Granny and Mama
I have never seen Granny as upset as she was the day her kitchen went up in flames. Almost three years ago, an electrical fire forced Granny out of her home. According to multiple witnesses—including her niece, Joan, and her ex-sister-in-law, Eva (though Granny pronounces her name with an “r” at the end, Evar)—Granny sat on her front porch swing, with her pocketbook on her lap and Bailey the chihuahua sitting beside her in her kennel, and refused to leave her home as well as Flowery Branch, Georgia. Because of the smoke damage, the fire marshal insisted that she leave; it was a health risk to stay. Aunt Wynell finally convinced her to leave, but first, Uncle Ricky had to haul Granny’s freezers in the back of his truck and promise to keep them plugged in.
Before its day of reckoning, Granny’s kitchen left chic be desired. Built in the 1960s, the kitchen’s laminate countertops supported dark veneer cabinets, and linoleum lined the floor. After having children and then grandchildren abusing the kitchen cabinetry, the silverware drawer often would not open without blunt-force trauma. Sometimes, when Granny was not looking or talking too much to notice, we would open a window to let some fresh air in and often had to throw away a bunch of Granny’s too-ripe bananas. If I stayed in the kitchen too long, I feared that I smelled like mothballs.
The night of the fire, Granny, Mama, Uncle Ricky, my cousin Amanda, and I sat at Ricky’s dining room table, sorting through Granny’s medicine and trying to keep her spirits up, even though she was in a different County (Jackson) and a different city (Pendergrass).
Her lips trembled. “I don’t know how I’m gonna survive this.”
Granny worried about where to cook Sunday lunch and her unsalvageable curtains. Honestly, someone should’ve committed a public service and burned them sooner. Decorated with different fruit, including grapes so purple they could blind someone, they were thin like cloth diapers and stained from years of dishwater and oil splatter—a yard-sale bargain, like new, but second-hand.
Less than one week later, Ricky bought her a camper to park in the front yard—Granny could return to Flowery Branch, and she calmed down. She may not have been allowed in her house, but she was gonna throw a Granny tantrum if she couldn’t stay on her property. She felt better about the impending renovations since she’d be ten feet away, peeking out the camper’s small window, making sure no funny business occurred in her beloved kitchen.
I imagine it is the 1950s, and Mama is a small girl: the fourth child of eleven. A daredevil who jumps out of barns because of her older brother’s provocation, who learns to speak up or not be heard over the din of her siblings, who eats what’s on her plate before one of her brothers snatches it away. She lives in a three-bedroom household that grows almost every two years.
By five years old, she helps Granny wash dishes; she steps on a stool to reach the sink. By ten years old, she helps with the twins, the babies of the family, Ricky and Vicky. She gives Vicky her bottle, changes her diapers, and sleeps beside her to soothe her when she wakes during the night.
At ten, Mama also helps her dad, who owns an auto repair shop that he runs out of a building beside their house. With only a second-grade education, he needs Mama to read his paperwork, send out statements to clients who owe him money, sign his name. She wants to watch him work on cars. She loves to learn. Her siblings call her “the smart one.”
Her dad tells her, “The shop is not a place for girls. It’s not a girl’s work.”
She tries to see the action inside the mysterious shop. She visits him and asks, “Daddy, you want a sandwich?”
If he says no, she’ll try again. Any reason to stay one second longer. “Daddy, you want something to drink?”
She wants to know how cars work, but she wants only her dad to show her. The paradigm of a Southern Baptist, he shoots her down every time. “The woman’s place is in the kitchen.”
Following in Granny’s footsteps, she gets married at eighteen.
“Your daddy and his women,” Granny scoffs to Mama one Saturday afternoon during our weekly visits. Mama, Granny, and I sit in the remodeled kitchen, where Granny has recently baked her signature banana pudding. Vanilla drifts in the air. “If I’d known what marriage was like, I wouldn’t have married your daddy.”
Granny has begun sharing intimate details of her marriage. She has been a widow for thirty-eight years—her husband died of a heart attack at fifty-two—but the statute of limitations on sharing her husband’s misdeeds must’ve run out for Granny.
Mama stares, with her blue eyes rounded. She idolizes her father but knows that his James Dean looks and charm got him into trouble.
At Mama’s feet, Bailey scuttles around and then stops. She jumps up and places her two front paws on Mama’s leg, begging for food. She sniffs and licks her lips. Ready to hear more of this story, Mama shoos Bailey.
“You know, about a month before he died, he said he wasn’t feeling right.” Granny continues, “I asked him what was wrong, but he wouldn’t ever tell me. I know it was those women.”
It’s been two years since her kitchen has been remodeled, but Granny still talks about the injustice of being torn from her home and sporadically announces how she will never leave her house again—no matter who tells her she needs to, be it the Law or a ghost from her past.
Among tiger lilies and marigolds, sits Granny’s single-story, three-bedroom white house. Bailey barks at anyone who steps foot inside her front gate—no one messes with Granny. In addition to Bailey, Granny’s parakeet, Pretty Bird, whose gender Granny can’t remember, keeps her company. Inside, Granny collects trinkets her youngest daughter buys at garage sales, Jesus-printed blankets, second-hand renditions of The Last Supper, crosses, and nearly-naked cupid figurines shooting their arrows at hapless mortals. The largest Kings James Bible I have seen lies open on the coffee table. Her entertainment center cannot hold all of the greeting cards and pictures of her grandchildren as well as her great and great-great-grandchildren. On her side table, fabric scraps and needles wait for her to pick them up as if her bedroom closets don’t bulge enough with hand-sewn quilts. Her landline and cell phone constantly ring. Her children, grandchildren, siblings, cousins, distant relatives, and church folk keep her hotline busy. Granny loves Flowery Branch, Jesus, her family, and her animals, but Granny’s heart belongs to her kitchen.
Granny is proud of her new kitchen, with its mountain-cottage inspiration. It is a one-wall kitchen (otherwise known as a Pullman kitchen), with solid, knotty, pine-shaker cabinetry. Her large oak table with six chairs sits in the heart of the kitchen but leaves room for little else. Her counter teems with dish racks; a flower arrangement; and a fruit-decorated bread box. She has to use the table to prepare her famous pudding. Not that it offers her that much more space than her countertop. The table holds her toaster, her cake platter, more flowers (right now, it’s fall-themed with orange leaves, red flowers, and hay strings poking out), and napkins.
I think to myself, Mama and I will have to bury her in this kitchen. When we leave that day, I hug Granny, like always, and tell her I’ll see her next week.
Mama and Jerry build a home in Flowery Branch and have been married four years. Mama leaves work to stay at home with her newborn, Sabrina, while Jerry works in Winn Dixie’s meat department. Weekdays and weekends, Jerry hangs out with his work friends, goes to basketball games, and then house parties. Mama and Sabrina spend most of their time alone, except when Eddie, her neighbor who went to high school with her, checks in to reminisce and visit the baby. They sit at the kitchen table talking. Upon returning home from work one day, Jerry finds the three of them this way.
Less than two weeks go by, and they put their house up for sale. There will be no more kitchen conversations between Mama and Eddie. Mama confides to her sister, Mary, about Jerry’s late nights away, tells her she wants to leave him. Mary convinces her to stay.
I imagine what life must have been like for Granny, an eighteen-year-old newlywed in 1948. I look back at popular advertisements, where young women are portrayed as either dancing between two young men with a Coke bottle in their hands, or posing suggestively on sailboats while smoking cigarettes and wearing the hint of a come-hither smile.
Granny was a mountain girl, who grew up in Ellijay, Georgia, without electricity and running water, who slept on a hand-sewn mattress her mother made, who washed clothes in tubs and wrung them out by hand. She tells me when it rained, she and her siblings would wait for apples to fall out of their trees, and they’d pick them up. When she entered her husband’s house in Flowery Branch, did she think of it as a brave new world? Or did she miss the mountains?
Over twenty years later, Mama and I cook together as soon as I can reach the countertops. In the summer, we bake cobblers—either peach or strawberry—and in the winter, Christmas cookies. No matter what, Saturdays are reserved for standing side by side, baking made-from-scratch yeast rolls. Mama mixes the yeast, the flour, the sugar. I pat my hands with the white powder, unfold, and then flatten the dough on the counter. To cut the shape, I grasp the duck-printed cups with a child’s care, press the cup rim into the dough, and take the circles for beauty. I like the way the white grains coat my fingertips. It feels like snowflakes.
I press the dough until it softens under my thumb’s small pressure. I grow hungry for the warm melted butter I pour in the center. I place them on the pan and point to the biggest one for my own pleasure. This one, I tell Mama.
I watch them rise, light tan giving way to dark brown as if I’d never wait for anything else. When I finally hold a warm roll in my hand, I bite down on the sweet bread, and I am full.
Granny’s pantry is stocked with the typical Southern household’s ingredients: oil, butter, sugar. Weekly, Mama or Aunt Wynell buys Granny’s groceries. These staples make the list every time. Granny also wants anything that will please potential houseguests: frozen pizza for her youngest grandchildren; Dr. Pepper and cinnamon buns for the landscapers who cut her grass; yellow cake mix and banana pudding ingredients for any visitors who may stop by throughout the week.
Any leftovers go to her animals. Her outdoor dog, Toby, loves week-old banana pudding. And, more recently, Granny has taken to feeding, in her estimation, seven “kittens” (even though they should be full-grown cats by now) who huddle in a small, outdoor building that sits beside Granny’s house. Weekly, she asks Mama to buy a thirty-pound bag of cat food. Sabrina, my sister, says either Granny’s feeding all of the stray cats in Flowery Branch, or she’s feeding one fat cat.
What can’t fit in her refrigerator goes in one of her three freezers. In addition to the fridge’s freezer, she keeps one in the laundry room, another in a back bedroom. One day, I rifled through one of the freezers, and I found Easter-themed snack bars, but it wasn’t Easter. It wasn’t April, and it wasn’t even Spring. I decided just to shut the freezer door, giving up on my search for who-knows-what.
Fried okra, squash, green beans, baked beans, boiled (and fried) potatoes, hamburgers or chicken, biscuits, and banana pudding fill up her kitchen table every Sunday, but she usually eats soup from her freezer collection or leftover cornbread from the week before.
Granny refuses to wear red because a stranger honked at her when she was fiddling in her garden, wearing devilishly red pants; she stops traffic on Sundays to cross the road, where Mount Calvary Baptist Church holds their services; and, at eighty-four, she decided to teach herself to play piano, a life-long dream. This stubborn, sassy Southern woman cooks, “for an army,” as Mama says, but when it comes to cooking for herself, she’d rather not.
Mama’s kitchen is more traditional than Granny’s with its custom-designed solid maple wood cabinetry stained mahogany and a large center island. The cool grays and reds in the granite countertops shimmer upon the warm peach-colored walls.
Mama and I sit at the kitchen’s island on two bar stools. Sometimes, Mama and I will chat about something funny that one of my students said, or she will tell me something that she saw on Property Brothers, her favorite show to binge-watch, sharing how she’d remodel the kitchen if she could afford it.
“It’s so great that you’re teaching,” she tells me as if she’s telling me a secret. “You’re doing something that I never got the chance to do.”
I know this information; I know that she wanted to be a teacher. She couldn’t afford to go to college; there was no such thing as the HOPE scholarship. No one encouraged her dream, and she didn’t even voice it. She took Home Economics, and she was happy to graduate high school. After all, her dad told her where she belonged. She didn’t second guess him.
This time, when she tells me that she didn’t get to teach, the way she says it is different, as if she’s lost something that she can’t get back. Her tone reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”: the art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I wonder who Mama would have been if she hadn’t grown up in Flowery Branch if she hadn’t been a Daddy’s girl, if she hadn’t watched her mother in the kitchen, if she hadn’t been told that the head of the woman is the man.
During one of our visits to Granny’s, I ask to look at her photo albums, hoping for some writing inspiration. I find a picture of Mama when she was a newlywed and worked at Georgia’s Department of Transportation. She looks like a Siren. On a sunny day, with her legs crossed, she sits atop one of the DOT’s car hoods; her chestnut-colored hair falls down her back to her hips; she wears a hard hat, high heels, and a dress that shows off her tanned legs. This woman will break hearts. This woman will kick you with her heels. This woman will conquer the world. I cannot reconcile the woman in the photo with the woman sitting beside me.
Outside of home, people can’t believe she has two daughters: twenty-seven and thirty-nine. They tell her she looks too young. No one guesses her age correctly. Before she retired at the end of August, her friends at work called her “the white Oprah” because of her social-butterfly personality or Marilyn Monroe because of the famous dances she gave on someone’s birthday. As soon as she enters the house she shares with Jerry, she doesn’t look the same. I see the wrinkles around her eyes, the gray in her hair, the bend in her shoulders.
I think about a typical early-morning exchange between my parents, separated by the wall dividing the living room and kitchen. Jerry sits in his Super-Bowl-Sunday recliner, remote control on his left, laptop on his right, his cup of coffee in hand, while Mama stands in front of the kitchen sink, washing dishes, persistent in refusing to use the dishwasher.
Yelling over the news anchor on the television, Jerry announces, “I have one pack of the frozen pancakes left.”
“Were you in Walmart yesterday?” She scrubs, rinses, repeats the process over again.
“Yes,” he replies, out of patience. He knows she knows he was in Walmart.
“Why didn’t you pick up any?”
“I didn’t know I was almost out at the time.”
“I’ll make you a list so you can pick them up next time.”
“Don’t make it too long. I don’t have time to stand in the frozen foods section for ten minutes to look for pancakes as it is.”
Mama stops cleaning the dishes. “What else have you got to do, Jerry?”
“Something a whole lot better than picking up groceries.” He slurps his coffee and continues watching MSNBC, the stock market numbers scrolling across the bottom of the screen like they do every day.
Sabrina and Brittany
Thirty minutes outside of Detroit, Michigan, Sabrina lives in a suburban subdivision full of Ford, GMC, and Chrysler employees or retirees. She and Rob, her husband, bought the house last year. They decided to gut the whole kitchen. The renovation took three months, and it tested Sabrina’s patience. “I’m just ready to have my own kitchen,” she would tell me over the phone. When she describes what the kitchen used to look like, she says the lighting “was southwestern style. Lighting that Granny would say belongs in ‘honky-tonk’ bars.” In an email, Sabrina shares, “It was built in 1968. It was a U-shape design with canary yellow counters, backsplash, and an original 500 lb canary yellow oven made in the USA. Even the original cast iron sink was canary yellow. The walls were covered in patterned wallpaper, and the floor was forty-plus years old blue/green carpet. The upper cabinets’ faces had bubble glass and brass hardware. The only thing not original was the dishwasher and fridge.” Depending on what day it is, her kitchen smells like a tropical island, an Italian bistro, or a Mexican grill. A friend will visit and comment, “It smells like a restaurant in here!”
Her modern kitchen belongs in a magazine or on a home-improvement show. She designed her kitchen at Home Depot, where she picked out the colors, the cabinets, the white quartz counters, and the glass tile backsplash. It’s an L-shaped design, with midnight-blue cabinets the same shade as the pantry’s sliding barn door. Instead of upper cabinets, it has floating wooden shelves that hold her French cookware. She bought it because, in her words, she “cooks so much and wanted something quality made.”
Her kitchen table, carved from a repurposed slab from an elm tree, sits beside one of the house’s three bay windows. She designed the table herself. In the table’s center, she keeps a small aloe vera plant, which is currently home to a mini, plastic dinosaur.
Sit at the table any time of day, and light pours through the window.
The kitchen belongs on a magazine cover—it’s that perfect.
Sabrina tells me that she’ll miss the kitchen the most when she moves out of this house. In the past six years, she has moved seven times. Rob can’t decide where to settle.
When I visited the house in May 2018, Sabrina gave me a tour. Upstairs, one of the rooms remained empty, save a few items and its Lake-Erie blue walls. German children’s books lined wooden shelves—Rob’s childhood memorabilia—and Rob’s wooden rocking horse, hand-carved by his late grandfather, sat underneath the window.
Sabrina tells me, “Rob calls this ‘the baby room.’”
Three months later, Rob turns the room into an office.
Across the street, Sabrina’s neighbors, Crystal and John, have a toddler, Ben, and a newborn daughter, Evelyn Grace. Sabrina texted me, “I look out my bedroom window every morning, and in my neighbor’s yard, I see a little pink carriage.”
During an afternoon walk, they saw the couple, along with John’s parents, in their front yard and stopped to talk. John’s Mama asked Sabrina, “Do you have any children?”
Sabrina replied, “No.”
When Sabrina didn’t say anything else, his Mama continued, “Well, when are you going to? I’m a grandmother. I’m allowed to ask questions like that.”
Sabrina says she spends too much time in the kitchen. “It’s hard on my back.”
Her life has been a series of medical diagnoses. At seventeen, her body went into what’s called a “thyroid storm” and led to the diagnosis of Graves’ disease, an incurable autoimmune disorder. Then, the most current diagnoses—osteopenia, spinal stenosis, scoliosis, bulging disks—have occurred over the last few months.
In October, she texted me about making pumpkin spice cupcakes, “I will make the icing tomorrow. I have a hard time making baked goods all in one day because of my back/neck. So I did part one today part two tomorrow.”
Every day, Sabrina and I text back and forth. She shares concerns about her health, and I don’t know what to tell her. I want to tell her what medicine to take that will make it all go away. But there is no such medicine.
It’s been rough with my neck, shoulder, and kidneys.
I am feeling very sad and alone. I am not sure what to do about my neck pain.
Very confused and sad.
My day was typical I do the same thing and I feel like my days are pointless.
I need to find meaning.
It is hard here, and I struggle with my body.
It will take time with my spine.
It was a rainy damp day. I did laundry and other domestic stuff. Nothing productive and very sad.
It’s their second time living in Michigan. After living there two years, 2014-2016, Rob promised her that they wouldn’t move there again. But they did.
Sabrina’s ready to move back South. In September, she visited an allergist, thinking she would need sinus surgery. Instead, he wrote her a prescription, which read, “Needs humid temps and warmer weather. This can only be found in Georgia (USA).”
For two weeks in August 2018, I visit Sabrina before my fall semester starts. Sabrina and I establish a routine. Every day, by three-thirty or four o’clock, we begin dinner preparation to have it on the table by six.
Sabrina is the firstborn, twelve years older, but we’ve always been like twins. We share a sister language, and I know that she’s been suffering.
During one of our cooking sessions, she tells me, “When I wake up in the morning, I’m afraid that I won’t be able to move.”
I don’t speak; I can’t speak. She continues, “I want to come home to be with you and Mama, in case I don’t have much time left.”
I tell myself it’s her pain speaking. She spends too much time alone, and she comes up with ideas like this. She can’t be telling me the truth.
If she comes home and just rests, then I can live for the both of us.
Sabrina returns to cooking like she hasn’t just spoken one of my greatest fears. “Flying veggies!” she shouts. Mila, their dog, runs from her living-room pillow, ready to gobble up the scraps, ears flapping, mouth grinning. She’s weightless and free.
For twenty-seven years, I’ve been moving between two kitchens: Granny’s and Mama’s. In the past six years, I’ve added Sabrina’s kitchen to that list. I close my eyes and try to envision my future kitchen, but I cannot fathom it.
In August 2016, I moved out of my parents’ house for the first time. Not too far. We loaded up our three vehicles and drove one-hundred miles from Pendergrass to Milledgeville, Georgia, two weeks before my first year of graduate school. I still lived close enough to drive home on the weekends.
When I lived in a duplex for my first year and then an apartment for my second year at Georgia College, I avoided the kitchen and kept the bare necessities there. Sitting atop my microwave, my coffee maker served as the one personal item I brought from home. Otherwise, I used donations to decorate the kitchen. Such items included wine-themed potholders—I don’t even drink wine—and a large, all-colors-of-the-rainbow salad bowl, which I didn’t use for salad, but kitchen towels. They at least brightened the otherwise gray space in the aged duplex, where I feared using the aged appliances—I set off the fire alarm once to roast some sweet potatoes slices in the oven and didn’t touch it again—and the floor sunk in the middle.
As soon as I moved out of my parents’ house, I wanted to go back. My first semester in Milledgeville, I took the class 19th Century English Novel, and I read Wuthering Heights with a new clarity, understanding what Catherine meant when she, in her fatal illness, cried, I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free. I wished I were a girl again, baking yeast rolls in Mama’s kitchen.
Lately, I think about Sabrina’s diagnoses and the delicate thread of life. We don’t know how much time we have. And it seems too greedy, too uncertain, to dream so far ahead. I don’t want to ask for too much.
I don’t want to want my own kitchen, as it seems inextricably tied to marriage.
One day, over the phone, half joking, half not, I asked Sabrina, Are the women in our family cursed?
My marriage, should I ever get married, seems doomed.
Sabrina has asked me before What do you want your kitchen to look like? I told her I don’t know. Words I repeat often, code for I don’t want to play with fate.
For now, when I close my eyes, my kitchen is empty; one day, it may be as full as Granny’s—with Mama, Sabrina, my children, my grandchildren, and maybe even a banana pudding.
[Check out Brittany J. Barron's back porch interview]