Nudists in the Afterlife

Nudists in the Afterlife

Tropical beach at sunset - nature background

By JoAnna Novak

My grandma and I are meeting at a nudist colony in the afterlife. The sun is scorching, the beaches are sandy, the waves are plashing, we’re naked.

Not a stitch—that’s something other grandmas might say: not mine.

“Look for the lady with one boob,” says my grandma. This is our plan: her mastectomy scars will help me find her once we’re both dead and reborn.

Before this conversation, I didn’t know she believed in reincarnation. Or rather, I hadn’t known what she believed for herself. Though she still spoke to my deceased grandfather (he’d encouraged her to renew her driver’s license), I didn’t know my grandma considered where she would go—let alone where she wanted to go—once she was gone.

“One boob,” I say. There’s nothing to do but to laugh. To lop off the conversation. Before I was born, lopping was what doctors had prescribed for my grandma’s cancer. Mother, are you decent? my mom would shout when we visited my grandma, who wore yellowed undershirts that my grandfather had fatigued. It wasn’t until I was an anorexic teenager, committed to bandeau bras for flattening my own meager bust, that I noticed the sagging emptiness on my grandmother’s chest.

“Well, I’ll be the girl looking at people’s breasts.”

“No left, Joey,” says my grandma. “I got rid of the left.”


I don’t mean to eulogize my grandma. She’s alive; we talk weekly. But I’m afraid. In April, she became my last grandparent, and her survival stands as undeniable proof that one day she won’t be a telephone call away—that I, too, am getting old.

Her phone number is the last I know by heart: I learned it twenty-five years ago. Unlike my height, weight, or favorite food, it’s never changed. I can still remember being four and chanting that number to the tune of “The Mickey Mouse Club” theme. I can remember learning that the same number could be reached by dialing Memory One.

Memory: a button on a cornflower blue phone, mounted on a wall papered with bonneted geese, near a shadowy watercolor of chickens pecking for feed. I’m five in this kitchen: on nights the power went out, my parents lit a kerosene lamp with a droopy cartoon hound on the hurricane, and I sat at the table, eating ice cream.


Now I press the Home Button on my iPhone, and speak: “Call Grandma.”

I’m on Interstate 91 in Massachusetts, 908.09 miles away from her kitchen. I can hear it, Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network, and I can smell it, crisp bacon and the acridity of a sponge-bathed body, and I can see it, my grandma’s table: yellow butter softening on a chipped china saucer; dinner rolls, smothered in plastic, leftover from Bingo; brown calico placemats, grainy with salt and pepper; phone numbers and bank accounts Sharpied on envelopes; back issues of Women’s Day, recipes snipped and paperclipped for me; a 4″ x 6″ of my grandpa, smiling, IV pole in the background.

I can picture the entire room. What will happen when, one day, she doesn’t pick up? What will I forget first—her house or her voice?

The sun sets, exploding over the Holyoke Range, as I drive. I hold my breath as the phone rings and rings, knocking my heart around my throat. And then, my grandma answers.

Before she speaks, I know how her hello will sound. The inflection is as familiar as pulling socks onto my feet. Where will those sounds go? Where will our memories reside when we die?

“What are you up to?” I say.

“Close your eyes and tell me what you see,” my grandma says.


I picture my grandma’s wink, and I know my lines—haha, nothing—but they take a moment. I am grateful to hear her, to know her words transport me back to her, to her house—Pat Sajak gabbing on Wheel of Fortune; alley traffic; on the carport, wind chimes ringing above a yellow banana chair cracked with dust.

Here is the cuckoo clock, brown gabled and white trimmed, watching the years count down by meals I’ve eaten in my grandma’s kitchen: Orange pekoe tea and white sugar cubes. Saltines and that soft yellow butter. Fried chicken and hush puppies dusted with powdered sugar, vinegar coleslaw and stewed apples. Potato kluski fried in bacon. A jar of Peter Pan peanut butter. A tarnished spoon. A leftover piece of Greek toast. Crumbs of crumbs.

Today, almond croissants and salted caramel cupcakes I bring from patisseries.

A small McDonald’s coffee—from the one on Harlem, not Ogden.

Hulking in the past, a hearty Bohemian meal: pork, dumplings, and sauerkraut—ordered and consumed in one muttery breath. Muttery, mothery: my grandparents were my godparents; my grandma, always mothering me.

She told me toast crusts would curl my hair—and then told me that was an old wives tale; what I needed to know was one hundred times—that’s how many strokes she brushed, every night, with a soft bristles, like Jackie Kennedy. She told me my husband needn’t know everything about me—and she told me that was something she couldn’t tell my mother.

There was a lot she couldn’t tell my mother.

My grandma, unlike my mother, demurs in person and slanders in private.

What does my grandma say about me?

Joey, her food thing, according to my mother.

“What are you having for dinner, Joey?” my grandma asks. “Kale?”


Between the two of us, my grandma says. She likes conspiracies. She likes aligning us, the way when I visit her and we go out for breakfast, she says: “Joey, we’re not big eaters.” She likes that we’re bonded together, that I’m the oldest grandchild, the one who sat beside her in my grandfather’s truck, sharing roasted peanuts, fidgeting with the beaded mahogany-and-mustard seat covers, mornings when my grandparents drove me to school in second grade when I was afraid to ride the bus. I was fat. Mean to other children, who didn’t like me to begin with. And why would they? I was a know-it-all—who professed to prefer adult company. I was a tattletale, a reader, and a weirdly reverential eater: my second-grade diary is devoted solely to English toffee cookies.

Now I realize I learned some of this particular criticalness from my grandma: she would drive two hours to buy eggs from a particular woman’s—Peggy’s—farm; she would slander the kolacky of every Bohemian restaurant in town.

Still I am ashamed of the ways I am not my grandma. I do not keep secrets and, though I am not a big eater, I am not frugal with food. For decades, I have made anorexia, purging anorexia, an epic show of denial: how much could I withhold from my body? How showily could I starve? I could reject my grandma’s kluski at dwindling family dinners or purge caviar; I could run twelve miles on a fasting stomach or eat only the “white chocolate” coating on Peppermint Stick Luna Bars. I could dispose of candy corn by garbage disposal or by wrenching it from my gut with two fingers.


My grandma remembers when movies cost five cents—and how, when she was twelve, she skipped the flick and used the nickel to weigh herself at a pharmacy. My grandma remembers wrapping meat in newspaper and throwing the parcel into the basement for the family cur. My grandma remembers the first outfit she bought from a store—a maroon skirt, a pink blouse—in sixth grade.

What my grandma tells me, I try to record. I want to keep her, her past, her nude beach dreams. There is this benefit of purging less: my brain has energy. Now I am the one who remembers: Until sixth grade, my grandma’s mother sewed her wardrobe; after high school, my grandma modeled for a photographer boyfriend. I have pictures: Harriett “Pin-Up Kid” Hanek, long legs tucked underneath her as she sits mermaid style on a rock, in a high-waist bikini.

Today my grandma is tired of clothes. She’s 95; can I blame her? Arthritis erodes her right shoulder. She hobbles, she stoops. With Chicago’s heat and her cranky carriage, she fantasizes about the nudist colony, where she wouldn’t have to argue her arms into a flowery blouse.

“What’m I getting dressed for?” my grandma says. “Lunch? At Bingo?”

(She never takes the meat.)

“Be comfortable. You’re just eating.”

“See so. That’s what I say. Let them talk. What do I have to show off for?”

“Nothing. I mean, no one. I wear shorts in summer.”

I am like my grandma: I could never tell her that her shabby closet and corroded body have driven me to spend, sweat, starve, to stave away what’s coming. And I could never tell her that my mother attributes that shabby closet to the radical mastectomy. For what? I can’t tell her that I’m terrified of winding up like her—in gray rubber shoes and poly slacks and a fleecy Chicago Bears sweatshirt, approaching death, or at least obliged to feed a body I no longer know.

Maybe age will reason me. My grandma, despite her wardrobe, is beautiful. Her hair is downy and argent, like ice cresting on a lake. Her ears are delicate, her nose triumphant, her mouth full. Her hands are big, knuckly, and knit with veins.

Once, before my wedding, she handed me a pair of tweezers and asked me to pluck the hairs from her chin.

Once, she led me to the bathroom, where I ignored the stacks of newspapers in the tub. The room smelled like urine and Yardley lavender. She asked me to help her put her earrings in.

They were hoops, the size of quarters, the gold filigreed. Her skin was tender and soft as I struggled with the clasp.


At a nudist colony, my grandma wouldn’t have to think about what sweater would go on easiest and best combat the air conditioning at Bingo.

It was so cold in Chicago last night that my grandma moved two potted plants—tomato starts—from the kitchen window sill to the warmer bathroom, where the steam heater sings. In the morning, the tomatoes were perked up, and my grandmother waited for the municipal bus. She stood under the carport, at her walker, more than an hour, waiting for that goddamn bus.

“Next time, I’m driving,” my grandma says. I wish I could be there with her, that I could take the wheel. I would leave Bingo for another day. I would get us McDonald’s coffees, pastries we could testily taste, and zoom us onto the interstate. I would roll down the windows and let the air, thick with Argo cornstarch from the Summit plant, muss our hair. We both still have nice hair, somehow. I would drive my grandma downtown, past her old house and the old streetcar stables and the old Campbell Soup factory that once sold her father stumpy tomato plants, to Oak Street Beach, where we could spread out a towel and strip and blouselessly arrive at the nudist colony, the place where our spirits will convene, denuded, stitchless, on an endless tract of sand, surrounded by scarred, naked women.

JoAnna Novak is a writer of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Her debut novel, I MUST HAVE YOU, will be published in 2017.



Questions and Answers

Questions and Answers

By Margaret Elysia Garcia
questionsandanswersI grew up with a mother who answered all my questions before I’d even asked them—and gave explanations that could send most kids into a depression. At age six, when asked whether I could have ice cream before dinner, I got to hear about how my mother just read Diet for a New America and how ice cream might lead to my premature death.

When my mother came out as a lesbian, I was in junior high, and made the mistake of asking how long she’d known. I expected the answer to come in a sentence with perhaps a numeral in it. Instead I got a complete blow-by-blow description of the last 30 years of her life.

I fared no better with my father, a biologist, who couldn’t fathom that a child might ask a simple question like ‘what kind of bird is that?’ and not want to know the Latin name, all its classifications, its possible position on the endangered species list, its last known sighting, and whether ranchers were responsible for its demise. I vowed that when I had my own kids, I would give them straight and to-the-point answers.

But genetics are a tricky thing. My seven-year-old daughter has already had one or two existential crises in which she’s exclaimed, “Playing? Eating? Sleeping? School? Is that all there is?” My nine-year-old son was caught explaining the history of film to bewildered third graders on the playground.

We watched the original Godzilla together. Then came the questions. What’s radiation? What’s a Geiger counter? These were easy to field. Channel my dad, don’t channel my mother and tone it down. Next questions get harder. Why would people want to test bombs and blow them up in the ocean? Don’t they know there’s fish down there? Why do we have nuclear weapons if we know they could kill? Because we’re human. We can’t help it. I don’t have an answer. Okay. Too many questions. Too many answers. Mommy is tired now.

But for all their questions, the children never asked about the obvious—their surplus of grandmothers. Every Saturday morning their lesbian grandmothers pick them up and take them to their house for the day. But lately they’ve been making observations. “So Mommy, if Papa Dennis is our grandfather and Grandma Lydia is our grandmother how come they don’t live together? How could you be born if they don’t live together? How did they have you? Did they divorce? Where does Grandma Lynn fit in?”

My daughter has come home from school crying that she feels left out—all her other friends have stepmothers and stepfathers. When is she finally going to get some? Again, I have no answers. I think about exploiting my mother and saying, “Paloma, you guys are the only kids on the block with lesbian grandmothers—that’s way better than stepmothers—now go outside and play!”

In 2008, when gay marriage was legal in California, my mother and her partner of 20 years decided to get married. I still worried about fielding those questions. I figured we’d just never make anything a big deal and there’d be no questions. I sat them down and told them over after-school snacks.

“The grandmas can’t get married,” my daughter said. Oh no. All my liberal, progressive parenting out the window. Did I not answer questions correctly along the way? Should I have given more detailed answers she never asked for? Would that have transformed her into an accepting individual? I heard my mouth open and some sort of this-day-was-coming speech fell stumbling out of my mouth.

“Paloma, when two people love each other and are ready to make a commitment … commitment is when … you can marry a boy when you grow up or a girl … or no one … you can stay single …That might not be a bad thing for you, actually—.”

“Mom. I’m not asking for an explanation; I’m just telling you it’s impossible. I want them to get married, but they can’t.”

“Actually, in California, now they can…” I heard myself rattle on about court decisions, extremists, fascists, freedom, and the civil rights movement. A red light flashed above my eyes and I knew I’d done it! Information overload. I had become my parents.

“You don’t get it Mom,” she sighed. “They don’t have any dresses. Have you ever seen the grandmas in dresses? I help them clean their house and closets. I’ve never seen one. Weddings have to have dresses.”

She threw my resolve into a bit of a spiral. I had at least four paragraphs left of my speech about how you fall in love with the person and not the gender. But instead I was forced to explain that, despite having no fashion sense whatsoever, her grandmothers could and would get married.

The grandmas can’t help themselves, Paloma, they’ve bought stock in Land’s End and L.L. Bean.

“No turtlenecks, please!” My son laughed. Poor kid. My mom has been dressing him like a middle-aged lesbian for years now. My daughter asked if they’d at least wear dress shoes instead of sneakers.

“One can only hope,” I said. “But I wouldn’t hold out for it. You don’t need dresses or nice shoes though, you just need love.” Paloma shrugged.

“Okay, Mommy,” she said. “But they’re going to have a cake, right? Everyone? has cake at weddings.” She looked to me to confirm customs and for a second I thought about explaining veganism and a gluten-free diet but thought better of it.

“Yes on the cake,” I announced, happy to finally answer a simple, direct question.

Author’s Note: I knew I was going to write something like “Questions & Answers” for a while. It occurred to me that the fear of the general population towards gay and lesbian parents is always sexualized. I thought it would be fun and much more realistic to show what kids are really concerned about—dresses, for example. I submitted the story to Listen to Your Mother—a national spoken word Mother’s Day show and performed it onstage at Cowell Theater in San Francisco in May 2012.

Margaret Elysia Garcia writes poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and memoir. She was a Pushcart nominee in 2011 for an excerpt from Coming Out Too, her memoir in progress about growing up in a gay military household. She was also a Glimmer Train finalist in 2011, and her short story manuscript 605 Freeway Stories won second place in the 34th Annual Chicano/Latino Literary Award in fiction. She blogs at

Brain, Child (Winter 2013)


Grandma’s Secret

Grandma’s Secret

mother and children making cookiesby Kate Washington

When she was three, my daughter Lucy was interested in many things: fairies, swimming, “Call Me Maybe,” ice cream, the alphabet, families, death. The last two interests led her to asking questions about my mother, who died when Lucy was a baby.

“Mama,” she said, “Who is your mama?” She asked this fairly often, since learning that Grandpa is my father but his wife is not my mother. My mother was missing.

“My mama was Maga,” I said, using the name Lucy’s older sister Nora invented when she couldn’t pronounce Grandma. “You’ve seen pictures.”

“Your mama is dead?”


“Why is she dead?”

I sighed. “She was sick and her body couldn’t keep working and she died,” I answered, leaving out the fact that my mother’s death was a suicide, by an overdose of antidepressants and blood-pressure medication.

“Because she needed more air in her body?”

“Yes, kind of.”

“Because she drowned in the deep ocean?”

“No, Maga didn’t drown.”

“Because she was eaten by sharks?”

“No, she wasn’t eaten by sharks.”

I think about an alternate reality in which my mother was eaten by sharks. Let’s just say it would not have been very likely to happen. My mother wasn’t the adventure-sports type; she did aerobics. She got seasick easily and didn’t like getting her hair wet in the pool, so it’s hard to picture a shark-infested venue that would have appealed to her. But, for a moment, I imagine my quiet, stay-at-home mother skimming the waves on a catamaran or yacht with wind-filled sails, scuba diving or snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, surfing off of Santa Cruz, or diving in a shark cage and attracting the attention of a rogue Great White.

It’s not a very pleasant scenario. The shark’s muscled gleam thrashing in the water, its gaping prehistoric maws, those many layers of razor-sharp teeth clamping down. That shit must hurt. The last five or ten or twenty minutes of a life that ends in getting eaten by a shark must really, truly be terrible. But the time leading up to it? That sounds pretty awesome, actually, full of the freedom of the waves and the smell of salt air and brilliant sunshine on tanned skin and the lithe loose feeling of a body moving in the water. If my mom had been living a salty oceanic life, surfing a sunny blue wave or sailing the high seas, surely she would not have suffered the kind of gray dark depression that led her to wish to die peacefully, in her bed, after a hopeless muddy season of misery.

My mother was never one to surf a wave, to glide easily over a crash and break of current and foam. She lived in the wave, wiped out hard; her moods crested and crashed and she was pounded into the sand and finally it got to be enough. She didn’t need a shark to eat her alive; her moods did that for her.

I couldn’t give Lucy that answer, not then. I couldn’t, at first, bring myself to tell her that her grandma had taken medicine that killed her. Someday, I thought, I would tell both my girls about that, but I couldn’t find the words that day.

Nora, who was four when my mother died, had also asked how it had happened when I told her of her beloved grandmother’s death. I was in shock then, the morning after the police found my mother’s body, and I simply said that Maga’s body was sick and stopped working.

Since then, I’ve known I would wait to tell my girls the whole truth. But the time had come, after Lucy’s questions started, I began to wonder if my feeling that a small child can’t handle this information wasn’t merely a product of my own preconceptions about suicide; kids don’t know there’s a stigma attached to it, after all.

I thought that death, the bare fact of it, was hard enough for a kid to understand; further explaining that someone might want to die, and discussing mental illness, felt like too much. But I believe in telling the truth to my kids, hard as it might be. Time, and therapy, had helped me to face up to the facts of my mother’s death and come to a fuller, less guilty understanding of it. I worried that as my kids grew—Nora was seven by then—they were apt to overhear, and possibly misconstrue, adult conversations. I didn’t want them to overhear whispers and conclude either that their grandmother had done something to be ashamed of rather than to grieve, or that we don’t talk about mental illness or acknowledge its reality.

Explaining, however, is easier said than done. As Lucy’s line of questioning shows, death makes sense to children only in the most extreme terms: If a person is eaten by sharks, ripped to shreds by a toothy prehistoric fish, even a three-year-old can understand that that person is not going to come back ready to play some more. Regular, ordinary death, the kind that happens every day, doesn’t make sense: how could a person lie down in their bed one night and then just not be the next morning? The body hasn’t disappeared, but something has ineffably changed. Plenty of grown-ups struggle with that notion too, so explaining it to a kid is extra difficult. Layer on the idea that a person would choose to make that happen, and the explanation borders on unbelievable.

Especially if it’s your grandma. My mother loved Nora so much that her adoration sometimes seemed excessive. Every time she saw her, she wanted to be baking cookies or trick-or-treating or doing something extra-special. As a result, we have lots and lots of pictures of my mother doing grandmotherly things with Nora. There are only two pictures of her with Lucy, though: by the time Lucy was born, my mother was deep in her final illness, manic and difficult, and we weren’t spending a lot of time together.

The warm, cuddly cultural space occupied by the notion of a cookie-baking grandmother is about as far from the idea of suicide as one could imagine. Grandmas are supposed to stick around being sweet throughout one’s childhood, right? Sometimes, on top of all the other feelings I have about my mom’s death, I feel angry that my kids have been cheated out of something special, the chance to have a close relationship with a local grandmother. I never expected to live in the same city as my mother; my husband happened to get a tenure-track job in the city my mother moved to after I left my hometown. It felt like a bit of strange serendipity, when we might have moved anywhere. In reality, though, our relationship was not easy or smooth, so my idyllic vision of three generations peacefully baking together is really a wistful one, but still, I wish my children could have had that.

Now, however, she isn’t here, and my children deserved to know why. My mother’s suicide is part of their medical history, much as it’s part of my own. Suicides often run in families. The thought of my girls, my happy, sunny, beautiful daughters, ending their lives terrifies me so much I can hardly bear to write the words. Fear of that possibility kept me from being more honest with them.

Lucy is now five. Several months ago, she asked again how her grandmother died, and I took a deep breath. “She took too much of her medicine,” I said. “And even though medicine can help you, too much medicine can make your body sick and can make you die.”

Lucy looked at me, unfazed, and came back with a five-year-old’s most frequent question: “Why?”

“She took too much medicine on purpose,” I answered. “She had a sickness in her mind that made her very sad and she couldn’t get better.”

Lucy just nodded; I asked if she had any more questions, and she said no. A few follow-ups have popped up, but for the most part she has taken the information in stride. (I’ve also given a similar, though slightly more in-depth, explanation to her older sister.) Occasionally, if a discussion of medicine or doctors comes up, she will matter-of-factly mention that Maga died from taking too much of her medicine. Overall, I have found that telling my girls the truth has been a relief.

I don’t think answering their questions—which will inevitably get thornier as they grow older and gain more understanding—will ever be easy. But by having a fully honest conversation, I hope I’m taking the terror out of the facts of my mother’s death. The fact of her suicide and its roots in her depression won’t be shameful secrets but just the truth. And both my daughters and I can, I hope, come to a fuller understanding that the sharks that ate my mother were all in her mind.

Kate Washington is a writer based in Sacramento, California. Her work has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, Yoga Journal, Sunset, and the Bellingham Review, and she is a contributing writer at Sactown Magazine. She is a co-founder of Roan Press, a small nonprofit literary press.

Subscribe to Brain, Child print edition

Recipes to the Rescue

Recipes to the Rescue

By Candy Schulman

grandmothersEvery Sunday my alarm clock was the sweet smell of yeast dough rising, butter melting, cinnamon oozing. I’d dash downstairs to be sous chef to four-foot-eight-inch Grandma Regina. After observing the Saturday Sabbath, she adorned her baking uniform: a shapeless housedress, high-topped black shoes and stockings rolled beneath her knee. She had a comforting lap that had no beginning or end, and her fingers always smelled like sugar and butter.

Grandma Regina spoke six languages and came to this country in her teens. She was from Prussia, but all the borders had changed, so no one was sure if she was Polish or Austrian. She lived in our house during summers, escaping the Florida heat. Although I adored the coconut patties she brought me every year, I preferred her Sunday refrigerator, packed with rising dough balls in pottery bowls—soon to be transformed into rugelach, danish and strudel.

“Come,” she’d say, extending a spoon to me, the official taster of the sugary cheese mixture. “Is it good enough for mine danish?”

“I’m not sure,” I’d pretend, securing another taste.

Only Grandma could produce a perfect circle from the laborious process of rolling out the dough. “No waste,” she’d proudly say.

She let me spread walnuts for the rugelach and cut them into pizza-shaped triangle wedges, then curl them into crescents. My favorites were her coffee cake cupcakes with streusel topping.

Packing to return to Florida grew more difficult each year. Sighing, Grandma said, “Throw away mine baking pans. I’m too old to bake.”

My mother, whose idea of baking was opening the plastic wrap from Hostess Twinkies, stared sadly at the ancient baking pans. “I’m not throwing anything away. You’ll bake again.”

And she did, for almost a decade. One day my mother and I sat down with a pad and asked Grandma for her recipes.

“I have no recipes,” she insisted. “I can’t say how much yeast to add. It depends on the weather.”

“Your recipe is a bissel this, a bissel that,” said Mother, begging her to try just this once.

Reluctantly Grandma measured flour and eggs, while my mother transcribed onto index cards. After Grandma died at the age of 95 or 96 (she had no birth certificate), we tried to duplicate her masterpieces—but none of the recipes ever worked. We’d lost a cookbook of Eastern European pastries, but when I got married, I took her ancient muffin pan, slightly bent out of shape but full of sweet memories.

Although I was an improvement over my mother, I excelled at Toll House cookies and had a cake phobia—always worried I would overbake until the point of no return. Besides, working full-time and raising my daughter, who had time for elaborate baking projects? It was easier to pick up something savory from a local bakery.

My daughter Amy never met Grandma Regina, but I shared stories about the countless hours we’d shared maneuvering rolling pins, our hands dusted with flour. After showing Amy how to make cookies, she branched out on her own, first with simple achievements from kids’ cookbooks (zebra cake, a concoction of chocolate wafers and whipped cream) and progressing to perfectly layered birthday cakes—never once resorting to a supermarket cake mix. Other parents worried where their tweens were at night, but I knew Amy was at Talia’s or Monica’s house, baking brownies, risking only an occasional minor burn on her finger.

Eventually we tried to re-create Amy’s great-grandma’s recipes, following failed directions from my mother’s handwriting on the fading index cards I’d saved. They always bombed. One day when Amy was devouring baking blogs instead of writing a research paper for school, she came across a recipe similar to Regina’s streusel cupcake muffins. Amy tweaked it, creating the closest any of us have ever come to Grandma’s masterpieces. She made them with vanilla extract, a heritage classic, and also popped a mélange of berries into the mix for color and taste.

The aromas wafting through our house have transported me back to the basement apartment where my doughy grandmother demonstrated why it was a sin to ever step foot in a commercial bakery. Baking genes and recipes may have skipped two generations, but how comforting that my daughter has brought them back to us. She’s made her own version of rugelach and a decadent chocolate babka. Now I am the assistant to my daughter, holding onto the recipe index card my mother had scribbled upon, finally re-creating and savoring the tastes of my childhood—in a pan I saved from Grandma’s cupboard.


6 TBS butter, softened

½ cup sugar

½ cup sour cream

¾ teaspoon vanilla

1 ¼ cups flour

1 teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt


Streusel Topping

¾ cups flour

1/3 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon sea salt

6 TBS butter

Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar. Blend butter, sour cream, and vanilla with a whisk or mixer. Stir into the flour mixture, but don’t overmix. Mix the streusel topping in a separate bowl. Pour batter into muffin or cupcake cups. Sprinkle streusel topping on each. Bake 15-18 minutes at 350°.

Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Parents,,, The Chicago Tribune and in several anthologies.  She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.

This piece is a part of our What is Motherhood? Brain, Child blog series, with original posts from our writers, and reposts from some of our most favorite websites and blogs, all answering the universal question—what does motherhood mean to you?



Stage Fright

Stage Fright

By Monica McGuire

Stage Fright ArtMy mother and I take the elevator to the third floor and make our way down the hall. “You go ahead,” she tells me. “I need to talk to the nurse.”

She says this breezily, completely confident that her thirty-one-year-old daughter knows what to do.  I don’t. I drag my feet. Maybe if I walk slowly enough my mother will somehow get to my grandmother’s room first.

The hallway smells of mashed potatoes, gravy, and mystery meat; nothing like the sweet, yeasty scents of my grandmother’s Kansas kitchen. I feign captivation as I wind my way down the hall, pausing to watch the green birds tweeting in their golden cage, turning to watch the tropical fish swimming to and fro. As I walk, I ponder each hazy country scene secured in a frame as if I might discover the next great artist of our time.

But still I arrive at my grandmother’s small room before my mother. I linger at the threshold, unsure what to do or say without my mother here.  I scan the room: two chairs, a bathroom with the door half open; a window with the curtains drawn (despite the daytime hour); a wooden dresser with framed family photos; and my grandmother lying under a handmade quilt in her twin bed. The quilt is pulled up snug under her chin. I think of greetings past: her wide smile, floured hands, fierce hug and the way she made me feel utterly cherished.

My mother is still AWOL, so I cross the room and sit in the wooden chair next to the bed. It creaks; I cringe. My grandmother’s permed hair is pressed flat against the pillow. Her pale blue eyes, now faded, leave behind a dull and detached gaze. Without her playing the role of grandmother, I feel lost. How do I play granddaughter if she isn’t grandmother?

I need to say something.  “I am Monica Michelle,” I whisper, hoping my grandmother might remember how she used to pray daily for everyone in her family by their first and middle names: John Maurice, Jane Elizabeth, Patrick Michael, Susan Marie, Maureen Ann, Thomas Ralph, Christopher Michael, Monica Michelle…

I press on with small talk, telling her about the weather and the things I’ll do while I’m here visiting our family.

“Who are you?” she asks. “Where am I? Why are you here?”

“I’m your granddaughter,” I soothe.  “Monica Michelle. We are in your room at Catholic Eldercare in Minneapolis. You live here now.”

“When can I go to sleep?”

My mother breezes into the room before I can answer. Like a gifted director my mother coaxes my grandmother out of bed and into a chair, doing her best to infuse my grandmother’s day with activities other than sleep. While I am overcome by stage fright, my mother assumes the role of hair and make-up artist; lovingly combing my grandmother’s hair, then smoothing lotion across my grandmother’s wrinkled face. I wish I knew my role the way my mother knows hers.

The next time I visit my grandmother, I go with my Aunt Marnie. She tosses her winter coat across the upholstered chair and climbs right into my grandmother’s bed, not even asking my grandmother to sit up. She puts her head close to her mother’s and whispers into her ear. After awhile she pulls back the covers, stands up. “Your turn,” she tells me.

I am relieved to have someone tell me what to do. I lie down next to my grandmother and snuggle in behind her. She is smaller than I remember. Boney. Our size feels more similar then it has a right to.

I rub her back.

“Oh that feels good. That feels nice,” she says over and over again like the soft purr of a cat. After a while her foot bumps against mine.

“What’s that?” she asks.

“My foot,” I say, nudging her foot with mine. “Now we are playing footsie.”

She smiles and lets out a small laugh.

“You used to rub our feet all the time,” I tell her.

“I did?”

“Yes. You were so good at it. You took a class in reflexology; you rubbed our feet whenever we asked.”

My grandmother’s body softens as I talk. And though I cannot see it, I know there is a smile on her face. She seems pleased to hear that she was once good at something, even if it is not something she can remember.

We grow quiet and my memories drift. I am 6-years-old again. Tangled in my flannel nightgown, snuggled up with Grandmother on the pull-out couch in my parent’s basement. She knows I am scared to sleep alone and lets me curl in.

I stare now at the back of my grandmother’s head. Taking in each individual strand of her white, not quite curled, hair as if it is a blade of grass, the bark of a tree, or the vein of a leaf.

Lying together my grandmother and I are as close, maybe closer, then the many nights I begged my way into her bed when I was young. But I know this is not one of those nights. I let my mind wander again.

I am eight. We are in Kansas, sitting on her bed. Her long arm slung over my shoulders as her large, farm-girl hand cradles my hip and pulls me close. She tells me stories and whispers in my ear. “I love you,” she says.

Then I am twelve. Lying in bed with her, listening to her advice. “Don’t get married until you are at least 25.”

I took that advice. I remember now that frosty night in January during my twenty-seventh year, the warm flickering glow of the fireplace, and the one hundred guests seated behind my partner and me.

My grandmother wasn’t one of them. She wasn’t invited because my very supportive mother did not want anything to mar our day. What if my grandmother stood up and demanded to know why two women were getting married? I know no one would have thought less of our ceremony if my grandmother had questioned the proceedings, but how would she enjoy it, not knowing where she was and why she was there?

Even now I can feel her absence on that day.  I see the lace shawl I wore; the shawl painstakingly made from the lace of her wedding dress and I try to ease the pain of her absence by reminding myself: I was the only grandchild who wore my grandmother’s legacy on my shoulders.

My cheeks grow red and hot now. I am struck by the reality of my younger, self-centered mind. I wanted my grandmother there even though her memory loss would have made it wholly uncomfortable for her. My ego does not want to own it, but my heart knows it is mine to keep.

Fatigue settles in. Four years have passed since my wedding and I now have a 6-month-old son who demands my presence for multiple nightly feedings. I lie here with my grandmother thinking she has the right idea. Maybe the two of us could sleep, curled up together for a day, or two, or three; my grandmother receiving the human touch she so desires and I receiving the sleep I so desperately need and both of us better off for finding these things together.

The next time I visit my grandmother I sashay into her room; confident that my Aunt and grandmother have modeled everything I need for this moment. I am no longer an extra. I am Granddaughter with a capital “G.”

“I am Monica Michelle,” I say giving her a kiss, “Can I lie down with you?”

She smiles, rolls to her side, and moves over a bit, so happy to be allowed to stay in bed.  I climb in, breathing in the slight scent of hairspray. I rub her back and she snuggles into me.

“What’s wrong with me?” she asks.

“You have memory loss,” I tell her.

“I do?”

“Yes. It is okay that you don’t remember.”

She sighs and moves closer, perhaps happier now that she has an explanation for the terrible feeling that has taken up residency inside her. I start talking, telling her about all the wonderful times we’ve had together, doing my best to fill her memory with mine.

Monica McGuire is a mother and writer living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.