When he didn’t want to eat anymore, I knew it was bad.
It was almost a year ago that my grandfather passed away. Lying in a hospital bed in his bedroom where he was all but trapped, he went to sleep for the last time. When my mom called to tell me, my first words were “Oh good.” His wife of 66 years had left him two autumns before, and in the intervening time his body had failed him and then slowly his mind. For a man with a nearly photographic memory, an insatiable curiosity, and one of the sharpest intellects I’ve known, I imagine this could only have been close to a living hell.
My grandfather liked his steaks rare, practically, we used to joke, still mooing like the cattle on his ranch in Southern Oregon (the one that he insisted on managing well into his 80s, putting in calls about the price of a head of cattle and arranging with his foreman when to send them on to slaughter).
When his first grandson was born, my grandfather insisted that he was not yet old enough to be a “Grandpa,” so we all called him “Dinny,” a kid-friendly version of his French name, Denis. It was from Dinny that I inherited my two-squares-of-dark-chocolate-per-night ritual. We shared an incurable sweet tooth, and when his doctor told him to cut back on the sweets, he switched from ice cream to frozen yogurt and chocolate truffles to ‘healthier’ 70% dark chocolate bars. He was nothing if not stubborn.
Growing up, my sister and I spent nearly every vacation at my grandparent’s stately Palo Alto house. We would traipse down from the upstairs loft bedroom each morning to sit around the kitchen island and share a family breakfast. On mornings when I woke up and heard the sounds of conversation and clattering plates already wafting up over the balcony, I felt a shudder of panic; had I missed breakfast? Why didn’t they wake me? It was the highlight of my trip - the grapefruits cut with a serrated knife, bowls of cereal, apricot jam, marmalade, and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter (in yet another misguided attempt at health) spread on pieces of wheat toast, just barely heat kissed for my grandfather, regularly toasted for the rest of us.
In my earliest memories, I got to stand on a stool and help knead the yeasty dough on bread days, placing my loaf in a miniature version of the pans my grandfather filled each week. To meet our breakfast needs, he baked bread on Sundays and made his own marmalade on occasion. He stood at the stove stirring hot pots filled with sweet citrus rinds and then ladled his favorite breakfast condiment into jars and tucked them into the fridge, to be carefully and evenly spread across his rare toast, one bite at a time.
Dinny liked everything just right. And if you couldn’t count on someone to make it just the way you liked it, you should probably just make it yourself. The cupboard to the left of the stove was full with stacks of plastic coffee containers re-filled with a precise cereal and granola mix we called “Dinny’s kind,” painstakingly combined to the perfect ratio of almond clusters, flakes, and Cracklin’ Oat Bran, to be eaten by the spoonful, dry, right out of the container.
For 25 years of Christmas mornings, we had the same ritual. Christmas did not officially begin until my grandfather had finished the last drip of his coffee, sometimes even indulging himself in a second cup. (When the doctor cut him off from caffeine, my father took over the honors of coffee-torturer). We filled our plates (post-stockings but pre-presents) with Sara Lee croissants, sausage links, OJ, and scrambled eggs. My grandmother would remove a portion from the pan a few minutes before they were done and place them on my grandfather’s plate, still runny and just barely warmed, likely agents of salmonella but just suited to my grandfather's liking.
One year the whole family headed out for a meal at Phil’s Fish Market during an extended stay at my grandparents’ Monterey Dunes Colony beach house. My grandfather ordered the salmon. Rare. When it came out, perfectly rare in the middle, he sent it back, I guess maybe hoping for one that was still swimming. An irked chef sent out a new filet, barely even warmed on one side. Never to be made to look the fool, my grandfather ate it, and went home to an all-night battle with food poisoning.
My introduction to the finer things in life I owe almost solely to my grandparents. They drank champagne, threw cocktail parties, and put out hors d’oeuvres and party napkins most nights before dinner. I have distinct, saliva-inducing memories of a plate of brie cheese and Carr's Table Water Crackers laid on the table in the formal living room (where children were not permitted to go, other than to make a polite appearance to say hello). I was allowed to try the cheese, but was forbidden from eating more than one small cracker, as I “wasn’t old enough to appreciate it.”
Dinny sucked the marrow out of life. He devoured new knowledge, even as his body and mind slowed. At 88, he asked me for a tutorial on checking stocks on his iPad. Never mind that he barely had control over the movement of his fingers and his eyesight had all but been taken by macular degeneration years before; he refused to become obsolete.
When I stepped into my grandparents’ house for the last time, my grandfather was seated in his velvety green reclining chair, his caregiver at his side feeding him breakfast. He opened his eyes occasionally, enough that he knew I was there. I read aloud to him from letters he and my grandmother had exchanged during the war and he cried - something he never did in my presence as a child - and spoke longingly of his youthful days with my grandmother. He could barely force down the runny yogurt being fed to him; I couldn’t help but wonder if undercooked eggs and lightly browned toast wouldn’t have gone over better.
A photo story about my grandfather’s correspondence with my grandmother during WWII can be found here.
I don’t often eat grapefruits like this any more, but when I do I am right back at that Palo Alto counter as an eight year old, perfectly sprinkling on the sugar so it covered each loosened segment.
Slice grapefruit in half cross-wise. Using a grapefruit knife (bent and serrated on both sides) or any small knife you have on hand, carefully cut around the border of each segment. Sprinkle lightly (but evenly) with sugar, and use a grapefruit spoon to dig the sweet flesh out of each pocket. When you’ve finished, squeeze the remaining juice out of the rind into a large soup spoon and slurp it up.