Cordellya Smith : Hearts and Kitchens : January 2020

My Southern Legitimacy Statement follows: I was born and raised in the mountains of Southeastern Kentucky. I am a product of the soup bean lovin’, Bible thumpin’, hardworking people who labor in tobacco fields praying for a good breeze to cool the sweat of their brows or in deep coalmines under the ground hoping the tunnels don’t collapse. When I was a child, the mountains felt like a cage that was so tight I could barely breathe. I felt I would never escape them. As I changed, the mountains changed, becoming a comfortable, feather-lined nest I loathed to leave. I now live in Georgia, but am confident the Appalachian mountain women in my family prepared me for Southern life in a way nothing else could have.

Hearts and Kitchens

In Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s story, “In the Kitchen,” he depicts a family that is nurturing.  He speaks of his mother’s kitchen and the gathering of family and friends therein to iron and oil hair.  Gate’s story reminds me fondly of Sundays at my Mamaw’s house when I was a child.  It seems most of my fond childhood memories were in her kitchen.  My family spent a great deal of time in the kitchen, eating and laughing and creating the memories that make Mamaw’s house one of the sweetest places on earth.  I remember the shelves covered with dust and canned goods, the refrigerator that acted as an art gallery, and the oven always ripe with the promise of something wonderfully sweet.  I also remember playing at the feet of the “grown-ups” and hearing all the family and neighborhood gossip.  

“Arlene’s pregnant again…” 

“Do you think she’ll get married this time?”  

“Nate’s Aunt Betty is visiting, and she looks so much older than she did last summer.”  

“I heard she was sick…” 

Gates learned the ways of the world from hair gels.  I learned the ways of the world from the conversations that took place while the matriarchal figures in my family cooked Sunday dinner.  It seems ironic to me now that I learned so much from a group of women sitting at home gossiping about other people on Sunday. I learned to notice people’s actions and treat them accordingly, to have a deep fear of cancer and strangers, and I learned to love banana pudding and hate butterscotch pie.

Those dinners also taught me something else that I did not want to learn.  They taught me that if it wasn’t Sunday or a holiday, I didn’t want to go to Mamaw’s house.  I didn’t want to go because it meant there was sickness or death in the family.  Most often as a child, by the time I knew something was wrong, there was indeed a death in the family.  That meant a wake and food and weeping.  It meant my cousins and I had to go in the back room and play and not bother the grown-ups.

One particular occasion that I recall was the death of my Aunt Pam.  She was different from the others in my family.  Pam was always happy and optimistic.  Unlike the other women in my family, she didn’t gossip about other people at all.  She loved God, children, animals, flowers and cooking.  Her cornbread had the best crunchy crust on it that you can possibly imagine.  If you slathered it up with butter, a slice of that cornbread was better than cake.    

When Pam died, I was spending the night with a friend.  Momma picked me up and we went to Mamaw’s house.  The whole house was full of mourners, purple gladiolas, and food people dropped off either to keep the grown-ups from having to worry with one of the daily tasks or as a medium to deal with the loss. The preparations were made; but, this time, I didn’t have to go in the back bedroom and play.  Pam wanted her funeral was to be a celebration of her life and asked everyone to rejoice.  

We all ate and talked about her life and how much we loved her.  We all wore bright colors to try to fulfill her last request; although, sorrow oozed out of every pore and vein.  It was that day, sitting in Mamaw’s kitchen listening to the unusual silence, when I learned funerals are for the living.  It was also that day that I began to pay more attention to the implications of what was said and done in that kitchen and how people treat those they love and those in need.

I now prepare breakfast in my own kitchen in the mornings for my children.  They love biscuits and sausage gravy and find it amazing that we either listen to the radio or turn on the television in the adjoining room when I’m cooking.  I do that because I cannot be in a kitchen without voices.  I can’t remember how to make gravy without chatter in my ears.  I suspect Gates can’t remember much without a hair iron and a tub of grease in his kitchen.  The kitchen remains the place where most of the living occurs in our home.  It is the place the family migrates for holidays and tragedies, like the one point where a circle begins and ends.