The first thing I saw when Dad turned our car down Grandma’s street in Merriam Park was the sky-high catalpa tree in her front yard. It was the only “cigar tree” on the block, and when I spied it, I knew we were almost there. It was a beautiful tree, with frilly white flowers in the spring that magically became long, brown seedpods in late summer.
A visit to Grandma’s guaranteed delicious treats. Her cakes were confectionary works of art. She swirled frosting into high, fluffy peaks, then added fat walnuts and fresh flowers. When I was born, on my mother’s twenty-fifth birthday, Grandma brought a beautiful cake to Miller Hospital, trimmed with pink flowers from her garden. Strawberry shortcake, mounded with vanilla whipped cream, was her specialty. I was sure she baked the best cookies in all of Saint Paul.
Small and thin, Grandma had short, silver-brown hair and coffee-brown eyes that crinkled at the corners when she smiled. She was proud to be a Democrat and a Catholic, in that order. Grandma lived through the Great Depression, and that experience taught her to be strong and independent.
When school was out for the summer, it was time for my week with Grandma. There was always an endless supply of Juicy Fruit gum in the top drawer of the sideboard in her dining room. I wasn’t allowed to chew gum at home, but I inhaled the sugary sticks at Grandma’s house. She treated me to bubble baths topped off with puffs of fragrant talcum powder. Best of all was sleeping in Grandma’s wide, safe bed. I snuggled deep into the space next to her while she told me stories about her childhood until I drifted off to sleep.
Grandma had a green thumb and could make anything grow. My favorite flowers were the tall hollyhocks that bloomed beside her garage. Grandma taught me how to make hollyhock dolls, clever flower ladies in ball gowns and turbans. To make them, we gathered handfuls of blossoms and buds in different colors. When they were finished, I arranged make-believe dance parties in a shady corner of the back yard. Sometimes I floated the pink and purple ladies in a chipped enamel wash pan Grandma kept at the back door.
A door in the spare bedroom at Grandma’s led up winding steps to the attic where she kept a baby doll with eyes that click-clacked open and shut. My dad gave Grandma the doll as a keepsake before he left for overseas during World War II. I’d beg to play with the doll, and Grandma always said yes. Later, we would carefully wrap her in tissue and pack her in the trunk for next time.
Grandma is gone now, and other people live in her house. But that towering catalpa tree is still there, watching over her tiny bungalow summer and winter. Life has come full circle, and I’m a grandmother myself. I use Grandma’s recipes when I bake cakes and cookies, but they never taste as good as hers did. There’s a blue-eyed granddaughter named Nora for me to spoil and love, and her brand-new baby sister, Annie, born last spring when the catalpa tree bloomed.
This old-fashioned cooked icing recipe makes a sweet, fluffy frosting.
Mix and cream thoroughly
½ cup shortening
¼ cup butter
¾ cup sugar
Mix until it is no longer grainy. Set aside.
3½ tablespoons flour
¾ cup milk
Cook until thick, stirring constantly. When cool, add by tablespoon to first mixture. Beat after each addition.
1 teaspoon vanilla. Beat well.
Marianne McNamara lives in Saint Paul, where she weaves together life as a writer of poetry, a food blogger and chef de cuisine, a shutterbug, and grandmother to the amazing Nora. She began writing after she burned out as a school volunteer. Her poetry has appeared in a variety of anthologies, on sidewalks, and in a magazine.