Tuesday, August 12, 2008

In Tribute

The Workman family received bad news this weekend. Grandmother Workman, the matriarch of the Workman family, passed away on Friday night. She was 87 years old, loved and cherished by her five children, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

I didn't know Grandmother as well as I would have liked to. However, she was always extremely warm to me, always quick with a smile and a quip when I was around. Somehow, though I met her in the twilight of her life, I always felt a connection with Grandmother. Within her love of her home and her acclaim in the kitchen, I always felt that she was a kindred spirit. I like to believe that the welcome she showed me means that she felt it, too.

This evening, after the gathering of the family and the funeral, I have felt drawn to my kitchen. Doug (Grandmother's second son and my husband's father) has always said that no one cooks or bakes as well as his mother. Grandmother's fresh-baked bread and pecan pie are the stuff of legends, especially among the Workmans. So, it does not surprise me that, after paying tribute to Grandmother's life in the form of a wake and funeral, I felt compelled to enter my own kitchen and dig in to some flour. I suspect I am not the only person feeling this, as this morning there were homemade quick breads and cakes gracing the kitchen table, each brought by family members who had made them. Perhaps food is a way to deal with grief. Or perhaps a warm oven and a batter-flecked apron seemed an appropriate way to mourn a wonderful woman.

In memory of Grandmother, I would like to share my favorite excerpt from Barbara Kingsolver's amazing book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Grandmother will be greatly missed, and very fondly remembered.

I'm drawn to [The Day of the Dead], I'm sure, because I live in a culture that allows almost no room for dead people. I celebrated Dia de los Muertos in the homes of friends from a different background, with their deceased relatives for years before I caught on. But I think I understand now. When I cultivate my garden I'm spending time with my grandfather, sometimes recalling deeply buried memories of him, decades after his death. While shaking beans from an envelope I have been overwhelmed by a vision of my Pappaw's speckled beans and flat corn seeds in peanut butter jars in his garage, lined up in rows, curated as carefully as a museum collection. That's Xantolo, a memory space opened before my eyes, which has no name in my language.

When I'm cooking, I find myself inhabiting the emotional companionship of the person who taught me how to make a particular dish, or with whom I used to cook it. Slamming a door on food-rich holidays, declaring food an enemy, sends all the grandparents and great aunts to a lonely place. I have been so relieved lately to welcome them back: my tiny great-aunt Lena who served huge, elaborate meals at her table but would never sit down there with us herself, insisting on eating alone in the kitchen instead. My grandmother Kingsolver, who started every meal plan with dessert. My other grandmother, who made perfect rolls and gravy. My Henry grandfather, who used a cool attic room to cure the dark hams and fragrant cloth-wrapped sausages he made from his own hogs. My father, who first took me mushroom hunting and taught me to love wild asparagus. My mother, whose special way of beating eggs makes them fly in an ellipse in the bowl.

Here I stand in the consecrated presence of all they have wished for me, and cooked for me. Right here, canning tomatoes with Camille, making egg bread with Lily. Come back, I find myself begging every memory. Come back for a potholder hug.