Jane Hurd, my grandmother, whom I always called Nana, passed away a few months ago. She died after a battle with throat cancer, about which I’ll only say that as much pain as she did suffer from her illness and treatment, I’m thankful that up until almost the very end, she remained cogent and emotionally herself, and that she seemed to have experienced much less pain than is typical with her particular disease.
Nana was a good grandmother, both in the sense that she was a good person and a good person to have as a grandmother and in the sense that she was good at embodying an archetype of grandmotherliness.
Much of my experience of Nana, many of my feelings about her, much of our relationship was conventional. My relationship with her was in many ways almost the epitome of what a grandmother-grandson relationship is often thought supposed to be like in modern North America. She was utterly devoted to me and my sister, loving, indulgent even (she taught me to break open Nutter Butter cookies and add peanut butter, because they didn’t have enough peanut butter for her grandchildren), and always proud of her grandchildren (if she was ever not proud of me, and there must have been times, she never let it show). I certainly tried to be as good a grandson as possible for her.
Much of our experience is powerfully shaped by social structure, discourse, and structured expectations, and certainly in our culture today there are fairly clear ideas about what grandmothers and grandsons are like (or supposed to be like), embodied in the everyday discourse of conversation, in greeting cards, in popular culture, so that I can meaningful refer to my relationship with Nana as “almost the epitome of what a grandmother-grandson relationship is often thought supposed to be like in modern North America.”
To recognize that a relationship or set of experiences is strongly shaped by social structure and discourse in no way makes a relationship or experience any less real, authentic, or meaningful. There is a tendency, by many contemporary North Americans at least, to want to see ourselves as purely products of our own actions and to feel cheapened or lessened when actions or feelings are partly due to outside influence. But, the fact that our interactions with one another and our feelings toward one another were in part (but never completely) the playing out of social expectations and structuring doesn’t in any way change the fact that we interacted in certain ways, with accompanying real feelings.
One of the key traits I associate with Nana is hospitality and generosity. She had a great concern to serve others and that others be served.
Especially with me, and my sister, and my cousins, this was probably partly due to her “grandmotherliness.” She was concerned with generosity and hospitality with everyone (it was very difficult to not eat or drink something when visiting her house – a string of questions, such as “Would you like some cookies?,” “Would you like some coffee?,” “Would you like a sandwich,” would generally continue until something was accepted), but she was especially generous with her grandchildren. When I was a child, at Halloween Nana would always have good candy to hand out to all the neighborhood children (not the little packets of two sweet tarts you’d get at some houses, but candy bars), and she’d typically hand out two or three candy bars to each kid. For children she knew, she’d have special bags with extra candy made up ahead of time, but my sister and I would get a veritable mound of candy. For that matter, I don’t think she ever taught my mother and uncle to add peanut butter to Nutter Butters when they were children – not that she wasn’t a loving, nurturing mother, but that being a grandmother was something a little different.
Another part of my grandmother’s concern with hospitality and generosity was, I think, generational. My grandmother and grandfather grew up as pre-teens and teenagers during the height of the Great Depression. They had known severe and widespread scarcity growing up and one thing I often saw in them, and in many others of similar age, was a concern with scarcity and having enough, and in making sure that everyone was well fed. My grandparents were also very much a part of the WWII generation, with the great emphasis on serving country (with my grandfather joining the navy when he was old enough, and my grandmother training as a nurse) no doubt contributing to an emphasis on service and hospitality generally.
At the same time, I don’t think that Nana’s personality can be reduced to social structural factors like her generation or the playing of a social role of grandmother. Her concern with hospitality and serving or helping others was more thorough-going than with many other grandmothers or women of her generation that I’ve met. For example, in her career as a nurse (a career field in keeping with her personality in general), she spent much of her career as a nurse for the local department of public health, in part no doubt because that was an available nursing job, but in part because she saw that as a specific nursing job where she could make an important contribution to the community in serving many poorer members of the community most in need of help.
Another trait I associate with Nana is strength of character, expressed in simple (though never simplistic) unadorned and elegant fashion.
She was not a flashy person. She was never one to call much attention to herself, in how she dressed, or spoke, or did anything else. She was a soft-spoken person. At the same time she had an amazing strength of character and will. For all her soft-spokenness, she was not one to be pushed around, and she always stood firmly for her convictions (truth be told, as with many, or really most, members of my family, myself included, she could be downright stubborn at times – though in her case usually in a non-argumentative way – she’d generally simply do what she wanted to do or thought was right).
These traits come together in something I associate with her: cooking. She didn’t cook much in her later years, but both her sense of hospitality and her simple strength were reflected in her cooking.
I don’t think of that many recipes when I think of her. She didn’t cook a vast array of things, and her food wasn’t flashy – it was simple and good.
There are two recipes in particular, though, that almost always come to my mind when thinking of her, Chicken and Biscuits and Pound Cake, both things she often made when there was a crowd around. During most important family holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter, these two recipes would make an appearance, usually not on the day of the holiday itself when some holiday specific meal would be fixed, but the day before or after, when a large number of family might still be gathered.
Her Chicken and Biscuits were not particularly complicated: roast chicken with a chicken gravy, with peas always in the gravy, carrots sometimes added, served with or on biscuits. Anyone who basically knows their way around a kitchen could produce some version of the dish, but her version was always particularly well done, though as with a lot of simple dishes well done, it’s nearly impossible to state exactly what made hers so good.
Her Pound Cake was quite simply the best I’ve ever encountered, and almost anyone who ever tried it wanted the recipe – and another slice of cake.
This was her recipe (she always freely shared it, so I’m not exposing her secret recipe here, and I think she’d be happy if anyone were to see the recipe and use and enjoy it):
Jane Hurd’s Pound Cake
2 ½ cups sugar
3 sticks butter (3/4 pound)
3 cups flour
½ tsp. baking soda
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. lemon extract
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Cream sugar and butter in a mixer.
Add one egg at a time and beat well. (She always insisted the each egg be given 5 minutes of mixing time in the mixer for a total of 30 minutes of egg mixing. The recipe’s not particularly difficult to make, but she always insisted that you had to take the time to do it right with no short cuts.)
Sift the flour and baking soda.
Alternately add flour mixture and buttermilk to the egg/butter/sugar mixture, mixing each addition well.
Mix in vanilla and lemon extracts.
Bake 1 ½ hours at 325 degrees in a greased and floured tube or bundt pan.
The first time I used the recipe myself, my partner asked if I was going to glaze it. I answered no, that it didn’t need any if I did it right, that it would be moist inside, with a crisp, flaky crust all around the outside. He was skeptical – until he had a few bites, whereupon he agreed that this cake was best left to stand on its own unadorned.
I’ve perhaps presented a too tidy picture thus far. As with most people, Nana could be characterized by a few key traits that run through much of what she said and did as key themes of her personality, and it’s mostly those things I’ve talked about thus far. At the same time, no more than with anyone else could she be completely or sufficiently encapsulated by a few traits or characteristics. There are many aspects of her that I cherish as much as those things I’ve already mentioned that must be left more as loose ends – qualities of her that can’t be so easily wrapped up into a tidy package of grandmotherliness, hospitality, strength of character, and so forth. As such, I’ll simply mention a couple and try to resist the temptation to wrap things up neatly.
She always had an avid curiosity about history and related topics. As far as I know, this was something she mainly shared with me. I’ve had a passion for history since I was quite young, that ultimately led me into anthropology through an exploration of topics related to history when I was an undergraduate. I remember fondly, ever since I was a child, talking with Nana about history. Some of this was her sharing stories of her own experience of the Depression, or World War II, or other events and times, but it was also conversations about the American Revolution, or the Civil War, or other topics of mainly but not exclusively America history. Later when I developed an interest in anthropology, she was one of the few non-academics I met or knew who didn’t necessarily assume that this meant archaeology, or digging up mammoth bones. Instead, her question was “You mean like Margaret Mead?”
She didn’t talk openly much about politics, but she was a strongly partisan Democrat. (Growing up in a liberal Democratic family in a strongly conservative area made for an interesting time growing up. I always had at least a slight sense of outsiderdom at school, something intensified by the fact that my mother and maternal grandparents were “Yankees,” on occasion leading me to be similarly labeled a “Yankee” in elementary school in a semi-rural setting in the South, despite the fact that I was born in the South and my father’s family had been in the South since before the American Revolution.) I remember the morning after Reagan was elected president in 1980. I had had many conversations about the election with Nana beforehand. On the night of the election, it had been my bedtime (I was nine) before the election results were in. On school mornings, my mother dropped me off at Nana’s on her way to work, and I went to school from there. That morning before school, I asked Nana who had won, and I still recall her deep sadness when she told me that “We lost.” This was much in contrast to the triumphal glee in evidence (by teachers and students) that day at school, and I took (and take) more comfort in her sadness. Much later, I remember her anger and indignation at all the attacks directed at Bill Clinton during his presidency. While I had (and have) my own problems with Clinton, I take much comfort in that righteous anger, also.