When I imagine my grandmother, I see a sunny kitchen.
I see her wearing a flowery apron, her hair curled back, flour on her hands. I imagine a warm grid of light shining through the window onto the floor.
That is where I would have sat, watching her feet shuffle between the sink and the stove and the counter.
If I had ever been there. If I'd ever met my grandmother Fleeta Choate.
She died in 1976, four years before I was born. Breast cancer.
Her husband died in 1972, and by the time I was old enough to notice, the kitchen was already gone, the house sold. I never saw her things, no favorite rings or shoes or old handkerchiefs with a "C" stitched into the corner. I have one patchwork quilt she sewed before she died — and one year ago, I received the cookbook she used: the "Women's Home Companion" printed in 1950.
I have always felt an inexplicable ethereal attachment with Fleeta, although up until a few years ago, I simply thought of her as Grandma Choate — the woman in my imagination who had a feisty attitude and a hearty laugh. I somehow had the feeling she knew me well and loved me, despite never meeting me.
And from an early age, I knew I would have liked her, too, especially after hearing how she described a judgmental person as having a bowel obstruction, only in a more colorful, less proper way.
Here's what else I know: Fleeta Choate, born in 1911, lost her mother when she was 4 years old. She was a nurse through World War II, adored by her husband and two children. When my father earned his bachelor's degree in 1966, she earned her master's.
Aside from that, she ironed and made divinity and sweet potato balls and carrot cake from scratch. By all accounts, she was happy.
I am a married mother of two, ages 1 and 3.5, working part time as a reporter for the Deseret News.
And I have (too) many pans in the fire.
I have historically feminist opinions on gender roles, but when it comes to the contentment of keeping my home a haven and my family well-fed, I find myself surprised, wishing I lived in a different time when household skills were passed on genetically and motherhood was the ideal.
I wish I knew how to carve a whole chicken or set the table for a formal or informal dinner service. I wish I didn't get mad when my husband comes home late from work because I have high expectations. I wish I was more content to be a homebody.
Some women seem to be born with these skills. I was born restlessly independent.
Somehow, though, my grandmother achieved her own admirable blend of domesticity and independence, a dynamic I never thought much about until her cookbook arrived in the mail, yellowed and worn from decades of life. Suddenly, the Fleeta who stuffed newspaper clippings of recipes between its pages became real to me, as though her looping, cursive notes in the margins were my message in a bottle.
At the same time, she is a mystery to me.
My family might think it's ironic that I have chosen to write a bi-weekly column — part family-history, part motherhood, part cooking — to discover my mysterious grandmother. The stories I tell of her, I have to learn, to research the way a reporter researches anything — through interviews with eye-witnesses, research of official documents and asking strangers unusual questions.
There is much I want to learn about Fleeta Choate, and much I do not know. But even if I don't have the memories of her kitchen, or my own stories of her life, I do have her genes.
And I think she has my answers.
Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer at the Deseret News. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer.