf pans and stolen countless HANDFULS and slices of the bread. it is his favorite breakfast treat.

but wait, there’s more. my job recently had a bake sale. naturally, i agreed to bake. i originally intended on making cookies. but when it got down to crunch time, i didn’t have the ingredients that i needed to make the cookies i wanted to make and then i remembered the dozen-and-a-half bananas in the garage freezer. they were provided to me by a coworker after our annual benefits fair. the bananas had been a little abused from travel and were almost prime bread making real estate. she came to my section of CubicleWorld and stated “hey baker, you should take those bananas home” (thanks, Paula, i miss your smile). perfect. the recipe is simple and doesn’t require special ingredients. so i decided to make banana bread.

the sale required that all foods be individually wrapped and labeled for sale. i was completely oblivious to this fact, but decided to make mini banana bread bundts. they are just so cute and so perfect for a bake sale. i only have three mini pans, so i had to bake in shifts. grease and flour the pans, bake three breads, allow them to cool, wash the pans and then start anew. it took me six hours to bake a dozen mini bundts. and i still had batter left over.

i let them cool and sealed them up in my handy-dandy cake saver and travel container. a God send of a gift from my aunt, Martha Stewart and the fantastic folks at Wilton. the next morning i trotted off to work, proud and excited. when i got to the bake sale area, i had forgotten to wrap and label the cakes. i hurried back to the break room… found some clear plastic plates, white paper doilies and saran wrap. i printed up some labels and priced the pretty little breads at $3.50 each. the packaging was so simple and cute. the only thing that would have made them better was ribbon and instead of labels, vintage shabby chic graphic art tags. i started with twelve, took ten to work because my aunt and son claimed one each. ten mini bundts.

as i was preparing my food fare for sale, one of the potential patrons walked by. she saw the bread under the cake saver cover and was drawn in by its sheer beauty. she approached the table, eyes wide, inquiring

“what are those?”

and me, being me, went into my whole schpiel like i’ve just shared with you. she asked about my grandmother and i had to tell her that she had passed away several years ago and how my aunt and i had taken care of her those last few years and so forth and so on… well, the story ended in with the two of us hugging, and in tears. she had shown an interest in the bread from the start but revealed to me:

“the story makes the bread that much better. i can’t wait to taste it.”

the bake sale opened about thirty minutes later. she bought six of the twelve. i received an email at 9:26 in the morning stating that the bread sold out in twenty minutes. the entire sale was over about forty minutes after it started. almost one hundred dollars was made and thirty-five of it was from my breads. yay!

as the day progressed, i received many compliments and three requests for the recipe. consensus on the terms “moist and delicious”. another coworker poked her head around my cubicle wall stating:

“you’re the one who made the banana bread, right? well… i heard about them but i didn’t get one.”

i made her some a few weeks later. she returned the favor by making a Thomas the Train blanket for my son. he loves it. i have seen the “buyer of six” as well who shared how the bread was already a family favorite and she had also made mental note of my pan situation and was keeping her eye out for additional mini pans. sweet, right? she told me that day and every time that i have seen her since that the bread is “to die for”, but “the story makes it better”. all of the folks that i have “met” since the bake sale, whether in the cafeteria, break room, ladies’ room or in the walkway have said “you’re the one who makes the banana bread, right?” a great reputation to have, if i do say so myself.

i have made the bread regularly and always get smiles and hugs. we had a special meeting and presentation in our department last week and as part of the surprise, i made banana bread. jackie couldn’t contain herself and was ready to devour it upon sight. she sent an email around and within minutes the majority of a large bundt bread was gone. it was fantastic to watch. everyone passing my cubicle, eyes rolled back in their head with butter stained fingers saying “mmmmf, it’s so good”. i cut a few pieces and shared them with other work friends and received more warm and loving compliments. SuperBoy and The MadMan are known for asking for “MUUUUH” (that’s ‘moooooore’) while still having a mouthful.

some of us have no talents. some of us have one or two. some of us have a million different things that we’re “kinda” good at. i have one certifiable talent and it is recreating and baking my grandmother’s recipe banana bread. it’s a simple recipe, hand written by the queen herself. it’s a favorite of all family and friends, a crowd pleaser and has stood the test of time for more than fifty years. the kids, ALL kids, love it. i take pride in it. when i bake it, i use my heart. i concentrate, infuse and incorporate love in every bite (thanks, ma!). what i can tell you for fact is this: 1) the smell is divine and will attract hungry bears, or neighbors — whichever is closer. 2) i get more joy from baking it than i do from eating it. 3) i get more joy from sharing it than i do from baking it. 4) you hope, wish and pray that you might ever be close enough to watch, listen and smell it bake. if you are, i guarantee that you will never want to be far away again.

to my grandmother:

thanks, gertrude. i love you. i miss you and i wish you were here so i could bake for you. thank you for sharing and entrusting me with something so special and wonderful. it’s almost as special and wonderful as you.