I am in the kitchen, whipping up a batch of fig cake, and as I sort through the handwritten recipes in my collection, I recall the two grandmothers who were related to me not by blood but by love. In 1988 my husband, his sister and I traveled to Brandon, Miss., to visit their grandmother, Sadie, who was known to the family as Big Mama. I recall that I was a little apprehensive, since I had never met the Mississippi Murray clan, which included a slew of aunts, uncles and cousins whose roots were imbedded in Southern soil for generations back.
I had spoken to my husband’s Aunt Barbara on the phone and envied her breathy, smooth-as-honey accent. Although I’d lived in the South since age 7, my speech still harbored traces of my early days in New York, and I sometimes felt that I would never truly fit in among Southerners. Often, when I met a person born and bred in the South, I’d get a curious look and then the inevitable question, Where are you from?
Big Mama had raised seven children on a farm, where she and her husband had lived very simply as sharecroppers. Although she was a widow in her 80’s at the time we visited her, and was living in a small apartment in an assisted-living community, I remember noting that she had planted a patch of garden out front, and it sported some fine-looking tomatoes.
As we knocked on the door, I said a silent prayer that she wouldn’t be disappointed in me. I hoped she wasn’t expecting a blue-eyed belle with a southern accent, because she would surely be let down.
When the door swung open, I saw a plump, white-haired lady who, in her flower-print dress and apron, looked like the quintessential grandma. After hugging the two grandchildren she hadn’t seen in many years, she took one look at me, declared me pretty and then wrapped her arms around me. Sinking with delicious abandon into the soft, comforting flesh of her bosom, I remember how I regretted not having known any of my own grandparents.
That evening, she took the whole crew of uncles, aunts and grandchildren out for an all-you-can-eat fried catfish meal at a nearby restaurant and then back to her little apartment for slices of her still-warm, home-baked fig cake. No one said a word about my accent.
Soon after our visit, she started mailing me recipes and often enclosed a little note with them. Each time she would repeat how much she had loved meeting me and how she longed to see us again. She told me she still enjoyed fishing and would take us to her favorite fishing hole on our next visit.
My husband’s maternal grandmother, Gladys, hailed from Rome, Ga., and was a very different grandmother from Big Mama. For one thing, she didn’t like the titles mom or grandma, so the family called her Gladys. A slim lady who wore her long hair twisted upon her head in a braid, she liked traveling to Greece, reading National Geographic magazines and tooling around town in her late-model Mercedes.
Right after Jef and I married, we moved to Virginia for two years, and Gladys started sending me her favorite recipes in the mail, always handwritten and always with a note or two about her family’s reaction to the food.
On her lemon pudding recipe, she noted that her family could eat the entire dessert at one sitting, and in the recipe for banana bread she added the comment, best ever. At the bottom of the recipe, she wrote a few lines describing her little black dog, Callie, who was spending that particular day in the yard snoozing in a patch of sun.
Every time I bake banana bread, I remember the day I was introduced to Callie, who had a reputation for biting strangers, a reputation that suited Gladys just fine, since she lived alone and wanted protection.
As I reached down to pet the dog, I detected, at the last second, a flash of white teeth that made me cringe in fear. For some reason, though, Callie did an about-face, suddenly wagging her tail and nuzzling my hand. She knows you’re family, Gladys explained, and in that moment, I felt that I truly was.
Today, as the scent of the spicy fig cake fills the kitchen, I turn over the crumpled recipe, written in Big Mama’s own hand, and realize how much I regret that we never did go fishing with her.
Gladys and Big Mama and the little dog are all gone now, but they will always seem close to me in the kitchen, where I feel their presence in the sacraments of cake and pudding.
Every Sunday at church, whenever I pray for the dead, I always include the trio, even though I figure they must have been shoo-ins for heaven. I guess that praying for them, like eating the food the two women loved to prepare, gives me a feeling that we are still connected.
Sometimes I envision the two grandmothers sitting on a porch in heaven, munching on freshly baked bread and trading recipes and memories. I also envision a small black dog hunkered down in a sunny spot, begging for crumbs and occasionally baring her teeth just a little, as if she were pining to meet a stranger.