Some people have a death date that is befitting their life. Kathy’s grandmother was one of those lucky people who died on just the right day. She died on a day that ensured a long legacy.
Kathy has really strong, loving memories of her father’s mother. She remembers standing at her elbow in the kitchen, watching her make dumplin’s for the family’s famous Chicken N’ Dumplins.
I think there are only three people alive who know the secret process of building this meal: Kathy and two of her cousins. Maybe only one cousin.
I call it a process rather than a recipe. Kathy can’t give out the recipe. A recipe exists, but the only way to produce this dish to perfection is through apprenticeship. The feel of how much salt to add is a muscle and sensory feeling, not a precise measurement. How long to roll the dough is not measured by the clock. It is measured by the sight, the texture, the heft. There is even a technique that must be mastered in the way strips of dough are dropped into the boiling chicken stock.
I suspect the amount of love put into the meal is also a part of the process. And Kathy was fortunate enough to absorb that love, standing side by side, watching, touching, and feeling the process.
Her grandmother was called “Nana” and besides being an incredible cook she also had a boisterous, playful side. Very few photos of her still exist. We have a series of three pictures of an epic battle between a 7- or 8-year-old Kathy and Nana. It is a truly rare moment caught on camera.
Nana and Kathy stand only yards apart. Each armed and ready to attack the other. But it is obvious that Kathy is the loser of this battle as she is ducking her curly red head in anticipation of the blow she is about to receive. Nana’s face is split into a wide grin as she gleefully taunts her granddaughter. Her arm is cocked back as she is ready to throw her weapon.
You can almost hear the soft thud of the snowball as it hits its mark. You can hear the giggles coming from the little girl and Nana’s cackle of laughter.
Did I say this was a rare moment? Indeed, it was rare. Not because of Nana’s lack of a playful nature. But, because it only snows about once every 10 to 20 years in Kathy’s hometown.
Nana was always ready to pitch in and take her granddaughters to places they needed to go. Kathy always found the rides exciting. I don’t think Nana roared down the two-lane highways at break-neck speed. And she didn’t burn rubber or weave from side to side.
She did, however, like to tell the girls that she knew the road so well she could drive it with her eyes closed. Kathy would watch in horror as Nana's right eye squeezed shut. I think Kathy convinced herself that Nana kept the other eye open so it just “looked like” her eyes were shut. But there was always that doubt. Maybe they really were both closed. You couldn’t tell with Nana.
Nana wasn’t supposed to die before Gus, her husband. Gus was the one with heart problems. It was Gus who had the life-threatening illness. Nana was the one who was healthy. But she did die first. She died on April 1, 1968.
I never got to meet her. She died a little over a year before Kathy and I discovered each other. But from what I learned about her; I believe she selected her death day. In life she was fun loving and mischievous. I think she liked to keep people guessing. Just like driving the car; did she really close both eyes, or not? And so, she passed away on April Fool’s Day. Is she really dead, or not?
I think not. I think she still lives through the fond memories of her granddaughters.
And through Chicken N’ Dumplins.
And through her name, Nana, being passed down to Kathy’s mother, and now to Kathy.
From what I can see of our granddaughters, Nana’s boisterous playful spirit exists in our granddaughters. And maybe one of them will someday be called Nana. And hopefully, so will the process of Chicken N’ Dumplins.