Tag Archives: Family memories

Home

The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.  Maya Angelou

The birds were soooooo loud that, had they been human, I would have complained. And yet, I’d been waiting all winter for their song. The sky, a soft pearly gray, was on the cusp of becoming dawn. I smiled. I had recently been reflecting on my life choices and wondered what my life would have been had I married, raised children and settled in one place that I could call home. I don’t think I was regretful exactly because, given my life experiences, I would make the same choices again. For the moment, with the birdsong, all was well.

I lay in bed reading My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, a memoir by Ruth Reichl. She is one of my favorite food memoirists. Her heartwarming stories are insights into food as a vocation. Reading about the discovery, cooking, and sharing of food usually draws me into a joyful place. But this was not the case that morning. Instead, I placed the book on my chest and became reflective. What was I feeling? Yearning.

As the warm colors of the dawn sky filled my window, I wanted to get on with my day, to put those uneasy feelings out of my mind. Encouraged by Reichl’s sensual writing, I got up to fix breakfast. I knew exactly what I wanted: banana pancakes, homemade blueberry syrup, vegetarian sausage, and a boiled egg. Such a treat. I had been making kale smoothies for breakfast, and the sweetness of the bananas mixed with the blueberries was a delicious change!

The steady, rhythmic activity of making blueberry syrup and pancake batter was meditative, giving me time to focus on what I was feeling. Then, like a fog clearing, it came to me. I was feeling homesick. I felt as if I had missed something very important in my life.

Homesick. The word repeated itself inside like bubbles floating in the air. Where, I wondered, was home? I had left so many places behind. Beautiful cities, emerald mountains, oceans. Where was that place to which I could return for complete acceptance and safety?

After breakfast, I watched an episode of Chefs Table, a Netflix series that documents the lives of chefs and their paths to culinary vocations. This particular episode examined the life of Mashama Bailey, an African American chef in Savannah, Georgia, and her return to home. The landscape of rivers, rural farms and the relationship among southern cooking, culture, and home deepened my sadness. I missed the summers of southern beauty that I shared so often with my family. Growing up, I loved the food. I hated the racist, violent South. Still, the gatherings at meals were safe, healthy moments. Then, as I watched Chef Bailey’s story, I surprised myself: tears. Where was that place that was, as Maya Angelou said, a “safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned”?  Watching Chef Bailey’s story, I had tears, but I did not have an answer.

During my initial crisis with CIDP ─ chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy ─ I was placed in a skilled nursing facility (still working on that essay…). I could not raise my arms nor use my hands. I could barely walk. One of the occupational therapists said to me “You should accept this. All those complicated meals you cooked in the past are probably over.” She was trying to be kind, even helpful, but she had poked the bear. My rage shut down conversation in the room. “Don’t you ever tell me what I won’t be able to do!” When she returned from the administrator’s office, I was assigned a new occupational therapist who had no better understanding of my condition or what my abilities might be than the first. I moved to a different facility with therapists who had a broader understanding of the importance of cooking. In doing so, I really began to understand something that is an essential part of me: I feel safe and free when I am exploring the culinary world. Food is major to my sense of feeling at home.

In the documentary, Chef Bailey poignantly made the connection between food and her relationship to home. Her heart was in Savannah where she’d spent so much of her early childhood. In later years, after failing as a social worker in New York, she went on to study the culinary arts with Anne Willan, founder of the prestigious École de Cuisine La Varenne in France and Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune in New York. With that experience and the memory of the warmth generated by food, culture, and community in her native Savannah, things eventually became clear. Returning to Savannah with its fresh seafood, local farms, and lush green marshes, she met her business partner, John Morisano.

Together they turned a formerly segregated Jim Crow era bus station into The Grey, one of Savannah’s premier restaurants. Chef Bailey’s business acumen and talent won her the prestigious James Beard Award. Her love for food and joy at being where she considers home is changing hearts, plate by plate.

I know what that warmth of being at home feels like, particularly in relationship to the South and the sumptuous summers I spent there. I embrace my Gullah heritage, and I am joyful when in harmony with my Southern traditions. I revere the farmland and farmers. But. The South is not my home; it was my parents’ home.

Later, I prepared a lunch of roasted chicken, baked potato, a tossed salad, and roasted Brussels sprouts. As I washed and sliced the sprouts, the physical connection to home grew stronger and stronger. The warmth of the oven, the peace and serenity of music, the afternoon spring light streaming through a window. There it was, that place of safety where I could be all of who I am.

There was no one sharing those moments with me, and yet, in that space in time, the yearning was gone. Cooking had brought me back to the place that is my home. My heart.

Thanksgiving 2018

 

Three of us, our personalities as diverse as the meal we shared, sat around the table laughing and celebrating food, company and, each in her own way, a commitment to spiritual life.

 

“Will you give the blessing?”

Wait, what? 

The meal was at my home and, when I thought about it later, the host usually offers the blessing. In recent years, however, I’d fallen into a habit of silent blessings ─ or no blessing at all ─ over meals with friends.

We closed our eyes.  I opened one eye to peek at Sandra. She was the one, after all, who had asked for the blessing. She was — waiting.

I am not unfamiliar with saying grace. Praying before eating was a three-times-a-day practice in my childhood. Not a crumb would pass our lips before prayer. To attempt to sneak a bite was, at the very least, foolhardy. A spoon or fork could be sent flying if a child did not wait for the Lord’s blessing.

I remember my grandfather saying grace. He was a deacon and a very devout man who would repeat a prayer before every meal. The morning grace was the hardest. We’d listen patiently as he spoke the familiar lines before beginning his improvisation. His improvising, it should be known, was the place where hot food went to die — to become cold. But here’s the thing: his purity of heart and love for God was on that table. We could feel protection covering the food. His power was that palpable. Even as, in our minds eye, we could see the melted butter hardening again, we also knew that no malevolent force would dare approach our food. Granddaddy had a spiritual power that drew God’s protection for his family.

Saying grace is not a mystery. The willingness to be present and grateful for the present moment draws the power.

With Sandra’s request, I tried to remember the grace my parents used to say.

“Heavenly Father, we thank thee for this food to nourish the body though not the soul…” And that was all I could remember. It felt too far in the past.

When I was diagnosed with Guillain Barré syndrome (GBS) in 2012, the disease took away my ability to use my hands. I love cooking and sharing my meals with others. It’s a joyful task. But with GBS, I could not comb my hair, let alone knead dough, chop vegetables, or make a soup.

That too is now in the past. Today, I can make biscuits, roast a turkey, and or juice apples. And I can look back on 2018 and see blessings in everything, large and small: my physical healing; my mothers’ death and reconnecting with estranged family; new friends and neighbors; the ever expanding awareness of love in the world even as citizens panic in and recoil from the vortex of Trumpism; and still, the wonder of being grateful.

The instant I connected with gratitude, self-consciousness dropped away.

“Thank you, father/mother God, for this meal to which we have all contributed. Thank you for this glorious abundance of friendship that we are about to share. And thank you, most of all, for that which has brought us together in gratitude on this day. Amen.”

Sandra was pleased.

“Let’s eat.”

Friends

  

While dining with a friend, I reflected out loud, “I want a lot of softness around me.” It was a prayer released into the air. I was so tired of the drama with folks who felt that aggression was the way to success. In that moment, a few seconds felt like I was frozen in time.

When I became aware of the movement around me again—people bussing trays and the café filled with noisy chatter—I knew I had hit on a significant truth about myself. Apparently, my friend understood completely because she nodded her head and said “yes!”. It was a desire for fewer disagreements, more kindness, honest listening, and deeper sharing with friends and family. With her recognition of this desire, I didn’t feel alone anymore.

 January 2018 had started with a bundle of newness: new writing, new personal insights, and a new food management plan. Then Mom died.

It was not unexpected. She’d had Alzheimer’s for several years and was a month short of 96. Attending her funeral would be my first travel experience since I had been diagnosed with Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP) in 2013, a condition that had, at that time, left me paralyzed and weak in the legs for many months. I was nervous about the journey, but after all my years of progressive recovery, I felt strong and ready.

In going to Washington, D.C. for nine days, I would be surrounded by relatives I hadn’t seen in decades. There would be dinners with siblings and other family and a funeral repast with old family acquaintances and neighbors. I’d be stretching myself to the limit with travel by train, social interactions, and using Uber to go between the hotel and my brother’s home where there were too many steps for me to stay there. The physical effort meant being outside in sub-freezing weather, pulling luggage, and staying up until 11 every night as my siblings and I worked on funeral details.

The likelihood of staying on my new meal plan was doomed. Pizzas, fried chicken, and breakfast pastries became the daily cuisine—fast, filling, and cooked by someone else. I wanted—and needed—someone to walk with me; someone who could hold me up and carry my heart gently in his or her hands. Someone, perhaps, who really knew me.

My family is stoical. We do not “do” feelings. This is something that’s bothered me for as far back as I can remember. I’ve always been envious of families that can mourn together, folks who can physically embrace each other while shedding tears. In our family, my tendency to express feelings has earned me the label of “emotional.”

Overnight, the five of us had become orphans, and yet we did not share that familial intimacy. Perhaps this was why I felt desperate for a friend with whom I could share the thoughts close to my heart. But is there a friendship that can meet such a need? Every person has a boundary when it comes to openness and vulnerability. In choosing friends, I have made some mistakes.

I was thinking about the concept of “softness around me” on the day I returned from my mother’s funeral. Feeling sad, I called a woman that I considered a new friend since moving to Pennsylvania. In the past, we had talked about politics, philosophy, and where to find good men. We had cooked together and shared family pictures during holiday meals. So…when I got back to town, I rang her up. Phone calls were not returned. Neither were text messages or emails. Weeks later when I heard from her, I was stunned to learn that she thought our “expectations for friendship are different.” I did not know what she meant.

I was hurt, but also angry. Faced with the realization that I had somehow unwittingly made someone uncomfortable, I had to look at how I choose friends and what my expectations are. Clearly, my inner “friend-picker” needed repair.  I was now faced with another new task for the New Year: Approaching my seventies, I would have to learn how to choose new friends.

When I graduated from high school, my classmates and I used to write a common verse in each other’s yearbooks. Love many, trust few; learn to paddle your own canoe.

My need for deep friendship on any given day can remain securely hidden behind the pots and spices in my kitchen. But need has a way of breaking out of hiding places. When it does, judgment dissolves.

A good friend, like good food, is a reliable source of comfort. I use great care when selecting ingredients for cooking. Will I be able to, going forward, choose friends in the same way? Some friendships I thought would last for years, end or fade. And, of course, I change. Understanding this, the future stands before me with thoughtful  friendship  experiences and more  “softness around me.”

No Weeping

I do not weep at the world. I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.  Zora Neale Hurston

We sharpened our knives. Not for oysters, but fish.

“Improvise!”

Ms. Hurston’s words seemed to be my father’s modus operandi. At 6’3’’, 200-plus pounds and muscular, Daddy commanded the attention of everyone around him. The world busied itself with issues of poverty, race, war, and class, things that affected our segregated lives directly. Eating together as family offered respite.

In creating a meal, Daddy made it up as he went along, singing or whistling most of the time. His resonant bass seemed almost too big for our tiny apartment; it saturated the walls of the small kitchen along with the smell of hot sauce and onions.

We are from a Gullah tradition, descendants of West African slaves who settled along the South Carolina coast building a proud and distinct culture. They called us geechee, a once pejorative term. For us, everything began with rice. One of us would put the pot of rice on, and Daddy would decide what vegetables and spices would be going into the fish or meat dish. We were curious, and each of us showed our curiosity in different ways.

As the eldest daughter, I offered a frowning face. I  knew my sister and I would be assigned the job of gutting, scaling, and taking the heads off the trout, perch, croaker, or whatever he and his friends brought back from their day of tossing lines and hooks. If we happened to find a fish belly full of roe (which I would not eat, thank you very much), Daddy was very, very happy.

While I frowned, my mother, an exemplary cook accustomed to Daddy’s larger-than-life show of enthusiasm, rolled her eyes.  My sister, an adventurous eater, could not wait. Hungry with curiosity, she could not hide her excitement about culinary exploration (that hasn’t changed. Alligator meat?! Sigh…) I vaguely remember my brothers in the background, watching and learning what it took to be a man adept in the kitchen. My father’s example was a strong one; every one of my brothers became an excellent cook.

“Does any meal stand out as a favorite for you?”

I waited in silence as my sister, 3000 miles away, surfed her memory.  Fish was usually fried or grilled, and often accompanied by savory brown gravy.

“Yes. It was like a stew.  Not the ordinary fish and gravy.  It was a rich broth, thick with lots of flavor.”

I could almost taste her fondness for the meal in my mouth.  Fish stew. Of course. That’s what happened with all of those fish heads.

Somehow, the things that were the least irritating and the most comforting have masked or chased away experiences that were the most frightening and least understood. The shadow in our lives was alcohol. Daddy drank.

A survivor of World War II and the Pacific Theater, he suffered nightmares for years, I am told. Alcohol dammed his weeping on those days when he would drive 30 or more miles into Maryland for a brick masonry job only to be told that they weren’t hiring “coloreds” that day. I only remember seeing him weep once, when a dear, dear friend of his died.

But this morning, my mental snapshot is of Daddy standing over the stove, his arms in the air, and a world-engulfing, rapturous delight on his face.

He was fatherly in the best of ways: pretending to be a horse so the children, cousins and all, could get rides on his back; taking us to the carnivals that his volunteer fire department put on every summer—rides and cotton candy included.

Going to the circus, I wanted to grow up and become a part of the magic. Baseball games, finally integrated, inspired my interest in the athletic, even though I felt closer to dance. But I still have my father’s baseball. And, while it is almost a cliché, I stood on his feet as he taught me the cha-cha and whirled me around the room. White hatred could not reach us in these places. He was never MIA (missing in action) like too many fathers. They don’t know what they are giving up.

“Improvise!”

Some salt, hot pepper, greens and onions. The meals, seafood or meat, weren’t complicated. His eighth-grade education and life experience made him an excellent philosopher and improviser. Daddy was bold in his flavors and his life. He faced things as they came along, following an internal compass about people, life, and food. No one in the family, immediate or extended, would ever lack food. I can’t and won’t speak for anyone else, but I intuited that he wanted me to live by the heart.

“Improvise!”

A few days after his funeral, I had a dream. He was in formation with other soldiers, and as I walked up to him, he stepped out of formation, turned to me, and saluted.

daddy-1-wordpress-copy-_0049

 

 

 

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.

************************************************************

                      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.