Southern Legitimacy Statement: East Texas food figures prominently in my memory of childhood where I lived in Longview (and later in Dallas and Austin): cornpone, grits, collard greens, cornpone, fried chicken, the catfish and green jello at Luby’s Cafeteria, and of course the sweets like pralines and molasses candies. It’s no wonder that when I recall my time there and write about it, the delicious smells come flooding back in.
Sweet and Tart
My Aunt Fanny is one of the kindest women I know. She always has a way of looking at me with her brown eyes, just like a newborn calf’s.
On fair days, walking into her kitchen is like a dream. Shiny copper pans hang on the wall, silver spatulas and strainers gleam in the sunlight. She is always baking. If it isn’t lemon meringue pies or chocolate chip cookies, it’s buttery pralines or chewy molasses candies – all from scratch. She never used a cookbook. Most times, she lets me stir the ingredients and lick the spoon. The warm, sugary smell of her kitchen makes me feel like I am cocooned in cotton candy.
On rainy days, Aunt Fanny sits me on her broad lap and reads me Donald Duck and Archie comic books. She laughs so hard sometimes that I slide right off. With her mother-of-pearl hair brush with a porcelain medallion of a man and woman in the center (“beloveds,” she calls them), she brushes my hair a hundred times to keep it shiny. Then she makes one long braid and ties a fancy, blue bow at the end. (She knows I don’t like pink.)
I wake to a hot morning—the kind we always get in July in East Texas—slip on my red and white gingham shorts, and head into the kitchen where my mother is making scrambled eggs, grits and toast. The phone rings. It’s Uncle Ladd, Aunt Fanny’s husband. My mother goes silent.
“I’ll be right over,” my mother says, “and I’ll bring Diana with me. She’ll cheer her up.”
My mother grabs my wrist and we run all the way to Aunt Fanny’s white clapboard house three blocks away. The screen door bangs behind us in our hurry. Aunt Fanny lies on her stomach in her four-poster bed and moans. The bedroom smells of pee and cigarette ashes. My mother tries to shake her awake, but Aunt Fanny refuses to open her eyes.
“Fanny Mae! Can you hear me?” my mother shouts. “C’mon hon, it’s time to get up.”
Aunt Fanny doesn’t move. My mother motions to me to go over to her. I wag my head, but my mother waves me on. I creep up slowly to her face, which is all screwed up and pasty like one of her raw pie doughs. One corner of her mouth droops and saliva trickles out of it. She groans. I turn to look at my mother and again she pushes her chin out at me.
“Go on,” she whispers.
“Hey, Aunt Fanny,” I say. “How you doin’?”
She stirs and opens one eye. “Hunh?” she asks. “Wazz zzat?”
“It’s me, Diana,” I say. My mother mouths some words to me but I can’t make them out. I shuffle my feet and try to come up with something to add. “Want to bake some cookies?”
“Nooooooooooo!” she howls. I back away until I’m almost out of the room. My mother turns on her heel and heads straight for the telephone in the living room. I follow and huddle near the green-checkered sofa. She gets the operator on the line.
“Beulah,” my mother says, “would you please dial Dr. Thompson’s number for me. It’s an emergency.”
Emergency? My stomach cramps so hard I can barely stand up straight.
“Dr. Thompson, it’s Patsy. Something’s terribly wrong with my sister. Would you please come over here as soon as you can?”
My mother hangs up the phone and starts to pad back and forth like the lion at the zoo in Tyler. Uncle Ladd keeps pestering her with questions.
“What do you think is the matter?” my uncle asks. “Why is she acting this way? She’s always been a good wife, bright-eyed every morning. I’ve never seen her like this. I’m just so torn up inside. What could it be?”
“I don’t know Ladd,” my mother says. “And even if I did know, I don’t want to say anything until Dr. Thompson gets a good look at her.”
It feels like an eternity before Dr. Thompson bursts into the house, smacks the screen door against the wall, and makes a beeline for Aunt Fanny’s bedroom. Opening up his small, black leather bag, he pulls out a stethoscope and places it on her back. He checks her pulse and then asks her to look at him, but she doesn’t move. He douses his handkerchief with something that smells awful and puts it to her nose. She coughs a little but stays prone. Dr. Thompson gets my uncle to help him roll her over in the bed. When the doctor takes a closer look, he sucks in his breath. Her mouth and one eye are really drooping now, and the fingers on her hand are all drawn up like a dead chicken’s foot.
“Patsy,” Dr. Thompson shouts. “Call an ambulance!”
“What’s a matter with her, doc?” my uncle asks.
“Well, I can’t be sure, but I think your wife has suffered a stroke.”
“Oh my good Lord!” my uncle wails and flaps his hands.
A stroke? My head spins thinking of what it could mean. Is that when somebody gets hit by lightning? Like Jeb Traynor did last year on his tractor during a thunderstorm? He hasn’t been the same ever since.
When the ambulance wails down the street taking my Aunt Fanny away, my insides feel all jumbled up.
A month later, Aunt Fanny gets out of the hospital. When I walk into her house, it doesn’t smell sugary anymore. There are no aprons draped over the kitchen chair, no pies cooling on the window sill. It’s more like the scent of a clean bathroom after someone uses Lysol to scrub out the toilet.
Aunt Fanny is sitting up in bed in a blue flannel nightgown. She smiles with half her face and grunts a strange-sounding hello. Patting the bed with her good arm, she wants me to sit beside her. So I do. Uncle Ladd is fiddling with some gauze and pouring rubbing alcohol on it.
“Hey Aunt Fanny, how are you?”
“Ohhhhkayyyy,” she says. “Wha ha yeewww bee doooi?”
“What have I been doing?”
“Well, I just started school and stuff. Our fifth grade teacher really piles on the homework.”
“Awwww,” Aunt Fanny says.
“On Labor Day, Nancy, Mary and I went to the State Fair. I ate a corn dog and a candy apple and drank a Dr. Pepper and when I went on the roller coaster, I almost upchucked!”
Aunt Fanny laughs a little bit. I study her face and notice her lips are funny looking.
“What’s the matter with your mouth, Aunt Fanny?”
She cocks her head, but doesn’t answer.
“Never mind her mouth, watch yours, young lady!” my uncle yells. He takes the gauze and places it on her heel where there is a weeping sore. Aunt Fanny doesn’t flinch. Then he wraps it with some white tape.
“Wahhh a coooo-eee?” she asks.
“A cookie? Sure. Did you bake a batch of chocolate chip?”
“Noooo, hoh-eee,” she says. “Soh-reee.” With her good arm, she points to a package of sugar cookies on her dresser that I guess somebody brought during a visit. I don’t like store-bought cookies. They taste like dry dirt clods.
“That’s okay,” I reply. “I’ll have one later. Say, can we read a comic book together?”
My uncle shouts at me, “What kind of lame-brain idea is that?” His face is red and sweaty and all pinched up, but Aunt Fanny looks toward the living room and I know right away what she wants. In a magazine rack by the sofa, there are some comic books we hadn’t had a chance to read. I grab Little Lulu and jump back up on the bed. This time, I do the reading. Every once in a while, Aunt Fanny chuckles and I look up into her brown eyes. They look softer than ever before.
By November, Aunt Fanny is worse. She never sits up in bed. She doesn’t want to read comic books with me anymore. Her eyes are as dull as dishwater and her hair has turned grey. I wish I could cheer her up. The only thing I know to do is bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies. I ask my uncle for permission to use their kitchen and get to work.
In a copper pan, I remember how to cream the butter and sugar until it’s light and fluffy. Then I beat the eggs and vanilla together in one of her white and red porcelain bowls. I combine the flour, chocolate chips and baking soda and mix all the ingredients together. When the time comes to drop blobs of the dough on the cookie sheet, they stick to the spoon – that never happened when Aunt Fanny made them. I have to shake the spoon hard to get the blobs off. I forget to turn on the oven for 350 F so I dial up the temperature to 400 F to get it good and hot fast. I shove the cookies into the oven and set the timer for 20 minutes. Or is it 10 minutes? I settle for 15, which would make it 3:25 on my watch. My mother arrives and we go keep Aunt Fanny company.
My mother speaks to her in a cheery voice but Aunt Fanny turns away and looks out the window. I’m hoping the aroma of chocolate and sugar will make her smile. I look at my watch. It says 3:20. We should have smelled something by now. My mother prompts me to check on the cookies. I walk into the kitchen and see thin streams of smoke seeping out of the sides of the oven. I put the mitts on and open the door. A billowing black cloud engulfs me. I choke and my eyes water. I reach for the baking sheet and pull it out. Every cookie is a charred lump of coal. I dump them in the sink and turn on the faucet to drown the stench. The house smells like it’s on fire.
My mother rushes into the kitchen and shrieks like a banshee. “Hells bells! What happened?”
“Doesn’t matter anymore!” I sob and throw the mitts across the room.
Hundreds of people cram into the funeral parlor for the visitation and viewing. Aunt Fanny is sitting halfway up in her casket. Her curled up hands are folded over her sunken belly and the skin on her face is tightly drawn across her cheekbones and jaw. Her eyes are closed. I keep on expecting her to breathe, but she is still and shiny as a statue in the wax museum.
Her longtime friends, Mrs. Hatch and Mrs. Beamson, file by her casket. With her lace handkerchief pressed against her nose, Mrs. Hatch shakes her head.
“She could bake like nobody’s business,” says Mrs. Hatch.
Mrs. Beamson nods. “Ooooh, I swear she had a gift with that lemon meringue pie,” she says. “It was sweet and tart all at the same time.”
Volunteers from the church serve coffee, cake and cookies. I choose a chocolate chip. It crumbles in my mouth like dust.