Category Archives: Memoir

Bring Me a Cup

““Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”  Marcel Proust, 1871 – 1922

On the Web and in social media, you can’t throw a tomato in any direction without hitting a food writer. There are gazillions. A zillion more of us are wannabes. I’ve spent years trying to figure out how to be a good food writer. What does a great food writer have that makes me want to live the culinary good life? I once thought it was about the food. Now, I know better. It’s about relationships.

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                      Grandmother Mahoney WordPress_0018

 

 

“Bring me a cup of water.”

It was both a request and a command. At 11, I understood that “please” was not a  part of my grandmother’s vocabulary. But I did not need a “please.” I adored her.

I studied her steady movements in the kitchen. She moved with intention. Every muscle and tendon had a purpose; there was no wasted energy.  She’d place a hook into the rim of the metal plate on the stove, lift the plate, shove a log in, start the fire, and replace the plate. When the fire was at its peak, she’d place a coffee pot on the stove. The heat from the fire was fierce, and the small kitchen became too hot in too short of a time. It was summer. Rivulets of perspiration bathed Grandmother’s ebony face. A cool drink of water was the remedy.

“Bring me a cup of water.” That’s all she needed to say as she wiped the sweat away with the tip of her apron. Outside, the sounds of squealing pigs, mooing cows, clucking chickens, and crowing roosters blended with the sound of crackling firewood. One of those animals could be on the table by dinnertime if Granddaddy had his way. A rank scent of manure and dew-soaked fields made my heart beat fast. And there was a slab of bacon on the table, testimony to the alchemy about to take place.

Dipping the long-handled aluminum cup into a bucket of well water–I’d proudly pumped that water myself–I asked a question.

“Can I have a glass of water, Grandmother?”

She nodded and I grabbed one of the jelly glasses we often used for drinking. I still remember the taste of that water. I watched her in silence, sipping my water as she sipped hers. I wondered what she was thinking as she prepared to make breakfast. Standing away from the stove and staring at the kitchen table, she may have been creating the breakfast menu and counting the slices of bacon she would need for the 11 mouths that would soon be around the table.

Breakfast would be simple: homemade biscuits slathered with butter and homemade jam, eggs we had gathered together, creamy grits, and, of course, bacon.

As people began to move around, chamber pots were taken out and emptied, faces and hands washed in basins, and teeth brushed outside. Around the table, we were a Rockwell painting in black: Grandmother, Granddaddy, my parents, my brothers and sister, cousins, aunt and uncle. As we basked in the warmth and fragrance of the meal, Granddaddy offered a prayer of thanks to the God that kept us together.

Over the years, as I traveled around the country trying to “find myself,” I missed my grandmother’s funeral. Decades later, I’ve found that elusive “self.” But it’s  not as I imagined. It’s in memory and lessons learned from being around a wood-burning stove and a woman with pure intention.

I’m back to the beginning. It’s not about the food itself. It’s about relationships.

 

 

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2016. Relax.

Kuan Yin

A poster of Kuan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion and mercy, hangs in my living room. She looks relaxed, at ease, overlooking the worldly chaos that we endure daily. “Relax,” she seems to radiate. Okay. I think I will.

The new year is always a pretty high time for me. This year, it all began with a Christmas tree. For the first time in, oh, say 30 years, I bought a small tree a few days before Christmas. It came with lights and, I have to say, was pretty cute. I decorated the artificial leaves with paper ornaments downloaded from the Internet and added a few more lights to brighten the room. It brought me great joy. Each morning, I plodded around in my red flannel nightgown feeling, well, relaxed.

Nice. No urgency, no panic. Could it be that making that last payment on my living room furniture could bring such calm? No. It was deeper than that. I had begun to take charge of my life in this strange world of recovery from CIDP in a more confident way.

Relax.

Like the calming voice of a hypnotist, everything seemed to be repeating that word, and the word itself seemed to be swathed in a soft blue light. “Okay,” I thought.

One morning, I plugged in the tree and (using my new Roku television app!) found a virtual fireplace with Christmas music. Standing back and looking at the fireplace and the tree, I was once again struck by how relaxed I felt. I’ve had such rare moments of this kind of peace that I had to take it all in one moment at a time. I felt warm, cozy, and ready for 2016. How would I begin this year?

I emptied a pack of raw cranberries into a saucepan, added some sugar, and stood stirring and watching as the red berries began to bubble. There were three things that came to mind that would make this a year of relaxation: cooking, writing, and— crocheting. Crocheting? More about that later.

Cooking puts me in my happy place. It’s one of the few areas in my life where I am totally at ease, content. This explains why, when I lost my ability to feel with my hands or lift things, I panicked. The kitchen is my sacred space. And this is something I got from my parents and extended family, both men and women. In the kitchen, secrets were shared, hearts were healed, and great food was made. Perhaps this is why, when I think of the peaceful times in my family, it has to do with food.

The cranberries had boiled into a thick, sugary sauce. Yes, cooking would definitely contribute to a peaceful year. Then, I thought about writing. Ahh. Writing. It is no exaggeration to say that writing has saved my life. But my resolution is not about discipline; I can always use more discipline. It’s about staying in touch with that fire that kept me going in my journals when I thought everything was lost. It’s about using it to connect my personal history, my ancestry, and food.

Yum. I knew that I was gonna have a glorious holiday breakfast. The virtual fireplace was roaring, the choir was singing “Angels We Have Heard On High,” and the tree sparkled against the dawn.

I sliced a hunk of cranberry speckled cornbread and put it in the toaster oven to heat. Now, about this crochet madness. Really, Sala? Really?

When I was child living with six other people in a two bedroom apartment, my mother (very much a southern woman) ensured that my sister and I learn needlework, crochet, and a little sewing. While my sister seemed to take to sewing like a duck in water, I rebelled (my middle name).  In my young adult years, however, I came back to crocheting. It seemed that even several straight rows, unrecognizable as anything usable, appeared to erase the passage of time. An added benefit was that sitting at a party with yarn and a crochet needle drew the guys to my corner like bees to honey. They considered me “deep.”

The cornbread was hot and I slathered it with my newly made cranberry sauce and butter. Nope. Watching my weight was not even in the list for the new year. Next were fried apples, heavily seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, and dates for sweetener. Of course I cooked them in butter; I’m not stupid!

Standing over the stove and plating the food filled me with an inner sweetness matched only by the odors filling my apartment. Like a ghost, the smells slipped under the door and out into the building hallway. I’m sure that everyone on my floor knew I had cinnamon for breakfast.

This morning, post-New Year’s celebrations and all, I have the urge to crochet a wall hanging and frame it. I’ll let y’all know how that goes. Joy is the greatest gift we have, and for some outlandish reason, I feel that  relaxed joy is the most important part of my resolution for 2016. Not weight loss; not changing my style; not a spreadsheet with tips about exercise. All this is important, but the most important is joy.

Relaxation and joy. That’s what I want for the new year. And that’s what I wish for you.

Okra

Hi there. I’ve been away for a while. It scares me because part of me is not clear how two months went by without writing a thing on these pages. Part of me wants to say that it has been my participation in other writing projects, but the other part of me knows better.

Prior to my diagnosis of GBS/CIDP, I was infatuated with my own cooking ability. Now that sounds egotistical, but the truth is: I would kiss myself in the kitchen. Now that I’m getting my strength back and can do some shopping, chopping, and sautéing (thanks to my food processor and Blendtec super machine), life is, I must say, very, very good. Take today, for instance. Do you smell that? It’s chicken livers and onions smothered in gravy. This former vegan is a happy eater.

There’s a lot of healing, and not just physical, that comes with preparing my own food. There’s no mystery to this. Folks have been writing about it for centuries and continue to write about it today. Food is healing, but cooking it yourself is quantum healing.

So about the title. I’ve never liked okra. By the way, that means never. Growing up with Southern food, okra was a major ingredient. There was stewed tomatoes and okra over rice dinner. And gumbo. There was also just plain old fried okra. If there is one vegetable guaranteed to get my gag reflex going, it’s okra. So imagine my surprise — really, I’m not kidding — when I was at the farmers market last week and I found myself reaching for okra. I’d heard that it has lots of anti-inflammatory qualities and vitamins and such, so I fell for it.

Before I go further, I want to point out that I figured out that my temporary separation from the blog was a good thing. I was swimming in the muck of what was wrong with this world. It doesn’t take much to hear it, see it, feel it. It’s all around us. Yet, once I started diving into writing about issues, something amazing happened. I stopped writing. I was depressed.

I know about issues. Look at me. I live in the United States. I know issues aplenty. But my reason for writing had fallen into a sewer of social and political angst. Preachiness, judgment, and— well, you know.

This morning, when I realized why I subconsciously took two months off, I took a photograph of my chicken livers. Damn, that felt good.

9-6 blog

Back to okra. Two childhood foods stand out in my mind: my love for liver and onions and my distaste for okra. So, after I purchased the okra from the farmer, I needed to do something with it. I was moaning to an 80-year-old woman I know about my waste of money when she suggested that I fry them. I remembered frying okra at my mother’s suggestion 20 years ago. That was the last time I cooked okra.

Nevertheless, I gave it a whirl using a mixture of seasoned flour and Italian bread crumbs. Nothing fancy. Just the seasonings, the ghee that I fried them in, and the beautiful cucumber tomato salad on the side.

August 2015 001

I’m no food stylist, and the pictures sure aren’t pretty, but I’ll tell you one thing: I’m out of my funk.

Welcome home, Sala.

Cowgirls

Stagecoach Mary (Fields)

Stagecoach Mary (Fields)

 

 

 

So. I was thinking about cowgirls. Whaaat?

 

 

Yep, cowgirls.

I was thinking about cowgirls and remembering a picture I found of my father as a young man. He was dressed, all six feet plus of him, in full cowboy regalia.He had on the fringe shirt, the pants, the boots, and a holster with two fake six guns at his hips. He had on a cowboy hat, and his hands were at his hips with both thumbs hooked onto the holster. Tough guy.

Cowboys. A symbol for me, at that age anyway, of tough goodness. Righteous goodness. The courage to take on the bad guys and make the world a better place.

That was a theme in our household. Make the world a better place. It came from the cowboy. As a child, I wanted—so badly—to take on the bad guys. And in our world of make-believe, we did just that.

My sister and I were among the few girls in our neighborhood who pretended to be cowgirls. If our brothers got cap guns, my sister and I got cap guns. If our brothers got cowboy hats…You betcha.  My sister and I got cowboy hats.

Now, for sure, we were pretty feminine girls, schooled in many of the traditional tasks girls with southern roots were expected to  learn.  We embroidered. We crocheted. We made dresses with crinolines and large brimmed hats for the dolls that Mom sold to make extra money. We learned to cook — and I mean cook:  perfect pies and cakes, succulent roast beef with biscuits and gravy. We put up vegetables and fruit in big Mason jars. There wasn’t a lack of things for good girls to learn.

But there was something exciting—creative—about things the boys got to do. Things like building model airplanes and navy aircraft carriers; things like putting together trains and train tracks. I loved that stuff. And for a moment— just a moment—I thought I would join the Armed Forces when I grew up. I can still feel the tiny pieces of gray plastic and the cellophane numbers for the ships beneath my fingers.

I can still smell the powder from the cap guns. Do they still sell cap guns, I wonder. Do children today know how to pretend? It seems like so many children who should be pretending are shooting for real these days. Where is the power of imagination and make-believe?

I wanted to be a cowgirl. A cowgirl had righteous business to take care of, and she took care of her business: Annie Oakley and Stagecoach Mary (one of the few historically documented black women of the old west). I’d bet my cowgirl holster and two cap guns that neither of those women ever picked up an embroidery hoop.

Today, I don’t own, nor do I want to own, a pistol—not even a cap gun.

I, my sister, and so many others still have a cowgirl’s heart. We want to make the world a better place. And while we may not actually be cowgirls, we are heroines in our ordinary lives, changing things daily and making the world a safer, kinder place. There is righteous business to take care of, and we can take care of business.

Yeah.  A cowgirl’s heart.

 

 

A Valentine’s Day Contemplation

Love. That’s what February is about. Black history month. Valentine’s Day. I’m willing to bet that 60 years from now Valentine’s Day will still exist. Should I place bets on black history month? Maybe. Should I bet that any particular cultural monthly celebration will still exist? Probably not.

However, there is something that I feel compelled to write about because the consequences of unconsciously using words that devastate pull me further and further away from love. I am guilty of what I’m about to address: hate speech.  It’s so subtle, a stealth bomb. Words that dehumanize become habits, even within the race. We use them unconsciously. Of course this discussion has been going on since before rap music. They become so familiar that we don’t hear ourselves using them. But once we hear ourselves, the warm blanket of ignorance slips away and we’re exposed to the cold musings of our own minds.

First, I want to say that this is not about you, the invisible you reader who may happen to find these pages. It’s about me. Brrrr. How terrifyingly cold, these glacial waters of public self revelation.

I was talking with a friend about a Republican political figure. My friend, with great vehemence, stated her opinion:  the man is an “oreo.” To my horror and subsequent shame, I felt my mouth open and the words, “Yeah, you have that right…!” came flying out. There was a tug inside, something I chose to ignore; “You know this is wrong” was the tug. But I continued my chat about how this man was no longer a part of the race because he thought differently.

I’ve heard it said that you’re part of the solution or you’re part of the problem. Divisiveness is never part of the solution. With all of our brilliant optimism, historic commitment to unity, rainbow colors, boundless activism, diverse dialects, shining intelligence and creativity, and so forth and so on, we had nothing better to do than criticize this man and summarily write him out of the race.

Ain’t we humans somethin’?

The universe has a way of balancing things. After some time had passed, I was speaking with another friend about another issue. This person’s anger about a public political figure that I had concluded was on “our side” was so explosive that in the person’s description of the politician I heard a description of myself.

Here is what happened inside my body: My mouth became dry, and then an odd taste covered my tongue. My heart beat faster and I felt cold inside. My eyes seemed to lose their focus as sorrow caused me to stop speaking. I was silent. And I was silent for the next week — shell-shocked as it were. In his description of the politician was a description of myself. I had been written out of the race.

Oreo: a disparaging term, used to define someone as not being a part of the black race, i.e., dark on the outside, but white on the inside. Like the cookie.

Some black children learn this term early from the people around them; they don’t realize it’s power to dehumanize. And some of us grown-ups use the term out of habit, without thinking. This is the scary part for me — the familiarity; the not thinking.

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“Oreo!” There was a push from behind and someone disappeared.

As I made my way back to my locker, head down to hide my mortification, I felt an arm around my shoulder. The vice principal of the middle school — a gloriously dark woman, almost 6 feet tall, and who wore her hair in a short Afro — long before it was fashionable — smiled at me and looked me in the eyes.

“Keep studying. Do your best. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

To this day, Mrs. Jessup (not her real name) is one of my icons. When I think of positive school experiences, she is at the top. As a dark skinned woman, she’d faced her own struggles growing up during segregation and within the black community. She had probably been written out of the race many times. Some of my classmates, at their peril, would call her names and run around the corner thinking (stupidly, I must add) that she didn’t recognize voices. They would yell, “Godzilla” or “King Kong.” Of course, she was well-equipped to handle racism head on — within and outside of the race.

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Over the years, I’ve come to understand that hate speech reveals more about the speaker then the person targeted. Hate speech begins within. Whatever one sees in another is a reflection of what one sees in herself. This is what I was thinking about several days after I found myself disparaging that public figure. I don’t like his politics one bit, but he is still an African American. He is human.

Many, many years ago, a dear friend said to me, “We’re the only people to write someone out of the race because we don’t like how they think, dress, speak, or who they marry.” Although we are not the only people to do so, I got the message. Then I forgot the message. But in remembering the message I’m reconnected with a global truth.

Once we define any person as other than human, we give ourselves permission to injure or destroy him with impunity. Nazism. White supremacy. Gang wars. In Rwanda, the Tutsi and moderate Hutus were called “cockroaches.”

In big and small ways, once we define any person as other than human, we give ourselves permission to injure or destroy him with impunity.

I’m not naive or unrealistic. Hate speech will be around for a long, long while. And perhaps, as subsequent Valentine’s Day generations are born and die, we human beings will get the message of love quite profoundly. In the meantime, however, I can do my part. I can be vigilant about the words circling my insides and vet them before they reach the air.

No more oreos or agreeing to labeling someone as such. Oreos only belong on the grocery shelf.

Cat Valentine

Holiday mercies: memories and miracles

Holiday mercies-Gratitude

 

“Mommy!”

“Mommy!”

My mother turned over in her bed.

“What is it?”

It was Christmas; I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, and the sounds I heard assured me that I was going to witness the miracle — Santa over the roof. I heard them. Sleigh bells. Santa was arriving at our humble two-bedroom city apartment for seven.

How would he get in? There was no chimney. The door? The window? Hopefully no one would call the police.

“Did you hear it, Mommy?”

Glory be. She was tired, and I was treading dangerous waters. It was early, early morning, dark and still. I didn’t have a fever, so sickness could not be my excuse. My mother’s patience for what she considered stupidity — well, no matter.  For better or worse, I’ve inherited this trait.

Anyway, today I am remembering the good stuff. I’m feeling gratitude for the good stuff. Gratitude is a mercy. Gratitude is a belief in miracles. I remember a discussion with a girlfriend, oh, about 20 years ago; she was a young Catholic who angrily did not believe in the miracle of the Annunciation.

“That’s strange,” I said to her. “I’m not even Catholic and I believe the story.”

She could not know that she was speaking to a woman who, as a child, woke her mother in the middle of the night to share the magic of sleigh bells overhead in the night sky. I’ve lost track of the girlfriend, but not my belief in miracles. I am witness to magic. I am witness to miracles. Every day.

It used to be that weeks before Christmas, the air was filled with sacred hymns and choral music. That’s not the tradition so much anymore. Now, in November, the secular music begins. Good stuff, but not so much of miracles.

Back to my story.

In spite of being awakened by her daughter, my mother arose a couple of hours later to make sure that Santa had placed things correctly under the tree, breakfast was started, and the electricity was still on—just in case the payment was late. Today, my mother is recovering from an illness. She is 92. Perhaps that’s why, this Christmas, I am especially moved to remember our little miracles.

Daddy brought the tree home and we decorated the tree before Christmas Eve. We sucked on peppermint canes and ripped open bags of Christmas candy. How did we get all of these things? Where was the money? I am moved to remember the graces that make the Christmas holidays Christmas.  Memories, like the comfort of a sauna, warm my body and spirit. There! In that portion of the brain are aromas of ham, turkey, and baking bread. And there are boxes of fruit, nuts, and candy, gifts from the grandparents. There are the aunts, uncles, cousins. Magic. Where did all the people come from? How did our little apartment hold them?

Gosh. I’m sentimental this morning. Friends are coming. I need to get up and have at it.

Let’s see. New Year’s resolution? Hmm. After an absolutely challenging 2 1/2 years, I resolve to keep discovering the magic in life, health, and spirituality. I am stronger. I cook. I sing. I laugh. I have the faith and ability to express gratitude. I keep learning how to forgive. What does it mean to give and receive mercy?

I could easily get hung up on the scarier memories and depressing media news. The heavier the language, the darker the view. But I’m continually making different choices. I am continually choosing magic and miracles. It’s work.

Today, I choose to remember the word “Merry” in our Christmas greetings and “Happy” in our wishes for the new year. There is magic in this world.

Happy New Year.