Editor’s Note: Tanya is a Pakistani-Tennesseean who grew up in various countries across the Middle East and makes her home now in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A prior version of this post appeared on her blog, The Great American Breakfast Quest.
A good friend of mine has decided to quit smoking. She’s been smoking for as long as I can remember, and it’s gotten her across two continents and two sets of idiomatic intrigues, through undergraduate and graduate school, and over heartbreak, romance, hope, and despair. People talk about smoking as a filthy habit, a crutch. But it is sometimes that line between going screaming out into the frigid night with nothing but nightmares in your eyes, and staying indoors to watch the curl of smoke plump up into the air.
My grandfather died of lung cancer. He didn’t tell the family for five months after he got his diagnosis, and the cancer was already advanced when he finally went to the doctor for the first round of tests. My grandmother’s biological mother died in March, and her adopted mother in August; my grandfather refused to tell anyone that he was dying until it couldn’t be hidden anymore. He told us in December, and he was dead by February.
The day I found out, I walked out of my college dorm and sat on the crumbling concrete steps, and I smoked four cigarettes, stub to stub, pressing my head against the wall and holding back tears while people walked past me and swiped themselves into the building. I could hear laughter behind me. One of my hallmates finally came and bundled me back upstairs, and I wrote an email to my Spanish professor telling her I would not be writing the essay on my fondest memories of my grandparents.
And then I called my father, because he was across the world and too many time zones away, and told him that his father was gone.
My grandfather was a tall man with a face like the raw side of a hatchet. When I was little, it was hard to think that my father was his son, or that he was my father’s father. There’s not much of him to be found in his sons. The same hairline, maybe, and a similar glint in the eye when they’re getting ready to say something they know will stir up trouble. But my father’s hands were made to hold guitars and paintbrushes, and my grandfather wore his hands out against farm implements and heavy rope. He threw knives and wasn’t sparing with the flat of his hand, but he also dyed the family chipmunk with bright colors so local hunters would know not to shoot her.
We visited my grandparents on their farm every couple of summers when I was growing up; the other summers were spent with my mother’s family. My grandpa took me out to see his cows, and one of the calves tried to crawl into the truck cab with me. I remember shrieking but secretly being thrilled. I fed another calf from a bottle, and cried when I found out later that Beula had probably become hamburger. In anger and despair, I railed, “How can you eat something with a name?”
When he retired, my grandfather turned from tending cattle to growing grapevine for Christmas wreaths. My grandmother got a website together for online orders. They kept time by a garish tacky clock that rang out every hour in a different bird’s call, and their house was decorated with angels and my grandmother’s uninspired cross-stitching. At every meal, my grandmother sat a stack of sliced white bread at my grandfather’s side.
My grandfather quit booze, and he quit smoking. His voice creaked. He’d been a strong man who got irritated when I was too clumsy and gangly to figure out how to properly toss a frisbee. He had a series of dogs, and each of them was named Princess. He drove Ford F-150s, blue.
I called him when I found out he was dying, but he was already having trouble speaking. I couldn’t figure out what to say. I tried to say I’d really liked riding out to see the calves with him that day, and I wanted to ask him if he ever ate all the bread from that stack Grandma put out for him. I wanted to know if he’d ever told my father that he was proud of him. I wanted to say so many things. I wanted to ask so many things. I know I cried after I hung up the phone.
I know I’m crying a little bit now.
My grandfather never got to eat anything I cooked. He never knew I could cook. He died before I ever picked up a spatula, before I cracked my first egg, before I figured out that if I cut onions with my contacts still in, I won’t cry over them. He didn’t get to see the announcement of my college graduation, or that I’d taken a job in Morocco. Or that I’d loved it.
I remember dancing with him once when I was about seven. He was an awkward dancer, or maybe I thought it was awkward because I was so small next to him, and my pigtails kept slapping my cheeks and catching my attention away from his stiff legs. I had lost a few teeth that year, so I was gappy and smug about it. He called me “his girlfriend,” and let me ride in the cab of his blue truck and pet that ugly calf and take the first slice of white bread off his stack.
I forget that it’s okay to miss him, sometimes. I forget to give myself permission.
I forget that you don’t need permission for that, that grief just takes.
We are better for having people in our lives lovely enough, vibrant enough, to bring us to grief.
He was my grandfather, and I miss him.
I made cookies tonight as part of a care package for my friend, so that she’d have something to savor on the frost-edged nights when her mind needs a reason to stop twirling long enough for her to get her bearings. They’re good cookies. They’re moist, and warm, and have a soft chocolate center offset by the full-bodied combination of walnuts and thyme.
They’re comforting, in the way that an old man, going frail around the edges and starting into an ugly cough, offers comfort when he presses a shed buckeye into your hand and closes your fingers over it — and comforting in the way that finding that same buckeye years later, tucked into a zipped-up pocket of a half-forgotten purse, is a kind of grace.
Walnut Thyme Chocolate Chip Cookies
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 stick (8 Tbsp) butter, melted
- 1-2 Tbsp fresh thyme, chopped (amount depending on how full-bodied you want these cookies to be)
- 3/4 c brown sugar
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- 3/4 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 1/4 c whole wheat flour
- 3/4 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 5 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
- 5 oz chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Using a wooden spoon, beat together the olive oil, melted butter, sugars, and chopped thyme. Once mixed, beat in the eggs and vanilla extract.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and sea salt. Add this to the olive oil mixture, and mix thoroughly. Fold in the walnuts and chocolate chips.
Roll spoonfuls of dough into tight balls and place on the prepared baking sheet, about 3 inches apart. The cookies spread, so leave room for that. Bake for 10-12 minutes at 375°F until the edges are golden brown. Cool — but not for too long — and enjoy.