The List

My grandmother was made of hardy Scandinavian stock and she died a month shy of her 99th birthday. She was forced to retire at 92 and, at her retirement party, she pulled me aside, holding my arm just above the elbow and said, “You know Katherine, I never meant to retire.” I called her Bestemor which I’ve been told is grandmother in Norwegian. I said, “Yes, Bestemor, I know, I know.”

When she started using a walker it became too difficult to get around the grocery store and she relinquished this task to me and my father. Every week, one of us did her “marketing.” When it was my week, I’d call her at 9:00 am Saturday morning and she’d answer on the first ring. She’d be waiting by the phone in her bathrobe and wingback chair with her note pad sitting on her drum table. She’d read the list over the phone, starting with produce, then moving to boxed foods, the dairy case and ending with meats. My dad and I tried to get her to email the list. She could type lightning fast, but she just never took to the computer (enter, Bestemor, press enter, or double click, that means twice). Eventually we gave up and resigned ourselves to taking the list over the phone.

With the list came detailed instructions. “I’d like two lemons. Katherine, do you know how to pick citrus fruit? They should be large. They should be large and have smooth skin. I’d like two large lemons with smooth skin. Did you get that Katherine?”

I did my best to not speak during our phone calls as she was almost completely deaf, but sometimes it couldn’t be avoided. “Yes, Bestemor.”

“What?”

“Yes, OK.”

“I’d like two bananas if they’re big and three if they’re small. As green as you can get.”

“I’d like four kiwi, but only if they’re from New Zealand. Katherine, don’t ever buy kiwi that isn’t from New Zealand.”

“I’d like a spaghetti squash, a small one. If they’re large, ask the produce man to cut one in half, they’ll do that you know.”

“I’d like a quarter pound of that ham you like.” I don’t like ham.

“I’d like a four pack of that soft toilet paper that’s on special for $1.49. That’s a good price. You should get some for yourself.”

It went on like this for 45 minutes – carrots with the tops cut off at the register, two pears soft at the stem, and head lettuce, not to be confused with a head of lettuce.

Once I had the list I would drive to the grocery store near her house. I’d fill up the cart and load the contents onto the belt. Three-quarters of the pile was always produce. More than a few of the checkers, assuming the food was mine, commented on my healthy diet. I usually laughed and corrected them because back then, I ate to please my mouth without a care for nourishing my body. I was an invincible 20-something with a taste for peanut butter milkshakes and a vague idea that vegetables were important.

Bestemor was still alive and I was still occasionally doing her marketing when, at 31, I was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer and given a 10% chance of living 5 years.

I was in the midst of six months of chemo and wasting away when I started seeing a nutritionist. She told me I had to rebuild my relationship with food. This was shocking for me to hear and also completely right. After years of undiagnosed gastro pain, without realizing it I’d developed a paralyzing fear of food. She gave me baking assignments every week. She told me to eat what I made. She told me I had to start thinking of food as something that would nurture me and save me instead of something that would make me sick.

I knew exactly what I needed to do. Bestemor had been training me, teaching me all that I needed to know for years. It wasn’t only that I needed to eat more whole foods, clearly I did. I needed to plan what I would eat. I needed to make a list. I needed to go to the store and choose the best produce. I needed to prepare meals I enjoyed. I needed to eat them. I needed to nourish myself.

I started right away, rebuilding my diet from scratch. I eliminated soy and gluten which were known trouble-makers for me, and I minimized processed foods and sugars. I planned a menu every week, sitting down with my favorite cookbooks, choosing a few recipes, making a detailed grocery list and doing my own marketing. I discovered the healing nature of the creation and consumption of a meal.

Now, I’m almost seven years out of treatment and cancer-free as far as I know. My husband and I have a four year-old and a one year-old. Keeping the family fed, especially the picky toddler, can feel like a chore piled on to an already full to-do list, but I find few activities to be more satisfying. On good days, when I can get the kids to occupy themselves, or, better yet help out, it’s a cause to slow down and to take a moment to nurture my family and myself. For me the process of meal preparation has become a meditation in healing.

It’s been five years since my grandmother passed away, but I think of her all the time, like in the co-op market where I shop. I know the produce men there. We chat. They’re very knowledgeable and she would have liked that. Sometimes I think about her while I look for cantaloupes that are heavy and sticky on the outside and watermelons that sound hollow. Sometimes I pick up a few kiwis if they’re from New Zealand, and I almost always buy carrots, though I never ask them to take the tops off at the register. I can do that much for myself because, after all, I’m made of hardy Scandinavian stock too.

Katherine Malmo is the author of Who in This Room: The Realities of Cancer, Fish, and Demolition. It can be purchased anywhere books are sold. For more information visit www.katherinemalmo.com.

18 thoughts on “The List

  1. Jane Boursaw

    I love everything about this story. Without even realizing it — either her or you — she was instilling not only good dietary habits, but a whole philosophy of how hardy Scandinavian stock should live (she knew exactly what she wanted from the grocery store). And I’m sure you, in turn, will pass down hardy Scandinavian stock living to your own kids. Beautiful story.

  2. Tami

    Beautiful. A good reminder that the chore of planning and cooking and feeding a family can be meditative and even enjoyable. I ALWAYS think of your bestemor when I buy lemons.

  3. Katherine Post author

    Thanks, Jane. She never met my kids but she knew we would be adopting and probably a child of another race. She made me promise that they would learn to speak Norwegian. She didn’t even speak Norwegian, but I understand and appreciate what she was trying to do. Making sure they understand they are of hardy Scandinavian stock too!

  4. Katherine Post author

    Thanks Tami! I wrote this after we’d finished making your grandma’s empanadas at Shauna’s house. I got me thinking about food and our grandmothers’ legacy.

  5. Tiffany Hawk

    What a touching and beautifully written post. I have such a hatred for “marketing” right now because of the store by my house. This was a much-needed reminder of the important place food has in our lives. I look forward to improving my attitude about shopping for it! I am so glad to hear you are cancer free.

  6. Katherine Post author

    Thanks Tiffany! It is important, but finding the right store does make such a big difference. I hope you can find one that you can get to and that you like!

  7. Gisele aka LA2LAChef

    What a lovely piece. And how fortunate you are to have had a character like Bestemor in your life. You had me laughing out loud at her shopping instructions. I recognize in myself a bit of that discriminating shopper, and I surely hope, if I am blessed to live as long as she, that I will have someone who will take the time to shop so carefully for me.

  8. Judy Herman

    What a vivid and touching illustration of reaping what we sow. While you were giving your time and love to your Bestemor you were unaware of the gift she was giving you.

  9. Paul Katz

    What a wonderful story! As a still-invincible-feeling (and, perhaps more importantly, lazy) 20-something, I can definitely relate. In Boston the closest grocery store to me was Whole Foods, and I loved to shop there because I could buy all sorts of great vegetarian one- or two-step stuff. When I moved to Argentina–land of meat and four-aisle grocery stores–two years ago, I was in food crisis. I had to plan the ingredients (not meals, ingredients!) I’d buy in advance and even then there was basically nothing I could make for myself that wouldn’t take a lot of work. Fresh produce has been my savior. Stores basically only sell seasonal fruits and veggies here, but I’ve found that a bunch of whatever looks good and a packed spice shelf are really all you need for a fresh and tasty meal. It sounds like Bestemor might agree–though if she wants someone cutting the heads off her carrots and just the Kiwis from New Zealand, I suspect Argentine grocers would rub her the wrong way!

  10. Harriet Glynn

    Wonderful! I love the common sense of that generation. I’m very basic when it comes to food, and feel myself less and less inclined towards anything to froo froo! Sidenote: you have a FOUR-year-old! Time flies…

  11. Brandi

    What a lovely, touching story! It reminds me of the relationship I had with my grandmother, as well. My sisters and I rotated turns taking her to the grocery store, but I had such a wonderful shopping history with my grandmother (I’m the oldest of three girls) that I’d often call her to go shopping with me, too. I bought her a wheelchair so she could get around because her knee would begin to hurt after a while of walking. She also had diabetes and battled breast cancer twice, and she was very particular about what she ate. So, I learned a lot about healthy eating from her.

    Thank you for sharing your story!

  12. margarita donnelly

    Hi Katherine–just found your blog–this piece is delightful. I never knew my grandparents, they died before I was born. But am a big vegie foody now and during my recent stay in Mexico with my brother kept up my anti-cancer regime with lots of fresh vegies and fruit (did you know guanabana–soursop–is an anti-cancer fruit with 10,000 more anti-cancer components than the chemo Adryamycin?)–learned I can be vegie and healthy anywhere. I loved this piece. of writing. Thanks.

  13. Katherine Post author

    Hi Margarita!

    I did not know about this magical fruit. I’m intrigued and I must find myself some of this soursop. Thanks for mentioning it!

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