Years ago, in an overpriced Northern California self-improvement seminar, I learned about twenty things that would never apply to my everyday life– and one thing that impacts me constantly. I learned that the act of doing something for another person has a very different effect than we have all been conditioned to believe. I had always thought that, in doing something for another person, that person would have more love and respect for me. While that might also be a little true, a much more interesting fact is that, while you are doing something for another person, the love and respect that you have for that person is growing rapidly. Think of a baby. They are incapable of doing things for others and can only receive, but after taking care of a child you feel your own heart grow in ways you’d never expected. The way to find more love is not in receiving, but actually in giving. If you want someone to love you more, don’t give them stuff- make them give you stuff. It’s amazing and totally true.
See that? I might have just changed your life. Please make your check out to Alison Wonder…
Oh never mind, this one’s on me.
One of my jobs since I came back to New York 4 years ago has been cooking for my grandmother, Lora. My folks busted her out of nursing care due to ridiculous overpricing for questionable care. The nursing home racket these days reeks of every other corrupt service industry. We fork over exorbitant amounts of money but never feel we’re getting the care we were promised or deserve.
Anyway, Lora moved into an available rental apartment in my parent’s building and was set up with 24 hour care because she cannot, in fact, live without it. I make sure that her fridge is full of healthy, home cooked items that keep her very happily fortified.
I should say here that Lora is not a blood relative. She is the mother of my stepmother – though my stepmother has raised me since I was about 2 years old. I have 2 mothers and I call them both mom. My stepmother’s parents were divorced and both remarried, so she had steps too. That means that I, at one point, had three blood grandparents (grandmother passed away long before I was born), two step grandparents, and two step step grandparents. Did I give you a headache? Sorry, take some Advil. I just did.
While my step grandfather and step step grandmother never really thought of me as a relative (there were too many steps for them to climb), Lora and her husband Ralph very happily embraced me as granddaughter.
I’m kind of an ageist. I don’t want to be, but I’ve always been slightly afraid of people that were much older – and grandparents were no exception. I have a fakey granddaughter personality that has always risen up and taken over in situations where I would be dealing with them. Too compliant, too smiley, never honest- that personality is neither authentic nor easily controlled. I am always exhausted when visiting older relatives, often with headaches and numbness.
Lora’s husband Ralph passed away about 6 years ago. Her symptoms of frontal lobe degeneration and non-fluent aphasia became evident a little after that, acting like Alzheimer’s and leading to her loss of speech almost completely. I have seen her twice a week for about 4 years and I haven’t known much about her at all. She is silent. I am terrified.
But I recently spent the day with Lora because she had to have the battery in her pacemaker changed. My parents were out of town and a relative needed to go and sign the papers to get her admitted into the hospital. It was the middle of summer, about 102 degrees outside and I was happy to spend the day in the overly air conditioned building.
Surgery admissions in hospitals these days involve moving through a million small intake rooms with a trillion clipboard toting nurses asking the same questions. Our first small room was attended by a slim Latino male nurse, who asked my grandmother how she was doing.
“How are you this morning, Ms. Longanecker?”
“Ms. Longanecker, HOW ARE YOU FEELING TODAY?” This time louder and with a slightly insulting slowness.
I felt my stomach clench and my mouth go dry. For some reason it had not occurred to me that I would have to explain about my grandmother’s silence. I assumed it would say somewhere on some chart or something that she had this condition – the exact name of which I didn’t even know at that point. Honestly, I hadn’t even considered her silence in years. This is just how she is. I deliver food to her apartment and, if she’s not sleeping, she looks up and we make eye contact and she looks sweet and that’s it. She doesn’t look sick. She doesn’t look unhappy. I know she’s eating the food I cook for her, so I close the door behind me and think about other things. But these questions by strange nurses were forcing me into facing the reality I could not avoid, trapped next to my silent grandmother in a hospital for many, many hours.
And I learned something.
I learned that she’s still there.
She’s simple and she’s direct and she’s completely quiet, but she communicates all day long. She was never this clear when she could talk. I think she was always concerned about how she was coming across when she was younger (and God knows I was too), and now all that insecurity has vanished… from both sides. I also learned that she isn’t that scary. She’s very much like a child or a (sorry) pet. The simplest things thrill her or piss her off but because the communication is mostly instinctual, through a look or a small movement or grunt, no one needs to bullshit around her.
I’ve always been proud of being able to cook for people who cannot cook for themselves, my love and respect growing every time. But I had become frustrated with my grandmother, feeling almost no connection at all. Now that I know that the person I’m feeding is responsive, opinionated, funny and still breathtakingly beautiful, it’s a gift to contribute to her life.
This meatloaf is my grandmother’s favorite food. Funnily enough, the recipe was given to me by another amazing woman, Joanna Laggan Fox, who is an incredible chef, wife, mother and friend and knows a hell of a lot about doing for others. She used to make this meatloaf for our “family meal” which is the staff meal before service in a restaurant or catering company. So this meatloaf has fortified families from all walks of life. Such is… the circle of loaf.
Jojo’s Turkey Meatloaf
- 1 Yellow Onion, diced
- 2 Carrots, diced
- 2 Celery Stalks, diced
- 8 ounces Mushrooms, diced
- 2 Tablespoons Oil
- 1 pound Ground Turkey
- 8 ounce can of Tomato Sauce
- 1 Egg
- 1 Cup Seasoned Breadcrumbs
- 2 Tablespoons Barbecue Sauce and more for covering loaf
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Heat Oil in a large sauté pan. Add the Onion and sauté for a few minutes with a pinch of salt and a dash of sugar. Add the Carrots and Celery and sauté for another minute or two- letting the vegetables get soft. Add the Mushrooms, a bit more salt and cook for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool for 5- 10 minutes.
- In a bowl, combine the Ground Turkey, the Tomato Sauce, the Egg, the Breadcrumbs and the Barbecue Sauce and a dash of salt and pepper. Add the sautéed Vegetables and smush it all together (with your hands if the veggies are cool enough). Shape the mixture into a loaf on a foil covered sheet pan and slather with extra Barbecue Sauce.
- Bake 45 minutes, or until loaf registers 165 degrees.