Friday, July 16, 2010

My grandmother's kitchen--a sedative

The last five months I have been battling chronic insomnia. I've said it before; I'll say it again: I've suffered from insomnia since I was in the fifth grade, but it usually comes in waves and does not hang on week after week for five months at a time.

A few weeks back when I was wide awake at 2 something in the morning, I started going over the contents and layout of my grandma h's kitchen in my head and then after awhile I found it worked in putting me to sleep.

From the fourth grade on, I grew up three doors down from my gram. We were tight. I saw her almost everyday of my life. I would walk in her backdoor (which she always kept unlocked during the day whether she was home or not) and pour myself a glass of her sweet tea and guzzle it and then set about on the rest of my afternoon. If she was home, we would sit and talk in her kitchen or hang on her porch and talk and people watch.

My grandmother is from southeastern Kentucky and she is (was) ultra hilarious. She has been afflicted with Alzheimer's for the last 9-10 years and if there is one thing I regret in my life it is my personal inability to deal with her mind's demise. I can deal with a lot. I can deal with dying loved ones; I can deal with conflict and upheaval and hurt, but I cannot handle the shutting down of a person's, who I knew so well, reasoning and personality capacities. When I do see her now, I spend time with her and stroke her head and every once in a while I witness a scant glimmer of the person who she was, but I rarely see her. I do not visit much. I actually mostly avoid her because of my own inability to cope (please understand if she was my mother or did not have proper caretakers I would be there all the time).

But that is not what this post is about. This post is about my grandma's kitchen and how remembering it--the smells, the organization, the late afternoon light slanting in the back screen door and window, the coolness of tea and lemonade and mountain berry kool-aid (which my mother never ever let us drink at home), the canning jars cascading over her small kitchen table and dining room table, the blow of the fan in the heat of the summer whipping around heavy humid air thick with the smells of cooking (always cooking)--help rock my adult insomniac-self to sleep.

I wish I could count the hours I spent in her tiny kitchen. Let me be clear her entire house is miniature. She raised 7 kids (she had 9 in total, but one died at age 4 and the oldest was out of the house by the time they all moved downriver) in an 800 square foot home with one bathroom and an unfinished Michigan basement. Her kitchen can sort-of-comfortably fit three people around the table. Usually two of us would sit at the table and then we would pull chairs around the doorway to the dining room and block the fridgadaire (that's what she called it) in.

My grandmother canned and cooked constantly. She instilled in me a love for cooking from scratch. My family ate at her house often; she was widowed before I was born and lived, alone, so we were her constant company in close proximity. She would fry potatoes in a cast iron skillet, whip up some skillet corn bread, cook down soup beans with lard and bacon all day, and fry salmon patties. Our clothes would stink of fish and grease long after we left gram's, but the food was to die for. Another favorite meal was biscuits and tomato gravy for supper. The gravy was thick and peppery spicy and her biscuits flaked off in our mouths. It was made with lard and homemade canned tomatoes.

As I got older, my Uncle Junior, my grandmother's bachelor brother, moved in with my grandma and I would often sit at the kitchen table with the two of them and talk about the mundane which in reality was really the sacred and today to me means more than I can say with words. It means a peace that passeth understanding when I remember and reflect on those times in the warmth of my gram's kitchen.

These reflections of the mundane hours spent with my grandmother cast a lullaby shadow over my restless mind in the night hours when I toss and turn. My gram scrubbing dishes so fast I thought she was a superhero dish washer, my gram chatting about tomatoes and beans with Uncle Junior, my gram's deeply wrinkled, agile hands wiping down her always table clothed kitchen table, my gram slicing watermelon and gently salting it (I can see her fingertips wrapping around her well-worn white plastic salt shaker), my gram commenting on how she, "wouldn't have another man if he had a golden asshole; if he had a golden dick." My gram always being on her porch; the reliability of seeing her there in the evenings and knowing there was more home to all my home.

These memories are like a sedative: sleeping over at grams and watching her get ready for bed then cozying up next to her night-gowned self and falling deeply to sleep in her steady bosom. Gram rising much earlier than me or my sisters and brewing herself coffee. Then us rising and finding her in the early dawn drinking her cup of coffee and eating a piece of toast with butter and jelly. Gram finishing up her food and making us a fancy breakfast of palachikas or pancakes or eggs (whatever we wanted). Sitting next to gram in her tiny living room and watching the grand ol' opry and the ralph stanley show. These snippets of memories--common and everyday, but sacred and substantial all the more--the beginnings of who I am today are forever (unless I inherit her brain-mush disease) fortified up in me.

But again her kitchen, the first feeling of fry grease splattering about that I ever did feel happened there. I watched her pressure cook beans, and chop pears, peaches, strawberries for canning. I mowed her lawn and hung up clothes on the line with her.

I husked corn with her on her front porch and snapped bean after bean. I helped her water her yearly garden. I listened to her stories of her childhood on the farm with her single mother. Her father died when she was eleven and her mother continued to farm without him. She told of hog killings, chicken neck wringing, dressmaking, and canning.

In her back yard I gutted my first fish with my Uncle Junior and brought it in the house and fired it in her cast iron skillet and ate it right there in that kitchen that has become my night salve--that healing comfrey balm for my mind.

The gifts that continue to bring me a calm and a smile are the minutes, hours, and years of time spent with my gram. Those regular everyday moments. Those foundational pieces of time that make me so in love with the earth and growing my family's food and building clothes lines and fishing and cooking and food preservation.

Last night, as I struggled wide awake from 2:00am on, my sweetheart said, "think of your grandma's kitchen; remember count on her kitchen."

So, the scent of her kitchen in summer came breezing across my nose and my eyes shut tight. The worn brown-stained sharp edges of her handleless cupboards drifted over my eyelids and fingertips; the rag rugs by her stove and sink wove their way under my small bare feet; my ears perked up to her twangy, southern voice, "Nat, I love that short hair of your's, Nat. Sis, you want some mustard on that ham sandwich; how about some potato salad?"

And, I drifted into other dreams.


starrhillgirl said...

Give your Gram a hug form me, next you go see her. I can feel her kitchen floor under my feet as clear as I can feel my own grandma's old cement step behind her kitchen.

Stephanie said...

This is beyond beautiful. Thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

I must remember to read your posts at home rather than my office desk… As they often bring on tears. Being raised by my grandmother – these images you’ve created with this beautiful post resonate deeply. Such a stunning montage of memories. I’m positive your grams would be touched by your preservation of her practices. I know I’m always inspired by things you’re doing to live in harmony.

joven said...

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