#scintilla 13: pinch and dash

This post is part of #Scintilla, a fortnight of storytelling. I am responding to the following prompt (from Wednesday): Many of our fondest memories are associated with food. Describe a memorable experience that took place while preparing or eating food.

My great grandmother, affectionately known as Granny Jones, was an amazing woman. She held a variety of jobs before I came along like welding in the shipyards, selling shoes, nursing. She was also an excellent seamstress and made many of my favorite childhood outfits. When I was 18 I asked her to make me a quilt; it's one of my most treasured possessions. 

I spent a lot of time in the summers in her small house that always held such great mysteries for me. I played with her dress scraps and beads for hours while she sewed, or watched her "stories" or read. I still have affinity for game shows because we watched them together, especially The Price is Right. I remember the smells of her house, how something was always on the stove: okra, black-eyed peas, and cabbage, which I hated the smell of and wondered how anyone could ever eat it. I never thought of her as a cook because my other great-grandmother was a baker who made pies and cookies and cakes.

I remember one time I said, "No, Granny you're the dressmaker and Granny O is the baker." As if you could only be one or the other. But Granny Jones cooked because she always had and even though she only cooked for herself most days, she enjoyed the process, at least most of the time.

"Sometimes, I just have a cheese and tomato sandwich and go to sleep," she told me when I asked for a sandwich for dinner. "And sometimes, I just eat toast with melted cheese."

"So does Gran" I responded. It was one of my favorite things about being at my grandmother's: cheese toast and also, chili dogs. I blame her, actually, for my love of cheese because she used to slice cheese with this heavy-duty slicer and somehow it tasted so much better than just cut with a knife. My brother and I would place the rectangles of cheese on bread and watch it brown and melt in the toaster oven, anticipating the gooey yumminess and the way it would string from our mouth to the toast. To this day, I love cheese toast, which is completely different than grilled cheese, for the record. 

I was in college, living with Granny and my grandmother and decided one bored Saturday that I wanted to learn to make Granny's famous (in our family) chicken and dumplings because she only made them for big family get togethers. 

"Granny, show me how to make your dumplings," I said, offering a quiet "please."

"Okay, but you'll have to do most of the work," she agreed. Her breathing was particularly bad then and she had to increase her breathing treatments to get through the day. 

We worked together, her guiding each step and me, concentrating on getting it right. 

I had never deboned a chicken before that day.

Granny laughed when she saw the look on my face as I separated meat from bone. 

Then she whispered, "The next part is a secret."


"This is my secret," she said more loudly though no one was in the kitchen to hear us. "I don't make my own dumplings anymore. Haven't for years," she confided, mischief in her throat.

My hands are full of chicken but I stop and turn to face her. "Okay," I say unsure why that is a secret. 

"You can't tell anyone," she presses me. 

"Okay," I say. 

She gets out packages of tortillas from the refrigerator. I wash my hands finally free of the chicken.

"Really?" I ask when I see her using a pizza cutter to slice the tortillas. 

"See." she says simply.

I nod. 

I learned more from her that day than her dumpling recipe. I learned that cooking was about feeling, that pinches and dashes were terms that try to make tangible the way you work off recipe. I learned you can't taste dumplings or soup or a roux as it cooks because it will taste different hours later and the next day. 

"It's like life," Granny says. "Disastrous one moment and perfect the next. You just have to wait it out. And sometimes you make mistakes and have to start over and sometimes no one knows but other times everyone does." 

Last night I tried a new recipe and it didn't turn out like I hoped. I was too imprecise with measurements and accidentally broiled instead of baked and things burned. And I thought about Granny as I ate what I could and threw out what I couldn't save. 

I wish I could tell her that I know what she meant about cooking and life. I wish I could tell her how many times I've made dumplings to rave reviews and how once I made them into a kind of noodle soup because I cut the tortillas too thin. Everyone loved it anyway. I wish I could say thank you for all I learned from her not just about cooking but about kindness and bravery and toughness. How to tell a story, how to appreciate laughter, and silliness and a good punch line. She raised my Grandmother who continues to teach me about courage and grace and every single time I cook, I think of them both, of the kitchen we shared and how they rescued me even when I did not realize it was happening. 

But I see it now and am grateful every day to both of them and the time I spent with them together in that house on Wilkins Road that will always be where I grew roots and wings.

#scintilla: chance encounter

This post is part of Scintilla, a fortnight of storytelling. I am responding to Monday's prompt: 

Write about a chance meeting that has stayed with you ever since.

When I was younger, my mom used to joke that I met no strangers. I talked to people in grocery stores or at the park. I was at home surrounded by people listening to them talk. Growing up in my grandmothers kitchens surrounded by stories made me keenly aware of the power of words and listening. As I get older, I don't reach out as much as I did as a child. I don't open myself to the possibilities for listening, for seeing and acknowledging other people. When I do, I am reminded why it is important. 

Before I began my Master's program, I was in love and swept up in the romance of Europe, of a small village in England and then later, Paris. I spent a great deal of time alone in these places while the people I knew worked what seemed like constantly and in an industry where going for drinks and schmoozing is part of the work, I felt alone even surrounded by others. I did not speak French well, though I was learning thanks to one of the cooks in the kitchen/deli above which I lived. 

One night at a party at a hotel in Paris, I was listening to people talk about work and I was annoyed and cranky, bored and also hungry. So I excused myself and went into the restaurant/bar near the lobby. It was mostly empty except for a couple arguing at one table, a young woman checking her watch every so often and a woman in her fifties sitting at the bar. I asked if I could take the seat next to her. She nodded. I asked the barman if I could order food and he handed me a menu.

"Get one of the crepes," she said to me in English with a fairly thick French accent. "The raspberry one is my favorite."

"I love raspberries," I said also in English. "How did you know I wasn't French?" I asked.

"You seem sad," she responded. I wasn't sure if that was a response to my question or just a comment on my demeanor. 

I said simply, "Yes."

I ordered raspberry crepes and a coffee and watched the woman dab the corner of her lips with a napkin. 

"You are not married," she said as if she were reading details of my life from a notecard.

I shook my head in agreement. But I did not want to talk about my life or the fact that I had come to Paris for one thing, one person and I was beginning to fall out of love with them both. 

I was relieved when she began telling me about her husband who had died recently in a boating accident. She talked about famous men who had also died while boating. I was mesmerized by her. She was what my grandmother would have called regal, tall and slender with expertly bobbed brown hair. She wore little makeup and I found her beautiful. 

She asked me about where I lived in America and about my family. I was terribly homesick and began crying almost immediately when I spoke of them. She held my hand and ran her thumb across my wrist in a gesture that was at once so intimate and comforting that I exhaled sharply, not realizing I'd been holding my breath.

I told her about my brother and how kind he was, always rescuing animals like wounded birds and abanded kittens. But mostly I talked about my grandmothers. 

When she told me about how her own daughter was angry with her because she did not want to move in with her and instead stay in the Paris apartment she'd shared with her husband who'd only been dead a few weeks, I gripped her hand more tightly. And when my crepes arrived I was hesitant to let go of this stranger's hand. She had seen something in me besides a young and naiive American girl, which I certainly was. And I allowed myself to be seen as something else. I listened to her as I ate. She told me about the first time she met her husband and how she'd known as soon as she saw him that she would love him, not that she loved him instantly but that he was someone she could love. "He had promise", she told me. "Sometimes that's all it takes, to see someone with promise."

I do not know how long we sat talking. My crepes were gone and I'd had several coffees when someone from the party drifted over and I felt obligated to return. 

I hugged her and when she said, "Be happy, dear" I knew I would leave Paris, though it took me weeks to actually make the decision and more time to buy the plane ticket but it was that moment that I realized how unhappy I'd become.

I turned back to wave a thank you as I walked back to the party but I often wonder if she knew how much she changed my life with her kindness that night. 

Her name was Maxine. I never saw her again but I think about her openness, how she consoled me while she herself was grieving. I think about how young I was and how desperately I missed my grandmother and her advice, though I was pretty sure what she would say when I called, what she has been saying since I left Alabama, "When are you coming home?" 

But I have found home in so many places and in so many people. Maxine was one of them.