A lot has changed over the years at my Granny Ashton’s humble abode on Radway Road in Liverpool. The privacy hedges are gone. Windows have been replaced. And the garden wall wasdemolished. Never again will the low wall tempt a young boy to pretend he is a trapeze artist.
Nearly lost my crown jewels on that one.
Despite all the changes new owners made over the years, my memories remain. I remember all the foot traffic in and out of the little row house. Neighbors stopping by for a cuppa and freshly baked raisin scones. Granny made her scones with a special trick I still use to this day. Using milk that’s a couple days old will add just a wee bit of tartness to give the scones a signature flavor.
It’s the little things, isn’t it?
A typical day at Granny’s house started with a good old-fashioned slide down the wooden bannister. At least it did for a while. I kept my feet on the stairs as I grew into a man and realized there are certain places on the body where you never want to get a splinter. Especially when Granny’s technique for splinter removal involved a sewing needle and a fair amount of digging.
I once read that the most painful place to be stung by a bee is inside your nostril. Maybe so – but if they’re having some sort of pain competition, I challenge them to compare the bee sting to a splinter in the berry patch.
After arriving safely downstairs, I stopped in the living room. Aside from the kitchen, it was the second warmest place in the house. A coal fire was roaring and crackling. I could get lost staring into the dancing red and orange flames. Pausing just long enough to warm my chestnuts and buns, I would scan the corners and crevices of the room looking for spiders. Many an eight-legged intruder fell victim to Granny’s trusty broom.
Much of my life revolved around that cozy living room. We talked, laughed, and watched the BBC on a black-and-white TV. The closest thing we had to high-defback then was some aluminum foil wrapped around one of the telly antennas to improve the grainy reception. A misplaced fire poker once broke a couple tiles on the hearth. It never occurred to me that they should be replaced. The broken tiles were just part of the charm of the room.
A chair near the fire was reserved just for Granny. No one else dared sit in it. A large ashtray next to the chair filled up weekly as she sat there entertaining family and visitors.
A German cuckoo clock down the hall never uttered a single “cuckoo” in my entire life. I thought maybe it couldn’t speak English. Or maybe the bird was scared because Granny had lived through two world wars and was a force to be reckoned with.
Sure Granny had her tough side because of the time and place of her upbringing. Yet she was pure love and sweetness through and through. On those mornings when I came downstairs and passed through the living room, where my brother and a cousin were often playing cards or a rousing game of Battleship, I couldn’t wait to get into the kitchen. Granny always had a big smile on her face, “Goodmorning, my little chef, you are just in time to help Granny Ashton make bread for the neighbors.”
Being in the kitchen with Granny was magical. Nothing bad could happen there. I loved the aromas, closeness, and the very act of cooking. There was a familiarity about that room that always made me feel good. The dinged up rolling pin was uneven after having been passed down through previous generations. Yet it was perfect.
I cherish my memories of sitting at the small kitchen table with metal legs where we enjoyed a cup of tea whilst the bread was rising. I recall that the kitchen windows were perpetually covered in steam as the warmth from the stove, oven, and kettle battled back against the cold air struggling to force its way inside.
One morning when I was about 10 years old, I asked why we were making only three loaves instead of four.
“Mrs, Rawlinson has moved on, son,” she told me.
I was confused. My world was our neighborhood. I knew my way around. She must not have gone far. Surely I could ride my bike and deliver bread to wherever Mrs. Rawlinson moved. Or maybe Dad can drive me in the car.
My kind grandmother looked at me with moist eyes and told me to sit down.
“Dear sweet child. What I'm about to say isn’t easy. When we come to visit this planet, we only come for a certain amount of time. From here, if you are good, you get to a place called heaven. Mrs. Rawlinson was a nurse all her life; she always helped those lessfortunate. She raised two children by herself, and you would never hear her complain. Mrs. Rawlinson I know in my heart has made it to heaven.”
I cried with sadness for the first time. I didn’t really understand the pain at the time. It wasn’t I had been beaten in school or my dog had died. I felt what it was like to mourn, and know I would never see Mrs. Rawlinson again.
My insecurities kicked in, and I asked Granny, “Are you going to die? Are you going to leave me as well.”
“Not now, son,” she said to me. “Someday we all goto a better place. For now it’s important for me to teach you recipes that I learned earlier in life, and to share with you the gift of giving. It’s important we laugh, play and make our neighbors happy.”
And we did for almost two years. Then Granny’shealth started to fail. She watched me from the chair and touched the dough to make sure the second rise was springy. Sometimes she nodded off. I always cooked a quietly as I could so as not to wake her. A few months after she fell ill, Granny Ashton joined Mrs. Rawlinson heaven. It weighed heavy on my heart. I had lost my best friend and grandmother.
It was up to me to continue her legacy.
What I learned from Granny Ashton is that with four simple ingredients, some kneading, and an oven, I could connect with people and change lives. It’s amazing what one can do with nothing more than flour, water, yeast, and salt.
I was hooked on cooking from the very start. It wasn’t just the wafting aromas permeating from Granny’s kitchen that awakened my inquisitive palate. It was her gift of giving that struck an instant chord. Food was not only a nutritional staple, it was a way to bring the community together.
From the time I was just 8 years old, we would bake five loaves together every Saturday. Granny never had much money, but she shared what she had. Closing my eyes, I can hear the crackling crust as I waited for a loaf to settle. It’s like not a moment has passed since I stood in her kitchen.
Delivering each package in the spritzing rain, the warm bread was held closely against my chest (carefully hidden under my parka). My youthful smile beamed brightly against the cold gray skies in anticipation of making someone’s day. What is better than a warm slice of doughy bread with a shatteringmahogany crust slathered with marigold-coloredbutter and lemon curd?
As I pull away from the curb in front of her home. I think about all the families that have occupied it since those days. I can’t help but smile. Granny Ashton’s gift changed my outlook on food and, frankly, life in general. I wonder if she every fully understood how grateful I was for her encouragement and lessons.
If I could sit down with her today, I’d love to reminisce on old stories and cook for the woman who truly changed my life when I was only 8 years old. I would tell her how I honor her by teaching children across the world how easy it is to make bread, and how I encourage them to share with their neighbors. I would tell her how I also pay it forward by teaching the same recipes and lessons about giving and compassion to my daughter, little Victoria Mei.
Or maybe she knows. Maybe she’s watching.
I miss you, Granny. I hope you read my message as I send this note across the sky. Your kindness set me on a purposeful path all the way to America, and I hope I’m making you proud.