I felt them today. The ghosts of my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and my great-great grandmother. Women who have cooked for their families on this farm, established in 1837 by my great-great-great grandfather James C. Hamer.
I was cooking Southern fried chicken in Grandma's cast iron skillet and watching a pot of pink eye purple hull peas, also prepared the same way I had watched Grandma prepare it. A third very large stock pot held a bubbling cauldron of cherry tomatoes simmering their way to becoming Tomato Jam.
The washing machine was making churning sounds. The dryer was making tumbling sounds. The chicken was making sizzling sounds. The peas and tomato jam were making bubbling and gurgling sounds, respectively. The air conditioner and the refrigerator whirred in their harmonious tones.
Across the kitchen floor stretched
three sleeping black and tan English Shepherds. I could not see the
Westies because three of them were curled up under my chair as I sat
and stirred the tomatoes and nudged the chicken. (I think Charlotte was
sleeping on the dirty clothes waiting in line for their spin around the
Jenny B was curled up between my ankles, her cold nose snuffling my leg from time to time to let me know she was there and would appreciate a dropped piece of whatever food I was working with. Annie did that. I adore the subtle movement of the soft fur against my skin and the occasional cold nose kiss.
With all of that noisy silence...that rare slice of solitude, I could actually let my mind wander where it wanted.
First came awareness of the sounds. The churning, tumbling, sizzling, bubbling, gurgling and whirring sounds separated from their harmonious composition into calming individual sounds. The sounds and the smells began to trigger the memories.
Memories of watching Grandma sit on her high stool in her kitchen frying chicken as I stood as close as she would let me inch toward to the spitting cast iron skillet that held her fabulous Southern Fried Chicken. The same cast iron skillet that I was using today.
The melody of the sounds and smells my chicken was singing could have been from the same sheet music Grandma had used in her kitchen performance. One might only detect a few nuances of timing or emphasis if one could compare our Southern Fried Chicken performances in side by side recordings.
I could almost see her showing me how to find the joint as she taught me how to cut up a chicken. I must have been young because I don't remember her letting me use the knife to replicate her actions more than one time.
Mama used an electric skillet instead of a cast iron skillet, but I'm sure she joined the chorus of reminders, "check the chicken.....turn the chicken....better check the chicken....." that repeated in my head as I stirred the tomato jam and fed the hungry twin laundry lions.
My high school Home Economics teacher, Mrs. Henri Sue Kennard, entered my head as I added bleach to the sink of hot soapy water and as I washed up the dirty dishes as I cooked. I learned so much from her, and I adored Mrs. Kennard! Her wash-as-you-cook discipline has followed me all of my life (so that one does not have a huge pile of dirty pots and pans to clean up after one has completed cooking).
But then the images in
my mind switched back to Grandma's kitchen that had faced west. As I
washed dishes for her when I was a child, the sunlight turned the soap
suds into little exploding diamonds. I could see the view from the
window above the sink and hear the mews of the perpetual litter of
kittens on Grandma's back porch. I think I learned my love of washing
dishes by hand because of Grandma's kitchen.
deep bubbling pot of scarlet flesh from the cherry tomatoes resurrected
memories of Mama canning vegetables and putting up preserves and making
The summer I read Ruth Sawyer's Daddles, a priceless story of a child's love of an abused dog, I was possessed to pick blackberries because the children of that book had gone blackberry picking with Daddles, the little beagle. Mama did can the blackberries we picked that year. My second dog was a beagle because of that book.
The gurgling tomato jam whispered pieces of stories I had been told about my great-grandmother, Alice Penelope Kelly, my namesake. She was a stellar example of Victorian Era home-making. Nothing ever went to waste, and considerable effort was expended in preserving ample stores of food for the branching family tree.
So there in my kitchen this afternoon, with only the dogs to share my breathing air, I felt the presence of these hard-working women, each a survivor of a unique set of life's challenges. I thought about the legacy each of them had left through food. I thought about the emotions conveyed through the generations via the language of their culinary preparations.
It was as if they were with me in that room today...in spirit...watching over my shoulder, reminding me to stir the tomato jam or the peas or turn the chicken. Mama was smiling with her beautiful smile at the empty and clean counters and my frequent trips to feed the Laundry Lions.
Grandma had a little tasting spoon out, blowing over the latest sample of the tomato jam. Mama Hamer was inspecting my re-organization of the cabinets and pantry and pursing her lips over the cabinets I have not yet reorganized. All the while, she kept a sly watch on what all the rest of us were doing...to be sure none of us were slacking!
Nannie Hightower Hamer, my great-great grandmother was not too vivid in today's visit. I was not told as many stories about her. I did sense a question about why I had her pink painted pie safe upstairs in the old farmhouse when it belonged in the kitchen. I may have to address how to use a naturally distressed original pink pie safe in my future white and yellow kitchen. *grin*
I found myself crying while stirring
the tomato jam and nudging the sizzling chicken. These were not sad
tears. They were tears of gratitude. They were tears of comfort. I was
taking my place in the long line of women who loved their family
through the language of food, and these ghosts approved.
The kitchen officially became MY kitchen this afternoon. The ghosts passed those rights to the kitchen to me during their visit this afternoon.
and Unc returned after the chicken was fried, after the peas were
cooked tender and just before the tomato jam turned into a translucent
rich scarlett red goo.
The dishes with which I had cooked were drying on towels on counters that had been wiped down with diluted bleech.
I had wrapped the home-made cookie ice cream sandwiches in wax paper to freeze and was in the process of re-filling the molds as Gordon and Unc walked into the kitchen.
When they returned, my fellas entered a house saturated in home cooking smells just as preceding generations of the men in my family had experience under this same roof.
I enjoyed cooking with the ghosts of my fore-mothers this afternoon. The exercise was purifying as if some bottled up emotions were given a chance to finally breathe and boil away into steam. I hope these ghosts will stay in my kitchen and will make their presence known often!