When I was a young girl, my relatives lived in different states and we rarely saw them. Mom had four siblings and we made a few trips to visit my maternal grandparents in Ohio where I met my aunts, uncles, cousins and the resident geese Rodney and Mildred. Some of the relatives came to visit us in California, but for the most part, I didn’t know my extended family very well.
When I was about eight or nine years old, my paternal grandparents moved within a bike ride from my house. Dad was an only child, so the lure of the California weather made it an easy decision for my grandparent’s to move close to our family upon their retirement. I’m not sure if I had met them before or not, but they quickly became part of our lives.
Grandpa Flick was a gruff man who chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes, used swear words even when children were present, and didn’t show his feelings much. I thought he was wonderful. He was an expert model train hobbyist, if such a thing existed, and I loved visiting him in his "train room." He had transformed a small guest house on the back of his property into a magical kingdom of trains. There was an enormous table; at least it seemed enormous to the young girl that I was at that time. The table had tracks all around it and landscaping and train stops and little towns, all built by Grandpa Flick.
In my memory, I spent hours watching Grandpa, with his tiny tools and boxes of parts, building the trains and creating the villages on the big table. I don’t think he ever taught me exactly how it all worked; it was probably a stretch for Grandpa to even let me operate the trains, which he did. Remembering how he was, he likely thought that a young girl should be in the kitchen with Grandma. But I was happy in the train room and he never made me leave.
It couldn’t have been much more than a year that I “helped” Grandpa with the train room before he had a heart attack when walking to the mailbox at the corner and passed away on the curb near their house. My brother Dave rode his bike to find me playing in our neighborhood and blurted, “Grandpa died.” I thought he was kidding. My brothers, who were about twelve and thirteen at the time, tended to tease me a lot so of course I thought something so outrageous must have been a joke. It didn’t seem possible in my young mind that someone could die without being sick. I don’t think I fully understood. But it was true and I don’t remember ever visiting the train room again.
By the time Grandpa died, I was old enough to ride to Grandma’s house on my own. Then when I was twelve, we moved onto the same street where she lived. I loved visiting Grandma Flora and she may have been the person that planted the seed for my love of cooking and baking. I have vivid memories of certain foods at Grandma’s. She made the best scrambled eggs ever; they were perfectly cooked, creamy and fluffy, and she delicately sprinkled just a taste of salt and pepper on the top. Her split pea soup was delectable with the strong flavor of ham that came from a ham bone simmering over the stove all day. But her real specialty, at least in my childhood brain, were sweets. It seemed that whenever Grandma visited our house, she arrived with metal boxes filled with cookies and chocolate walnut fudge; separated by layers of waxed paper.
It never occurred to me to hang around the kitchen and learn from grandma, and I regret that now. But shortly after my college graduation, I was lucky enough to fully comprehend the love that Grandma Flora put into her cooking and the love that my Dad had for his mother. My parents had moved Grandma Flora to be near them after they moved to Austin, Texas, in 1981. Coincidentally, I moved to Austin in 1983 to work while Hubby went to graduate school at The University of Texas at Austin. Looking back on those happy days of my young adult life, one of my favorite memories is that Dad and I would meet at Grandma’s apartment for lunch almost every Wednesday. You could tell it was the highlight of her week.
Having three children of my own now, I understand why that weekly lunch was so special to her...Dad was her Only Child and she was still able to give to him the way a mother gives. She would always make something special like homemade soup with fresh bread or gently breaded chicken fillets with potatoes. And there was always dessert....pies, cookies, and of course the fudge. But my favorite, that I remembered so well from my childhood, was a crunchy cookie with an unusual combination of salty and sweet that I loved.
Hubby and I left Austin after only two short years when he had graduated from business school, but in the years following I would go back as often as possible to visit my parents and Grandma Flora. As time went by, her eyes got bad and she couldn’t bake as much; the pies and cookies started not tasting quite right, the fudge was a bit runny, and eventually, she stopped making them altogether.
She knew by then that I liked to cook, maybe more than her other grandchildren, and she would write down some of her special recipes and mail them to me. It was only shortly before she died that I visited her in a senior home in Austin and she dictated to me her recipe for my favorite, which I find surprising to this day, Potato Chip Cookies. I cherish the memories of my time with Grandma Flora. I wish I had spent more time in the kitchen with her, cooking and learning by her side. The consolation, however small, is that her memory can live on through the joy in these unique cookies.
"There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in." -Graham Greene
Grandma Flora’s Potato Chip Cookies
1 cup margarine 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 cup crushed potato chips (small bag) 1/2 cup chopped nuts (pecans) 1 1/2 cups flour 1 tsp vanilla
Cream margarine and sugar. Add flour, chips and vanilla. Mix well and add nuts. Drop onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake 350 degrees for 10 minutes until brown around the edges. Cool and dust with powdered sugar.
Note: I substitute butter for the margarine, bake them on parchment, and make them small so they crisp up nicely.