Never are my mother and grandmother nearer to me than the moments I spend in my kitchen cooking southern comfort food. The food of the south is more than cuisine, it is the lifeblood that runs through our culture at its most basic level, often even bridging the gap of race. I’ll never forget how once, years ago, an African American friend of mine asked in astonishment how I had learned to make greens! My mother taught me, of course, and her mother before her.
Visits to my grandmother’s house were always preceded by a phone call in which she would inquire about whether or not we would make it in time for “dinner’. “Dinner” was the noon meal. “Supper” was in the evening.
We would roll into the driveway and tumble out of the car to the sound of cicadas and the oven of a Mississippi summer as good smells drifted out of the kitchen and across the porch: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, “purple hull peas” (field peas), green beans; and biscuits still piping hot in the cast iron skillet in which they were baked. There was sweet iced tea of course, and a coconut cake too.
My mother and grandmother taught me the first rule of southern motherhood: If you love someone, feed them.
But more than anything else, along the way they taught me how to live.
I remember watching my grandmother laugh until tears rolled down her cheeks and she struggled to catch her breath. She loved high heels so much that she cut slits into the sides to ease the pain on her aching feet so that she might continue to totter around in them in the nursing home. Scared everyone to death.
I wish we had been able then to step back and just appreciate the miracle of the moment, that a woman who had lost so much could still find humor in life, and retain the gumption to rock a sequined stiletto while others had resigned themselves to their slippers.
Her zest for life was passed down by the boatload to her middle daughter, my mother. One of the most memorable sounds of my childhood remains the sound of my mother’s laughter. I would lay in bed at night listening to it, wondering what on earth could be so funny.
I also remember the sound of their singing…hymns, always hymns- Sweet Hour of Prayer in the morning, Amazing Grace as I drifted off to sleep, and every song of the faith in between all the day long.
The greatest gift these two remarkable women gave me, was not the ability to make fabulous cornbread (but it is so fabulous) but the seeds of the faith that carries me moment by moment today as I raise my own five children in a world that is precarious at times, and painful often.
My grandmother often prayed aloud as she went about her work, and I never once heard her call God “Our Father” or “Dear God”. She always called Him, “Sweet Jesus”.
“Sweet Jesus” as she neared the end of her life and was so sick.
“Sweet Jesus” as she lost one dear husband to death, and then another.
“Sweet Jesus” long before I was born, as she fell beneath the crushing weight of the loss of her baby girl, blonde and blue-eyed.
“Sweet Jesus” as she rose from the ashes and gave birth to another, my mother, and then anguished as this child lay in a polio hospital far from home.
This, my friends, is the meaning of legacy. It is not land, or money in the bank, for I have received none of this, but I have been gifted something so much greater. I have been given the legacy of two strong, godly women who have taught me to endure, hope on, and trust in my Maker. I have been given the legacy of sweet iced tea and turnip greens, hot biscuits, and purple hull peas. I have been gifted the inheritance of hymns in the morning, and laughter in the night.