How I’m Connecting My Family To Grandmother’s Legacy

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It’s a well-known fact that I can't cook. Never once has any friend or family member expected me to bring a dish to a gathering. In fact, they know better than to ask me to prepare a home-cooked anything since they’ll end up with a squashed bag of marshmallows and burnt toast on the dinner table. However, this holiday season, the magic is on because my family and I are about to embark on an adventure into the unknown — our kitchen. 

I’ve always liked hovering in kitchens — just not my own. Good food, good conversation, and great love gets whipped up while cooking, and I’ve shared this while hanging out in some of the best. My favorite kitchen, though, has always been my grandmother, Memaw’s. From Memaw’s pumpkin pie to my grandfather’s fried chicken, the smells from their stove would find you anywhere in the house — including playing hide-and-seek in the back closet. Still, it never got any better than her holiday meals. 

All throughout my childhood and well into adulthood, Memaw’s menu never varied. I would’ve been disappointed if it had. There was a comfort in the predictability of our holiday dinners, and I looked forward to eating almost as much as opening presents. No one has ever made sweet tea, mashed potatoes, or chess bars (a glorious flakey, gooey Southern dessert) like my grandma — but this year I’m going to give it a try. 

What strong forces would pull this self-proclaimed microwave aficionado into a big scary kitchen? A strange recipe that includes grief, love, and loss. This will be the first holiday season without my grandmother. Memaw passed away shortly after last Christmas, and even though almost a year has passed, I’m still processing everything that means. With a heart still soft and reaching, I hoped cooking a few of her dishes might keep her close. 

"Cooking creates connection. So, not only do I hope cooking Memaw’s recipes will connect me to her, but I hope this connects my son to his great-grandmother."


The truth is, Memaw would never expect me to cook her recipes. She knew it was more my speed to pull out a frozen dinner, so never once did she push me into her kitchen to show me how to mash potatoes. But now that I’m about to step in there, I’m a little worried. Will the food I cook taste like hers or a “wannabe” version of her greatness? Will I set off smoke alarms and ruin it all? I say all this because I’ve set off smoke alarms and ruined it all, but the Fire Department was super nice when they showed up. (Totally true.) Such a huge goof would make her feel further away, and my feelings of loss would come on stronger. 

With my nerves a little raw, I’m going to ask for some baking backup. 

“Hey, are you all ready to help me cook?” 

“Yup,” says my 8-year-old, actually putting down the remote. 

My husband and son have proven themselves helpful in the kitchen (not only when it comes to mess-making), so they’re coming in with me. My kid loves the creativity and math skills inherent in the process, and my husband … well, he loves the results. 

I may avoid large cooking projects like I do going to the dentist, but recently, my family and I have found ourselves burning the occasional dessert together. And this is where I learned a secret: Cooking creates connection. So, not only do I hope cooking Memaw’s recipes will connect me to her, but I hope this connects my son to his great-grandmother. I can share stories of how I grew up with these recipes and growing up with the lady who made them. 

While my son and I peel potatoes, I’ll tell him how every New Year’s Eve, his great-grandmother and I toasted the year to come with jelly jars full of boiled custard. When I heat up the oven to bake chess bars, I’ll remind him that the two of them used to read her fashion magazines together. To keep Memaw’s legacy alive, I’m going to try and re-create her recipes. With those familiar dishes at our table, perhaps this holiday season can keep us feeling full of her food and, most importantly, her love. 

Tags: Baking, Grandparents, holiday baking, holiday season

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Tonilyn Hornung

Tonilyn is an author and freelance writer who lives with her husband, young son, many furry friends, and never enough closet space. See Full Bio

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