birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Tough Cookie

I was fortunate enough to have a mother-in-law who was, what I like to think, a perfect grandmother to my children. She was kind, loved to bake, adored my kids, and they knew it. She would ask to speak to them long distance on the phone and ask interesting things, like, ”What are you reading?” My relatives would only query, “What grade are you in now?”, the absolute laziest of grown-up questions, showing virtually no interest in the answer, but merely a place holder in the stilted communication etiquette of children and adults.

This sort of grandmother was wholly unknown to me. My own grandmothers were foreign figures, one a tiny, wispy, ghost of a woman I remember as a pale shade of grey in a house coat, wandering around in her always darkened home, the drapes pulled tightly across to keep out the hot sun and the glare of the Valley. Was she sickly? I have no idea. But she was barely there at all.

On my mother’s side, the Grandmother was a force, even though she was also small in stature. But she was quite a Tartar, very opinionated and not at all affectionate. She baked a very dry, kind of bread every day and made little, hard, extruded cookies with barely a hint of butter, sugar or anything one might think belonged in a cookie. It seemed more of an onerous duty than an expression of cooking to please.

Molly emigrated from Russia with her two older sisters and baby brother in 1911. Their father never made it to the US and their mother was held at Ellis Island because she was sick with TB. The children lied about their ages to be allowed into the country alone while they awaited the mother’s release, and worked in NY as wig makers for Orthodox Jewish women who hid their hair beneath the enormous false hair pieces of the day. I can only imagine that the difficulties imbued her with a no nonsense outlook on life.

My mother was a product of Molly’s first marriage to a husband that we didn’t even know about until we were adults. The clue was right before our eyes, however. My mother was 5’10” and her two siblings and their parents were more in the 5’2” size range. Husband Number 1 was jettisoned when my mother was two years old.

I think she was very intelligent and well read, but I was too young to get any benefit from this. She didn’t feel the need to share. Her second husband was a judge and a very lovely man. His attentions would help make up for her seeming lack of affection.

My mother would always get me dressed up for family parties at holiday times and I would be presented to Grandma at the door, where she would meet me by saying things like, “Don’t you ever brush your hair?” My holiday outlook would not quite recover from there.

A Tour de Force