This essay is part of Motherwell’s Parenting and Food column.
By Deborah K. Shepherd
“Wow! You have a big family,” says the painter as he’s scanning our hallway for his appraisal.
We are finally, after fifteen years, having the interior of the house repainted, and I’ve been bringing color chips home for months, going back and forth between Antique White, Mother of Pearl, Combed Cotton, and Vanilla Milkshake.
There are a couple of dozen framed portraits of our grandchildren—drooling babies, toddlers caught in mid-giggle, serious kindergarteners sporting new haircuts, gap-toothed grinning boys, and sporty boys in Red Sox caps or Bruins jerseys, posing with their baseball bats, hockey sticks or soccer balls—beaming down at us from the soon-to-be Vanilla Milkshake walls.
But really, there are only two of them, my daughter’s sons. Every summer, since the oldest was an infant, their other grandmother and I have scheduled a photo shoot at Sears, or Target, or J.C. Penney or whichever department store still had a studio and a baby-whisperer photographer. These studios are mostly going the way of landlines and DVDs, and I fear that post-pandemic, they will have disappeared entirely. You can tell last year’s shoot was homegrown, facilitated by my son-in-law, and featuring the big feet and big hands of emerging teen and tween brothers.
What I don’t tell the painter is that there are two more grandchildren, the progeny of my husband’s estranged son, and the only photos we have are the wallet-size ones–of a curly-haired toddler girl and a sweet baby boy–on my husband’s desk. We haven’t seen these children or heard any news of them in nearly a dozen years, and, although we made trips from Maine to New Jersey for birthdays and a baptism when they were babies, I no longer remember their birth dates or their middle names and would not recognize them if they showed up at our door.
So, my husband has taken my grandsons as his own, and, for years, he’s been the preferred grandparent. He’s the first one they greet when they arrive for summer stays at our house on the coast of Maine, where he tosses the ball for them in the backyard, shares his stamp collection, and—when they were younger—cuddled them in his brown leather recliner, reading Treasure Island to two small boys who could barely read themselves. The few times I traveled to their house in Boston without him, they’d run right past me:
I wanted to tell them, “He’s not even related to you,” but I never did.
I do most of the cooking in our house, but my husband believes—truly believes— he makes the best macaroni and cheese on the planet and has said so many times. Enough times so the boys believe it, too. I have to take it on faith that he does, since I’m lactose-intolerant and have never had a bite.
He makes it with Velveeta.
One would think these boys would have outgrown this proletarian meal, accustomed as they are to take-out sushi and all the other pan-Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American dishes their two-career parents bring home after work.
Four summers ago, the last pre-pandemic idyll we had with our boys, my husband talked up macaroni and cheese for days, building breathless anticipation for the night. And then, no doubt as a nod to our grandsons’ increasingly sophisticated palates, he amended the neon-orange “pasteurized recipe cheese product” with some provolone he found in the back of the fridge.
The three of them dug into all that creamy deliciousness, until I noticed the color of the dish.
“Is that black?”
I grabbed the bowls and threw them in the sink.
My husband retrieved his.
“A little mold never hurt cheese.”
Now we call it “Blackaroni,” but it’s still the feather in my husband’s cap. And in a few months—after we prepare for their summer visit by airing out sleeping bags, retrieving baseball bats and Whiffle balls from the basement, cleaning out the refrigerator, and buying cheese with late expiration dates—those two intrepid no-longer-so-little gourmets, loving their grandfather as they do, will hold out their bowls for seconds.
Deborah K. Shepherd is a retired social worker whose debut novel was published when she was 74. Mother of two and grandmother of two, she lives on the coast of Maine with two rescue dogs of unknown lineage and one husband who swears that Velveeta is a food group.
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