Elizabeth McCracken, “Hungry”

summer-of-76-wrapA grandmother finds out her sick son will be taken off life support while she’s watching his daughter.

(from Thunderstruck)

The grandmother was a bright, cellophane-wrapped hard candy of a person: sweet, but not necessarily what a child wanted. She knew it, to. That sad bicentennial summer, her son in the hospital recovering from surgery, she and her granddaughter look for comfort all over Des Moines: at the country club, the dinner club, the miniature-golf-course snack bar, the popcorn stand at the shopping mall, the tea room at Younkers, every buffet, every branch of Bishop’s Cafeteria. What the girl liked best: to choose your own food, not just chocolate cream pie, but a particular, considered wedge. To stand before the tall, toqued brunch chef, who minted Belgian waffle after Belgian waffle and rendered them unto you. The world of heat lamped fried chicken and tall glasses of cubed Jell-O and dinner rolls with pats of butter so refrigerated you had to warm them in the palm of your hand before they’d spread.

Read that. It aches with sweet, vaguely ugly nostalgia. This story is a heartbreaker. Even the really funny stuff — “it was so hot you could hear the mayonnaise go bad” — is almost unbearably sad. This is the story of a grandmother racked with guilt but also trying to defend herself from the judgment of hindsight. Sylvia’s son, like her husband, has a weight problem. Her daughter does not, but feels scarred by how she was raised to think about food. (That’s one item on a long laundry list of grievances she reads to her mom one day.) And Sylvia’s granddaughter, visiting for the summer around the bicentennial, seems to have gained a lot of weight under her grandmother’s generous watch.

[79 to go in 2014]

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