reverb 10: I begin in a kitchen

December 31 – Core Story

What central story is at the core of you, and how do you share it with the world? (Bonus: Consider your reflections from this month. Look through them to discover a thread you may not have noticed until today.) (Author: Molly O’Neill)

I have thought about this question ever since it posted a few days ago. It's one of the things I ask students who take my class on narrative to consider whether we're reading others' stories or writing our own. I consider myself a storyteller, as you can see by little photo in the sidebar. I believe deeply in the power of sharing stories and I've felt this way as long as I can remember.

Throughout this year, I've written snippets of my story here, on this blog and many pieces of me lay about on post-it notes in my office, in my purse, in my jewelry box. While cleaning my desk before Christmas break I found a note that read, "Ask me the story of my life and it will begin with me sitting in a kitchen."

In early 2010 I wrote the following as part of an in-class writing exercise I was doing with my students:

Between my grandparents’ kitchen and the garage I came of age, steeped in fierce independence and longing.

My grandmother’s small kitchen, the one of my father’s boyhood, contained all the secrets of the women in my family. It is where they sat to deliver bad news, perhaps because the brandy was closeby on a shelf. Grandmother would stand on a chair, grab the glasses and the liquor, dust them off, pour and listen. I watched this ritual throughout my childhood, not because there was a lot of bad news in our family, but because my grandmother was someone in whom everyone confided.

Everything happened in the kitchen.

My grandmother washed my hair in the kitchen sink with shampoo that smelled like apricots. What grew between us, her hands in my hair, my eyes squeezed tight, was like magic, an intimacy for which I longed in my teenage life. I never fully understood the pull of that tiny kitchen. How when I think of my childhood, I come back there and not just to that kitchen but all the kitchens of my young life: my two great-grandmothers’ kitchens, the kitchen in the first house I remember clearly, and the kitchen of my young adult life, another kitchen I shared with my grandmother where my own secrets were spilled, where I stood at the counter eating pizza with my friends, where I laid out my master's thesis on the floor, crafting the work of my life to that point like a recipe made on the fly.

It was in a kitchen where I first heard someone swear while peeling potatoes. As a girl, I sat among the women as they shelled peas and peeled shrimp; stirred rue for gumbo, traded recipes and told stories. Men moved in and out of the kitchen, smelling and tasting whatever was in the pot, getting ice for their drinks, and more importantly, eavesdropping. It was in the kitchen I learned how to go off script, to add and subtract ingredients by taste or season. No woman in my family has ever followed a recipe as it’s written.I have my great-grandmother’s recipes with lines through them, her handwritten notes including the various occasions where the dish was served. These recipes are lessons in editing and revision. They’re about finding one’s own way. These are my great-grandmother’s stories. When I read them, I feel like I’m being let in on her secrets, only I can’t always understand them. There are too many contexts missing. Yet, I am convinced that one day they will speak to me. I cling to her memories as they intertwine with my own. I hear her voice as I fill muffin tins with batter and I am careful not to overfill each cup. I think of all the times I stood in her kitchen, listening in. It was in the middle of the women in my family, surrounded by smells of cornbread baking, I learned to tell a joke and most significantly, to tell stories.

Stories are the core of who I am and where I've been. I write so often about growing up a girl in the South, about my family, about secrets and that is also the core of who I am. My story begins in a kitchen and I have no idea where it will end.