Monday, June 23, 2008

In the Kitchen with Memaw

The only thing more complicated than family is reading a set of “How To” instructions written by an “English as a second language” writer. I once had a college professor from “up north” proclaim in astonishment, “Class, listen! Her grandmother and grandmother’s sister married brothers in another family. How unusual!”

Sadly, I burst his bubble by replying politely, “Same thing happened with Dad’s mother.”

The professor was crestfallen, but I waited until after class to teach him a lesson about the south. His “unusual” was normal here. Most families in our area were farmers, meaning families were spread out and suitors were limited. Folks usually picked a spouse from the crop of local farm kids.

There are probably a couple of branches on family trees we’d like to prune or explain away as some sort of fungus which skips a generation. Then there are the souls we treasure and hope to be like, should we ever grow up. My idol was my non-grandmother grandma Memaw. Stay with me. Here’s complicated in a nutshell. My maternal grandmother Buena died when my Mom was three. Mom was sick and went to stay with her aunt Hazelene, a nurse. Hazelene and Buena were the 2 sisters married to brothers. Through a series of events which takes more than 500 words to explain, Aunt Hazelene raised Mom. When I was born, I dubbed my great aunt “Memaw”. To me, she was my grandmother. Turned out we were a lot alike. Mom use to say, “I didn’t have you for myself, I had you for Memaw.”

Memaw was the woman who could freeze or can anything edible. I was shocked when she praised me for knowing how to cook when I got married. Turns out that as the oldest of 13, her job had been to watch the babies, not cook. Newlywed Memaw once asked her husband how to tell when black-eyed peas were done. With a straight face he replied that you flicked a spoonful of them at the wall and if they stuck, they were done. He was older and wiser, she explained. He walked back into the kitchen just in time to catch Memaw aiming a loaded spoon at the wall. After that, she learned to cook.

Memaw died just short of 98, but she lives on in summer. Just seeing corn or smelling fresh peaches and I’m a kid, back in her kitchen. Yesterday I felt her presence in my kitchen as hubby and I shucked corn we’d just picked. Memaw never saw my current kitchen, but she would’ve felt right at home in our 125 year old farm house currently surrounded by corn fields. Standing at the sink washing ears of corn, I recalled how deep the sink in Memaw’s kitchen had been. Mine seemed like a toy version. As hubby cut corn off the cob and I filled containers for the freezer, I grinned. Memaw had done corn the same way. She’d pull some out in the middle of winter and it would taste like summer and sunshine. Mixed in with the memory is the smell of fresh peaches. Sitting next to my sink was just that…a bag of fresh peaches. After the corn, they’d be turned into cobbler using Memaw’s recipe.

Turning for another bowl, just over my shoulder I caught a glimpse of a picture on the dining room wall. A strange mix of emotions engulfed me. I’d inherited it when Memaw ended up in a nursing home. We were cleaning out the room HER mother had stayed in once upon a time when I found this beautiful old wooden frame with intricate carvings, the glass intact but filthy. My uncle was going to throw it out. I protested and adopted it. It was the second time that day he’d deemed something “old junk” instead of “sentimentally valuable.” The other was a photo of Memaw’s mother in an oval frame with a curved glass front. I only knew my Great Grandmother as a sweet little old woman in her 80s who sat silently in a rocking chair, smiling. In the picture, she was probably in her mid 30s.

When I cleaned the filthy glass of the wooden frame, I found a beautiful, softly tinted print. I hung it on one wall of my dining room and my great grandmother’s photo opposite. Mom came over soon afterwards and got the oddest look on her face. Pointing at the print she asked where I’d gotten it. After reminding her of its previously filthy condition, Mom said with a sentimental smile, ”That picture hung in my grandmother’s dining room my entire life.” With an even odder look, I pointed at the photo of my great grandmother and asked, “That grandma?” We burst out laughing, deciding both ended up in my dining room because that’s where they belonged. Together.

Standing in my kitchen Sunday, neatly packaged containers of corn on the counter and the aroma of peaches in the air, I looked at the print in the dining room. I smiled, feeling as if three generations of farm women were in the kitchen.

The print? It’s a wooden basket of peaches gently spilling across a kitchen table.

1 comment:

Rachel Fox said...

Felt like I was in the kitchen with y'all for a minute then!