Whatever my grandfather did, he devoted himself completely to it. He took his time. He did it well. It didn’t matter how the small the job — cutting a melon for dessert; ironing shirts and trousers and, to my embarrassment, even underpants; wrapping gifts with paper by folding perfect lines; parallel parking on the curb in front of the fish market. Everything, to him, was worth doing properly, carefully, thoughtfully, perfectly.
I lived with him and my grandmother most summers when I was a child, and the way he took care with the utterly mundane — his habit of low speed and high quality — was infuriating. Mostly, I think, because I couldn’t cultivate the same habit myself. Or I didn’t see the point. I wanted all those tiny, tiny things that he took time to do so well not to matter at all. If he gave me a task, and I didn’t do it correctly, he’d follow up behind me, resetting the table or refolding the laundry just the way he showed me to do in the first place.
“No one cares!” I insisted. “You’re doing all this work for nothing!” My misdirected fury made him laugh, warmly, because somehow he was kind and gentle and patient even while correcting me. It was, I thought as a child, borderline deranged.
This is the grandfather who gave me my name when I was born. He wrote it on a piece of paper in his ornate cursive and mailed it to my mother in London. By the time I knew him, he was running the ice cream company he founded in Nairobi, and he let me visit him at the office as often as I liked, which was often. I’d sit by his desk and eat tutti-frutti and chocolate ice cream and play with his paperweights and do made-up calculations on his calculator and go home with the smell of industrial freezer in my hair.
“You were always his favorite,” my grandmother says, when I bring him up now, and I hate how good it feels to hear that, because he was my favorite, too.
When he got sick, really sick, I went to Nairobi and sat by his bedside in the hospital. He’d say my name cheerfully when I came in, making the T soft, as it’s meant to be, following with a string of nicknames he had for me like some kind of royal title. But then he’d get quiet. He was tired, and sometimes confused. I brought him his brown resin comb and combed his silver hair in a deep side part, the way he combed it his entire life. I fed him a gelatinous goat-trotter broth, sent over by my auntie, one spoon at a time, sometimes waiting a minute between bites for him to signal that he was ready for more. He called me by my mother’s name. He fell asleep.
He died six years ago, but in my earliest memories of my grandfather, he’s drinking whiskey out of a beautiful glass. He’s pulling a clean handkerchief from his pocket and pressing it to my watering eye. He’s laughing from his belly like an evil cartoon character. But mostly he’s cooking — browning English sausages for us in the morning before a road trip, taking his time so every single link is evenly browned all over, with no lines. He’s frying lamb kofta in a wide, scratched saucepan — the meatballs spherical, each one the same size, then carefully transporting them to a pot of tomato sauce.
He was known, within a wide circle of family and friends, for this dish, and for making it on request. He emailed me the recipe when I was in my early 20s — that was when we emailed each other a lot. I followed the directions as closely I could, but the dish wasn’t as good as his. Not because of the veneer of nostalgia. Not because he was the kind of cook guided by instinct, or the kind who withheld his technique — he did, in fact, measure things, and when he was asked for a recipe, he gladly shared those measurements. I think his kofta was better because he was really good, better than most other people, and definitely better than me, at every step of the dish. He paid attention. He cared. And that’s that.
The only way around this has been changing the dish and changing my expectations for it. A mash of beans and herbs, held together with egg, generously seasoned with ginger, garlic and green chile, makes a truly delicious vegetarian base. Roasting the kofta in a sheet pan means they turn out evenly brown and crisp without your standing over them, watching them, turning them. I love the version I make, which is vegetarian and often uses canned tomato, even though it would surely upset my grandfather to see all those lumpy meatballs — meatballs without any meat in them? But I also know he would have never let on.