Granny’s Kitchen Taught Me Everything About Writing
Over the holidays, I moved from my very urban home of twenty years in Atlanta to a suburb with trees, open spaces, even a horse pasture. A ripple of something new was headed my way. It began with the year before when I turned off a highway and drove a curvy country road. My shoulders relaxed and I actually had thoughts of leaving the city. I was in need of a place where the air was fresh, where the only noises were birds, wind in the trees, and the occasional dog barking.
One of the first things I unpacked was rows of crystal stemware and stacks of fine china with glinting gold edges, paper-thin, light as air. My grandmother never believed in owning something she didn’t put to use, so many of the plates had chips and hairline cracks. There were many stories that went along with this set.
Each night Granny came home from working eight hours at Rich’s Department Store in downtown Atlanta. She would tie on a yellow-checkered apron, hand me—I was ten—a bright red one of my own, and we prepared dinner. At the time, I longed for hamburgers from the locally owned burger joint up the road. This was a time in history when fast food conveniences were fairly new.
Granny and I might cook thick pork chops until they had the perfect crunch, crowder peas pulled from the trusty deep freeze that housed all our work from the previous summer, fried corn swimming in bacon grease and butter, and finishing off with a cobbler of my choice—small bags of frozen apples, peaches, and strawberries lined on a reserved shelf in the freezer. Always we had a “green salad.” This was my job. Pulling away the big leaves of iceberg lettuce, washing and cutting them into thin strips with a sharp knife. Three heaping tablespoons of Blue Plate Mayonnaise stirred in with salt and pepper, topped with chopped tomatoes and grated cheddar cheese.
The table was set with what is now my china and the center piece was a large skillet of cornbread and a small jar of homemade apple jelly.
What does any of this have to do with the craft of writing?
Imagine a ten year old cooking dinner with her grandmother every night in this day and time. Things have become so easy. One only needs a few minutes preparation. It’s hard to even picture myself—a grandmother—cooking an elaborate meal each night.
If Granny noticed I was getting sloppy with the task at hand, she would tap me on the shoulder. No words were used. And, most times she would have caught me day-dreaming of a dinner pulled straight from the freezer in a tinfoil pan and popped in the oven. All my friends bragged that they ate these wonderful new treasures on TV trays while watching the nightly news. Now, I wasn’t the least bit interested in the news of the day, but the thought of eating in the living room was decadent. Ah, but Granny was old fashion in her insistence that we sit at the “kitchen table” as a family. This left us on many nights waiting patiently—not me—for my mother and younger brother to come home. I was the only child at my grade school with a working mother and divorced parents.
Granny died before I became a published author. Sometimes I believe I had to wait for both Mother and Granny to die before I could write. Still, I find myself riddled with guilt when I tell stories I know Granny wouldn’t want told, or hear Mother’s voice as plain as day in my fiction. They were aware of my dream to write, and I’m sure there were days when Granny wished my great aunts and her hadn’t told so many tales in front of me.
Where does writing novels fit into this essay?
In the summer Granny would take two weeks of her vacation in the peak season of “picking”. We would drive to her old home place just inside the Appalachian Mountains. My great aunts, the cousins, and their kids would meet us on the front porch. The aunts wore matching housedresses. We were not there to visit, even though we did a lot of that. We were not there to eat, even though I ate so much I felt sick. We were there to pick corn, peas, pole beans, and tomatoes. By the time dark spread its gray blanket over the yard and the lightning bugs winked, we were loaded down with the produce for the next year.
Reader, you must exercise patience and forgive any memory lapses I may have about what vegetables were picked at the same time. I could have remembered wrong. No matter. We picked
I was told to leave the tomatoes “be” since I was too rough and was apt to bruise the fruit. The sun beat on my head and entering the corn rows was a relief. I pulled ears of corn and threw them in the bushel basket. I picked pole beans from their vines that wrapped around the stalks of corn. My great Aunt Stella insisted this was the only way to grow green beans. Mixed in were morning glory vines covered in bluish purple blooms, shrived in the heat. Only in the cooler morning hours did they open. I worked alongside my second cousins until I thought I would die. At least two whole hours. Then we were allowed to choose a melon from the “kitchen garden” to share among us. I always begged for the whitish/green honey dew. So exotic. And because I was “company”, I got my way. In Granny’s kitchen we only had the occasional cantaloupe and maybe a watermelon on the Fourth of July. The sweetness of the mint green melon meat was a true experience. The juice ran down my arms, dripping from my elbows. Had Mother been there, she would have hustled me to the nearest bathroom for cleaning. Granny was picking with her wide-brim straw hat on her head, her cheeks rosy red with heat, and sweat pouring from her hair that hadn’t yet turned gray. She couldn’t have given a dern about my stickiness. This was a freedom worth any kind of work.
The day ended with a long wooden table set up outside, decked out with food. Torches burned. A sample of what had been harvested sat ready for us to eat. We would leave the next morning before the sun pushed above the treetops. The trunk of Granny’s baby blue Oldsmobile was large enough to place four good-sized children inside. Don’t ask, but my brother and I did have the occasion to test this fact. We loaded our treasures for winter inside and drove off.
I always hated the ride home because I knew the work that waited. My job was shucking and silking eight dozen ears of corn. We would sit in Granny’s detached garage with the doors open for any breeze that might come our way. Each ear I did had to be shown to Granny. Always she placed it back in my hand. “Still has silks, Annie.” That woman could spot one of those silky threads a mile away. Same with snapping pole beans. Soon the flies would gather around the steady growing pile of husks. We shucked while Granny told stories of working the field as a child. Shame would push at my chest to have been so lucky to never plow a field. Later we would stand in the boiling hot kitchen scraping the corn from the cob, cooking a dish pan full at a time. Then we spooned it into open freezer bags for the deep freezer. There is nothing like the taste of fresh corn in the middle of the winter.
So truly what does any of this have to do with writing?
Well, while picking, preparing, and cooking the fruits of our work, I learned attention to detail. Each time Granny handed back my ear of corn, I was reminded not to cut corners. With each tap on the shoulder to slow me, I learned to give my work time to breathe. And with each story Granny told, I listened to the language, the ebb and flow, music. She taught me beginning, middle, and end. Plot.
Writing is so much more than stringing words together on the computer screen, or in my case writing in a notebook. Writing should be part of you. Allow the juice of your efforts to run down your arms and drip from your elbows. Get dirty. Let writing stay on you. Sometimes you don’t want to walk into your writing space, but you know there are eight dozen ears of corn that will ruin if you don’t get shucking. So begin my readers. Work your heart out. Find that passion and take a long walk with it.