This weekend, I made corn chowder.
It wasn’t the right season for it. Here in Spain, I’m not sure if there actually *is* a corn season. The only fresh sweet corn that I’ve found here has been a few sterile naked cobs, neatly squared off at the ends, husked and safely encased in plastic wrap and styrofoam trays. So far (ten months into this Spanish adventure), there have been no wooden crates heaped with leafy green ears and silky-golden brown tassels. There have been no strangers chatting about the summer weather and town events as they strip down each ear, and no squeal of the husk pulling against the shiny, perfect kernels. Maybe I will still find that here, someday and somewhere, but not now. Still, I made corn chowder anyway.
I made corn chowder for me, and for her. For my Aunt Mary. She passed from this world a week ago, after a long battle with lung cancer and a horrifically short battle with brain cancer. I didn’t make it the way that she would have. The corn was canned, and the milk was actually not milk at all but one of these weird plant milks that my stomach likes better. I couldn’t find fresh thyme, and undoubtedly my red-skinned, yellow-fleshed Spanish potatoes were not what she would have chosen. Really, what I made was a random corn soup, though it tasted pretty good, in the end. But that wasn’t the point, really.
Aunt Mary was the grandmother that my sisters and I never really had. Technically speaking, we had quite a few grandmothers, more than average, with both of our parents eventually remarrying and plenty of step-grandparents of sorts, but none of them really satisfied the grandmother role very well. Mom’s mom passed when we were quite young, and in her last years she was ill with Parkinson’s. Dad’s mom was an excellent round squishy Grandma with an adorable southern drawl, but far off in Texas. Various relatives took turns hosting us for overnights and weekends when Mom needed a break from raising three young girls on her own. All of those visits were enjoyable in their own way, but the ones we looked forward to most were with Aunt Mary.
Aunt Mary had six daughters, all grown by the time we came along, so she knew a thing or two about little girls. She also knew a thing or two about being a single parent, having been one during the years between her first husband and her second, my Uncle Bob.
Aunt Mary knew how to turn our visits into a treat with just a little bit of grandma-like magic. We got fresh sheets and big fluffy double beds. There were bubble baths and hair detangler that smelled like exotic perfumed fruit. She had a Nintendo 64 (such a luxury!) and we got to play Duck Tales and Doctor Mario as long as we wanted. We could roam around outside, running circles around the house in the woods, and log-roll down grassy hills as many times as we could without puking. We’d sit with the cats and watch the birds at the feeders, and visit the workshop to find out what Uncle Bob was building this time. Best of all, though, we got to pick what we wanted for dinner, and it was always corn chowder.
My aunt made corn chowder the way that chowder was intended. It is not supposed to be a gloopy paste that a spoon would stand up in. Chowder is supposed to be a silky broth with a hint of milk and cream that lets everything in it shine. For corn chowder, that means jewel-like yellow kernels, hints of celery and carrot, reassuringly cubed hunks of potato and the perfect blend of salt, pepper and a little butter, served in big bowls with crusty bread. There would be salad (always with homemade ranch dressing) and, almost always, homemade apple pie for dessert.
For a little kid who has very little control over a crazy life, over adults trying to sort out their own sh*t, over pretty much anything at all, getting to pick what’s for dinner is a BIG DEAL. Maybe kids today don’t get this, with so much more emphasis on individual freedom of choice, though I think my boys probably do, with our own crazy version of a single-parent-trying-to-get-by life. Aunt Mary’s corn chowder was very good, but it wasn’t magical in and of itself. The magic was in letting us, for one night at a time, feel extra special.
I couldn’t be there for the funeral. I couldn’t hug my six cousins and their spouses and kids and tell them how sorry I am for them, and for me. I couldn’t sit around a campfire afterwards with my sisters and drink beers and cry and talk about those sleepovers and what they meant to us. Sometimes the world seems smaller these days, but when it is measured in last-minute trans-Atlantic flight prices, it seems very, very big.
So, instead, I made corn chowder.