south

#reverb14: where and when I'm from

Origins | Get back to our roots. Where are you From? Is it California, Minnesota, China, Ireland, Earth? Do you know who you are? How you tell people where you are from, and why? Recently, I wrote about my accent, my language and the way that it marks me. People are constantly asking where I'm from, so my response to that question and this prompt feels like a story I'm always telling.

I believe there are several reasons for this:

I was raised by storytellers. All the women in my family constantly told stories about their lives, their pasts, stories they knew of relatives of travels. I wish I'd had the forethought to record some of these stories. If I have any regrets, it's that I don't have recordings of my Great Grandmother's voice, her laugh, her way of telling a story.

We were nomads. I moved a lot as a kid, every few years, so houses, street names, even friends were never what tethered me. My family, that was home. My grandparents' and my Granny's were home. A kitchen was home.

Growing up in the South, history never feels very far into the past. People are always giving you directions where something "used to be." We aren't good at letting stuff go, or moving fully forward; there's always some look back to the past. (I am not making a judgment whether this is good or bad. I do think it influenced my ancestors and thus, me.)

When someone asks me where I'm from, they typically are really asking about my accent. So, I say "Alabama" or "the Gulf Coast." But that's not the whole story, of course. My father's lineage is Irish and English, my mother's English and Scottish. I inherited the fair skin, the freckles, the love of story and language. But most of what makes me, my deep connection to the ocean, the desire to feed everyone, the ways I meander and get lost and can spend hours making small talk, which isn't small talk to me, at all, the way I love a pun, a clever turn of phrase, my belief in ghosts, and superstition, the way I first saw the world is because I grew up in the South.

But one of the things I've been thinking about lately, particularly as I talk to my students and note a significant difference between my experiences and theirs, is that I'm also a child of the 80's. I was a teenager and college student in the 90's.

I'm from walking to my friends' houses down the street, riding my bike downtown to the library or general store, buying candy with dimes.

I'm from Jem and the Holograms, Saturday morning cartoons, watching movies like Stand by Me and Footloose with my family

I'm from Strawberry Shortcake, portable record players, 45's and very large boomboxes with double tape decks essential for making a mix tape.

I'm from Michael Jackson's Thriller and Madonna's Lucky Star, and from MTV as actual music television.

I'm from vibrant, neon colors, big high, wearing mismatched socks, skating rink birthday parties.

I'm from telephones with cords, winding around the kitchen into the dining room.

I'm also from the time of the AIDS crisis, hysteria, paranoia and fear, the Cold War, and Reagonomics, Just Say No, the Exxon Valdez spill, the Challenger disaster, John Lennon's assassination, Tiananmen Square, tylenol tampering, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Sometimes I forget the importance of when I grew up. It factors significantly into how I was shaped, and how I see the world. It fixes me in the same way place does; it frames my girlhood in neon with the Footloose soundtrack in the background.

something else about kitchens

Do you have a story that you're always trying to tell? The one that shows up in poems, blog posts, narratives, song lyrics over and over again? Is it the story at the core of you, the one around which you seem to evolve? 

Because I'm in a new place, with new street names, new people, new routines, I keep thinking back, to the one place I was always comfortable, the one that held all the secrets of my girlhood and later, my move into adulthood: my grandmother's kitchen(s). (The rest of this post comes from a variety of posts; some I've published here before, others are drafts and pieces of things I've written). 

I have written many times about the kitchens of my girlhood. My Granny O's kitchen which smelled sweet, like pie crust baking, where I decorated birthday cakes, layered the frosting myself and never once actually sat in a chair, or my other granny's kitchen where Granny Jones gave me free reign to stir the peas and okra. She always set the table even if it was just the two of us. We drank out of tall, yellow glasses which I gripped with both hands, feeling very grown up.  

I snapped peas and peeled shrimp or potatoes in these kitchens. I listened to women talk and laugh. I learned how to tell a story, how to tell when a pie was done (the trick was anticipating the perfect crispiness and taking it out about 1 minute before almost any recipe told you to); I learned how to be heard, that loud voices could mean you were agreeing with someone. I learned that silence sometimes meant you were angry. I learned that most women have a way to make the recipe better, and even if you aren't interested, they're going to tell you how.

 

My grandmother's kitchens are forever embedded in my understanding of what it means to grow up in the South. You told secrets in the kitchen, delivered bad and good news there, crowded around the small TV with the rabbit ear antennae to watch the end of a baseball game, or sneak a bite from the hot stove; it was not a place you went to be alone. I wonder now how we ever fit so many people in that kitchen, my father's boyhood home, full of generations of noise. 

Everything happened in the kitchen. 

My grandmother washed my hair in the sink with shampoo that smelled like apricots and peaches. 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. Later, she would dye my hair in a different kitchen sink, and though the shampoo was different and I was ten years older, I instantly felt like a child again.

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 (much to my grandmother's chagrin)"You shouldn't stand and eat," she would say, passing me a napkin. That kitchen on Wilkins Road 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. We stepped over it for days, before piling it onto the table and then rearranging it in the formal dining room to make the final choices. 

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. I cling to her memories as they intertwine with my own. When I ask grandmother if she remembers how Granny (her mother) cooked, I can hear the smile in her voice. She likes to talk about her own childhood because she can still recall the sounds and smells, the tastes and stories. She tells me about the importance of a good skillet, cast iron, how to wash it and care for it between washings. I hear her mother's voice in her advice and feel a pang of longing for my Granny's laugh, the way she delivered a punch line or the hook of a story. 

As my grandmother's mind fails her, all I can do is tell her stories.

"Do you remember when I ruined your muffins?" I ask.

"Was it pizza cheese?"

"Yes," I say and we laugh. 

I find it heartbreaking to talk to her, to write her letters. I have four unfinished in my bag I keep meaning to finish and send. I don't always know what to say or how to say what I really mean. Whatever our differences, my grandmother helped raise me. She taught me about friendship, loyalty, about defining my own success. Like my father, I learned ambition and drive from her. She and my great-grandmothers taught me to cook, taught me how to be in the kitchen, how to listen, how to anticipate when something was ready to be removed from heat.

So what I want to say is thank you, but she doesn't understand what for. She doesn't really know or remember all the things she taught me, all the ways I admire her and love her, even from a distance. She doesn't know how my heart constantly aches for that kicthen on Wilkins Road where my closest friends toasted my birthdays or sat outside long past the melted ice in our glasses and the fireflies' retreat. 

Or maybe, a part of her does because she aches for it, too. And in our mourning for what no longer exists, we are the same.