I remember my Mother and her sisters gathering in my grandmother’s kitchen there in the house on Quarles Lane. They always teamed up when it came to food: They canned produce enough for the families of all nine kids or made sausage enough to freeze and last all year. They’d prepare meals for daylong parties where horseshoes would chime a pole the whole afternoon while the the smaller cousins ran around like tiny escaped mental patients, gorging on pie.
The kitchen was small, and each of the six women had a distinct job. The blue- and green-flecked formica table was always laden with a small mountain range of raw foodstuffs and an array of knives and bowls. My Mother and her family moved alongside and around one another with an unselfconscious grace born of repetition. Other than the hours spent dragging cotton sacks, these girls had been in their Mother’s kitchen the whole of their lives, watching this dance, learning it and their individual contributions to it.
They laughed and sweated (“Women do not sweat,” my Mother once told me, “They glisten.”) or they frowned and sweated, and –though I can’t be sure because they’d never let me in to listen– I’m pretty sure there was a bit of ‘polite’ discussion about the goings-on around town. The general air was that the food dictated their mood: When making up quarts and quarts of chowchow, there was laughter and the occasional song would up and bust out of someone.
Sausage, though: Sausage brought with it pursed lips or furrowed brows. (please insert joke about the laydehs of my family taking their sausage seriously, that’s what she said, whatever)
During these food prep marathons I and my (mostly male) cousins were banished to the yard, which usually resulted in some sort of physical contest like a game of football or slingshotting rocks at a series of targets: A tin can, a six-ounce glass Co-Cola bottle, a piece of cardboard with an ‘x’ of black electrical tape marking its center. One at a time and in no particular order each cousin would get called out and heckled by all the other ones. That was a brutal five or ten minutes for the victim, but it served to give us cast iron guts and ready retorts born of practice when someone out in The World would chance to try and torture us later. Those who groused or didn’t have the proper bearing under pressure got a double helping. Those who whined through the screen door at the Mommas got a double helping of the double helping, and sometimes were temporarily shunned.
We loved so hard. We played so hard. We were special and not every family had what we had: Six strong matriarchs to watch over each of us in turns, each seeing some way they could minister to us children.
This week I talked to someone I love very much. He chanced to be included in one of our family gatherings when we were both on the cusp of adulthood. “I’ve never had better food in my life,” he said, and that called up memories about the pride and the effort that went into every one of those dishes. It caused me to spend a couple of days remembering all the mothering I got; that mothering not only came from my mom, I got it from my aunts and even some of my older female cousins. I never wanted for hugs or laughter or even a decent buttwhipping if I was in need of one.
The prevalent feeling of my young childhood was one of being regarded and doted on and well-cared for. The women in my family are crazy-good at regarding and doting and caring, and also telling you when you need to zip up your face and bring your ass-end back into line.
We would arrive home after those days of food ritual, spent and happy. Mother would hustle me into the tub and scrub my black-bottomed feet hard but wash my long sheet of blonde hair in a gentle manner, rinsing my head carefully while singing or talking to me. Later I’d climb into the bed, my lanky legs brown as a bean against my pale pink nightgown, and my Momma would be waiting there, long and willowy, to tuck me in. She’d lean in, kissing my forehead –my favorite of all the kisses in the world– and murmur or sing to me. I’d catch the subtle leavings of her shampoo, her most recent cigarette, and her Chanel mingling, and feel perfectly at peace while I slid off into sleep.