By Michael W. Harris
There is a line in the 2008 Wachowski’s movie Speed Racer that, even though it is largely a throwaway line uttered by what will soon turn out to be the film’s villain, has always stayed with me: “Pfannkuchen sind Liebchen. Pancakes are love.” Now, Google Translate informs me that that is not entirely accurate, that “Liebchen” actually means “sweet heart,” but I still like the sentiment because pancakes will always be love, specifically the love of my Grandma Jackie. And I can totally hear her saying “sweetheart” to me.
Growing up, Grandma Jackie, my dad’s mother, and her pancakes were something I looked forward to whenever we visited St. Louis or spent our summer vacation fishing at Montauk State Park in southern Missouri, the Harris family’s ancestral lands (at least in the immediate past). In the very best Midwestern tradition, breakfast at Grandma’s was a true feast: sausage, eggs, bacon, hash browns, biscuits and gravy, milk, coffee, orange juice, and, of course, pancakes. It is no secret that Midwesterners love their food. The church potluck is basically a cliché for the Methodists and Lutherans, to say nothing of basically inventing tailgating. But our love of food goes beyond needing big meals to get ready for a long day working the farm. In the Midwest, food is love.
Celebrate a newborn? Bring food!
Graduate from high school/college? Bring food!
Death in the family? Bring food!
Midwesterners are a stoic folk, not prone to big emotions or asking for help. Yet, we are a very caring and giving people, and many times that spirit takes the shape of food. And while most of us do not go out after a big breakfast to work on the farm all day, the Good Lord knows that many of us still eat like it. We are a large people because we have a lot of love to give. And we are also a hardworking and industrious folk, if not on the farm then elsewhere. Be it running a household, or in an office or factory, and nowhere can the two sides of Midwestern life, food and work, be seen more clearly than in my two grandmothers.
* * *
Breakfast at Grandma’s was something I looked forward to every time we got in the family minivan and headed eastward towards my extended family, and it was the pancakes that I always wanted to eat. Sausage, eggs, bacon…sure those were all great, but give me the pancakes by the plateful. I loved and lived for them.
One time, unbeknownst to me, Grandma mixed it up and made banana pancakes! From my first bite, I knew something was off. Different. But I didn’t want to say anything, lest the flow of fluffy, griddled perfection stopped. I was old enough to know not to insult the chef or appear ungrateful. It was later when I said something to my parents that I learned what had happened.
I didn’t like bananas. Or at least I didn’t then. I loved them as a very small kid and have since come back around.
But the main thing about the “Banana Pancakes Incident,” like so many stories with my grandma Jackie, is what was learned. Especially giving thanks, being grateful, and knowing that when something is done out of love to be gracious and polite. It was many years later, probably around 2005 or 2006, when I finally asked Grandma for her from scratch pancake recipe. I had been making them from a box mix for a few years, but I wanted to make them like Grandma did.
My mom had prepared me to expect that it would probably be somewhat vague as to exact measurements—years earlier she had tried to get Grandma to give her some of my Dad’s favorite dishes and was treated to “oh, some of this, a dash of that” kind of instructions—but luckily I did get exact numbers, though one thing Grandma did also tell me was that I should play with it, practice, add whatever I wanted to it such as blueberries or bananas. I also have to severely reduce the numbers because I normally am cooking for one. However, should you wish to try, here is the recipe as handed down to me:
- 3 cups flour
- 1/3 cup sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 cap vanilla
- 2 “heaping” tablespoon baking powder
- 1 egg
- Add milk for consistency
And the morning after she died on August 16, 2019, I made a tall stack in her honor. And unlike almost every time when I make pancakes, where I burn the first one because I turned the heat up too much, each and everyone one of those breakfast cakes were perfect right out of the pan.
* * *
On the other side of the family was grandma Marcie—born Mable, but my sister could not say the name and it instead came out “Marcie” and it stuck. Marcie was not really a cook. Sure, she tried, and she had a few recipes she did while my mom was growing up which were taken from cookbooks, but nothing truly unique, and nothing I remember growing up. She was much more of the modern housewife of the ‘80s and ‘90s, albeit in the ‘60s. As such, she never really stopped working and it was up to my mom to put something in the oven that had been prepared by Marcie or to set the crock pot when she and her younger sister got home from school.
As Jackie expressed love and care for her family through cooking, Marcie did so by working. Sure, she didn’t really need to while my grandfather Richard was still alive, but as a child of the Depression, like many others of that generation, she never really forgot what it was like to be without, to eat with scarce resources. To truly live close to the edge.
However, Marcie, while saving plenty financially, also gave generously. It was how she also expressed her love. She helped and provided financially just as Jackie provided culinarily. And like Jackie, she did so as her way of expressing love for her loved one.
Do not misunderstand, both women were warm and affectionate, but there were still Midwestern (Jackie from Missouri, Marcie from Illinois) and reflective of the stoic culture just as much as any man.
And Marcie continued to work, and give small sums to family, almost until the day she died. She also left tidy sums to her daughters and grandchildren, enough for me to buy a top-of-the-line Fox 601 bassoon and my sister to put a down payment for a home in Louisville, KY. Plus, her money also paid for my first master’s degree and many other things over the years via my mother.
What I learned from both of my grandmothers is that love comes in many different forms. It is expressed in many different ways. It is something ingrained in the Midwestern ethos, the stoic farmer. We are not a people known for effusive emotions, but instead we give. We give, we make, we serve, we help…along with many other verbs. Be it in the forms of food, money, shelter, advice (sometimes unsolicited…we are also rather nosy and prone to gossip), we always want to help our neighbors.
Granted, these are only lessons that I realize I learned in retrospect after I have left the cradle of the land of my birth and have lived in the West, Mid-Atlantic, and currently the capital ‘s’ South. The culture shock has been violent and jarring at times, with me questioning my very essence as people stare and wonder at why I am the way I am.
Invariably the question can be answered simply by, “Oh, I’m from the Midwest. Missouri boy, born and bred.”
* * *
When Marcie died it was during my final semester of undergrad in Spring 2004. I was starting to receive rejection letters from my graduate school auditions to continue my performance studies on bassoon, and around the same time (about a month before) my dad’s sister had also passed. It was the first time I was having to face the death of close relatives. Sure, I had lost some great aunts and uncles, also great grandparents, but now it was those much closer to me, those I had seen on a much more regular basis.
I was confronting personal loss, professional disappointment, and was also watching many of my friend beginning that long march down the aisle towards marriage and kids. I was truly entering into my “adulthood” (I was 23 after all), but with almost none of the so-called markers of such things. Indeed, I was on the bleeding edge of what is a much more visible phenomenon amongst my generation and younger of delaying marriage, kids, and mortgages, but back then I could only see myself as a failure. This had yet to become the trendy talking points of glossy magazines, media pundits, and presidential candidates.
No plan past “more school,” no relationship or partner, I was inexorably behind “the plan” as measured against my parents…on top of which I had to face death for the first time.
All of these feelings came to a head in two memories that are still with me. First is from the morning after Marcie died. I was working my typical morning shift in the music library at Truman State and a patron came in wanting a video or CD or something. The specifics of the interaction escapes me, but I do remember thinking afterwards that I was not my best customer service self during it. So it was no surprise when a few days later my boss informs me that the patron had said something to her afterwards and I agreed that yes, it was not my best morning because…see above. Luckily, I had been there nearly three years at that point, and she gave me the benefit of the doubt. I am not sure if I played the dead grandmother card or not, though. Probably not. It is not really in my nature.
The second memory I have of that time is when I finally broke down and cried. It was after some fraternity event and I was with one of my close friends in the group. We were standing outside my apartment and I am a bit fuzzy on what went down, but what I remember is hugging and me crying.
I am still in touch with that person, and hopefully one day I can adequately express just how much that meant, and still means, to me.
* * *
That was just over fifteen years ago, and now my final grandparent has passed. And from the moment I got that call on the evening of Friday, August 16, just one week to the day before my 39th birthday, I knew I would be making pancakes the next morning.
Pancakes are love.
However, these were not exactly Grandma Jackie’s pancakes. Like I said, I have made them my own. Besides roughly cutting her measurements by a third to serve one, I have tweaked it over the years suit me. A recipe evolves and adapts. And so have I in the intervening years.
Mostly gone is the insecure boy who was so worried about falling behind his friends in the game of being an “adult.” And in so many respects, I am no further along in that “plan” when measured against those markers I was so worried about back in 2004. I am still single, no kids, and no mortgage. And thanks to the nearly $200,000 in government education loans weighing me down, it is doubtful that those things will ever be a truly viable option given a choice…or a miracle.
However, the biggest change is that most of it (the debt not withstanding) doesn’t really bother me. I have much more comfortable in who I am and how I express my love towards others and how I love myself. Sure, I have still yet to find a stable friend network since leaving Colorado, and times like these make me acutely aware of how physically isolated I am from those I do love, but I have reached a much better emotional place that I was when Marcie died.
When grandma Jackie died, I made pancakes. My emotions in the hours and days that followed were a roller coaster: strangely calm to almost bawling. Much like with Marcie and grandpa Bill, it was not unexpected, and it was almost a relief that they could now be free of their pain and suffering. I and my family all had had time to prepare emotionally.
However, what my family has not done with any of these deaths, Grandpa include, and what is now only striking me as “odd” upon reflection, is that there were never any funerals. No gatherings with food in plastic, reusable dishes or casserole bowls covered in foil and laid upon folding tables with vinyl table clothes.
Very not Midwestern.
Marcie never had one, and after donating her body to science, I am not sure what became of her remains (and I think it was the same for grandpa Richard). With grandpa Bill, he also donated his body but we have been holding onto the ashes so we can scatter his and Jackie’s ashes (after science has completed its use) over a family plot in southern Missouri.
Similarly, when Marcie, Bill, and Jackie died, I was physically away from my family, and never did I go rushing back to be with them because…what was the point? There was no funeral to plan, no services to attend. No affairs to put in order. At least with Bill and Jackie I was able to see them one last time about a month before each of them passed.
I will always regret not taking the time to do that with Marcie. My 23-year-old self did not know how to process death at that time.
My mom lost her dad in her 20s and her mom in her 40s. My dad lost both of his parents in his 60s. I have been lucky to have had a fairly stable family life, but how we, my family, seem to deal with and approach death is a bit like how we also approach life (I think that line is lifted from Star Trek II?). We process the emotions in ways differently than most Midwesterners, though also fairly similar in that it is rooted in some stoic sensibility. Sure, we will make food and give time and thoughts to others, but when it comes to ourselves, the family and our losses…we don’t really talk about it openly, yet we talk about others things around it.
We just don’t seem to mourn openly.
And this is where my family seems so different, and at least now, is not so Midwestern…or at least to me. I did not rush back to be with my immediate family or even off to St. Louis, where my dad was. I had work on Monday and a busy week ahead with new students coming to campus. Like Marcie, work comes first, but like Jackie…I did at least make pancakes.
Pancakes are love.
If I did have one wish, it would have been that all my friends currently scattered about the globe could have been there and it have been a proper farm breakfast for all of them. And in the best tradition of Jackie Harris, everyone would constantly be yelling at me to sit down and eat.
* * *
At the end of the post I wrote in the wake of my grandfather’s death in 2017, “William of Gin,” I left a few things up in the air as I had no idea how long I would be living in Virginia. Turns out, it wasn’t even a year. As over August 2019, I have lived in the same place for over a year for the first time since leaving Colorado, and whereas my grandpa died a month after I left Colorado, my grandma died a year after I moved to Memphis.
For so many reasons I feel like I have yet to make Memphis my home. While I do feel more settled than I did back when grandpa died (for one thing my stuff never went missing for a month), I am not sure I will make Memphis my home for all that long, whereas, as strange as Williamsburg, VA, was, I felt like I could have eventually settled down there. There is nothing truly tying me to Memphis, emotional or familial. Where I had weird and unexpected ties to Williamsburg, there are no such things here in Memphis or even wider Tennessee. It is only the lure of tenure (which I am not sure I truly believe in as a system, especially for librarians) and my genuine desire to give all that I can to the students who I worry about being left behind by a university driven by a, I believe, misguided desire to achieve Carnegie R1 status at any cost (even giving into corporate partnerships to drive research dollars) that keep me from leaving or even considering applying for anything less than a personal dream job.
As I write this, not in a gin-soaked fever-dream like the first draft of “William of Gin,” Memphis is hot and lonely. I have yet to truly put down roots and, despite a few attempts to find and make friends, it is still slow going. Between being comfortable on my own, and my body’s new cycle of falling asleep by 10PM and waking up around 5AM, it is hard to go out and meet people, especially my age and/or single. And while I did finally get treatment for my Social Anxiety, it is still hard to go to people, anybody, just to say hi and chat. And if friends are the family you choose, and my immediate family is still physically separate from me, I have not been consistently around any “family” for going on 2 years now, and it is at times when I want to express my love for family but have none to show it to in person, that that separation feels all the more painful.
But to all my family out there, scattered across the world, I love you all. And if ever you are in Memphis, please stay at my house and I’ll make you pancakes.
Because pancakes are love.